Although many carriers are choosing to move away from a first class product, CEO of the Air France-KLM Group, Ben Smith, believes that it has a place long term at Air France. He describes La Premier as ‘best in class’, saying that the airline is committed to keeping it, and will be reinvesting in the product.
La Premier is here to stay
With airlines all over the world cutting first class in favor of larger business class cabins, it would be understandable if Air France was on the road to phasing it out. However, speaking at yesterday’s Routes Reconnected, CEO Ben Smith said he remains committed to the airline’s premium cabin. He said,
“Air France… is still one of the only carriers that has first class, La Premier, which is usually viewed as best in class. So, we’ve decided to reinvest in that. We’re going to keep it.”
Some of the first class capacity at Air France has already vanished with the exit of the A380. Each of the 10 aircraft had nine first class seats, meaning a loss of 90 across the fleet. The only other aircraft with first were select 777-300ERs, which totaled 76 seats in all. Half of Air France’s first has gone.
Nevertheless, the product on the 777s was far better than that on the A380, so overall, the quality has increased, even if the quantity has declined. While Smith didn’t say specifically where he was ‘reinvesting’ in first, the only place really left to invest is in the incoming A350s.
A couple of months ago, rumors were flying that some of the A350 fleet may get a first cabin. It would be a break from the norm, with many other operators choosing not to have first in their new Airbus widebodies. Air France has 38 A350s on order, with six already in operation (none of which have first).
Not many operators have first on the A350. Malaysia Airlines has just four first class seats on the A350, now rebranded as ‘business suites’, while Japan Airlines is looking at 12 (although they’re not truly first class standard). China Eastern has just four in a 1-2-1 arrangement. If Air France is looking to replace some of the capacity lost from the retirement of the A380, we could see 10, 15 or maybe even 20 A350s rocking up with first onboard.
Business travel will return
Investing in first is all well and good, but with business travel predicted to be stunted for some time, is Air France worried? It seems Smith is positive that business travel would return, albeit more slowly than other sectors. He stated that, “Business travel will come back, but it will be number three,” behind visiting friends and relatives and leisure travel demand.
Some have speculated that the rise in virtual communications and remote working could kill off business travel long term. A report in today’s Wall Street Journal suggests that business travel could be cut by as much as 36%, permanently. However, Smith believes that there’s only so much you can do from the comfort of your own home.
It’s a sentiment shared by some other airline CEOs, including Air France’s joint venture partner Delta Air Lines. Notably, Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines, has presented a bullish front on the return of business flying, saying that, “The first time someone loses a sale to a competitor who showed up in person is the last time they try to make a sales call on Zoom.”
Whether that’s wishful thinking remains to be seen, but Smith isn’t counting only on business travel to fill up his first class cabins.
Air France isn’t counting on business
Even if business travel will be last to return, Smith stated that this is not the only reason to keep first class in the skies. He noted that a large proportion of Air France’s premium fliers are actually not traveling on business at all. He said,
Smith believes that the attractions of France as a destination, coupled with the exceptional premium product offered by Air France, will give him the opportunity to claim back market share. He said,
“As you know here in France you have fashion, you have culture, you have exceptional gastronomy. So, you have a reason for people all over the world to come here, other than business, and it’s huge.
“Air France only had 45% of air traffic prior to COVID. So, there’s an enormous amount of opportunity for us to regain some of that share.”