Like many French travellers flying out of Paris, I always look to Air France first. The miles that build on my frequent flyer account are one reason, even though I am now more of an infrequent flyer. But it’s not a decisive one any longer. After all, for short flights, low-cost carriers are usually cheaper and for the long haul, those of the newer airlines from Asia or the Gulf are always worth looking at. In addition, Air France’s fares tend be lower for passengers starting their journey outside France than for those in their home market.
It’s probably no exaggeration to say that if the French state, Air France’s majority shareholder, had not been unstinting in its support for the airline over the past two or three decades, it would no longer be flying today. But this is France, and no French government could ever have countenanced its very own flag carrier going the way of Pan Am, TWA, Sabena or Swissair. To its credit, the state started, some years ago, to prepare it for a more competitive market. The airline’s top managers, usually recruited from the senior echelons of the civil service, were instructed to do what most industries confronted with globalisation have been doing, retrench, consolidate and cut costs. A merger with the Dutch carrier KLM was engineered, an alliance called Skyteam (that so many Air France stewards and stewardesses have difficulty in pronouncing properly in English!) was formed with Delta in the U.S and a number of other carriers, some of airline’s equity was sold to investors, staff travel privileges were reduced, longer working hours and more flexible working practices were slowly but surely negotiated. At the start of this process, at a time when I was still a frequent flyer, I distinctly remember complaining to a hostess about the meagre tray of semi-edible goodies that was the only food served on a three hour flight. “Isn’t the company ashamed to serve passengers with a tray like this?” I asked. Her answer was as cryptic as it was final: “the company isn’t, but I am.”
Many years and many strikes later, one of which nearly disrupted the Euro 2016 soccer championship, Air France is slowly attracting more passengers and regaining profitability. It has established a low-cost subsidiary called Hop for domestic services, Transavia a low-cost subsidiary for the European market and is in the process of negotiating with its unions the launch of a long-haul alternative carrier called Boost. Cabin staff in all of these ventures are expected to work longer hours for the same pay. For the reduced number of flights still under the Air France livery it has successfully revamped cabins and in-flight services. The state has gone as far is it can to help without falling foul of EU rules on competition and state subsidies, notably by directing the Paris Airports Group (ADP), of which it is also the majority shareholder, to refurbish old and build a number of new well-equipped terminals at Orly and Charles de Gaulle airports, reserved for Air France and its code sharing colleagues. One of most recent terminals for instance, Terminal 2E at Charles de Gaulle airport, can compare favourably with the best airports in the world.
The real problem, as in so many things in France, is a cultural one. Air France is a cameo of France. Unlike the pragmatic Dutch who have put their economy, and their flag carrier, into good working order a lot faster, the cultural outlook of many employees of Air France is still coloured by the prestige of its glorious past (the company was founded in 1933) and the heroic era of French aviation, the Aéropostale and figures like Mermoz and Saint-Exupéry. Like France, the airline has been too slow to adapt to the impact of globalisation, bringing keen competition from new and well-funded carriers, greater and cheaper travel opportunities and changing customer expectations. Unions, particularly the powerful pilots union, have resisted change, especially if it meant working longer hours for the same pay and they have ruthlessly exploited the fear of damaging France’s international standing to extract concessions from management and government. Constructive social dialogue is difficult not to say impossible as out-dated management practices have collided with excessive demands of militant unions. Everyone remembers the pictures of the airline’s Head of HR having his shirt ripped off his back in a violent scuffle with union representatives only a couple of years ago.
But through it all, Air France, like the mother country, has slowly, if painfully, adapted to globalisation. And in spite of everything, it remains for me the essence of French elegance and style. Just as George Orwell described the iconic red pillar-box as quintessentially English, there is something quintessentially French about boarding a sparkling Air France aircraft for the flight home from Seoul, Johannesburg or San Francisco and being greeted at the top of the steps by a beautifully turned out stewardess with a dazzling smile and a generous “Bonjour Monsieur, bienvenue à bord”. At such moments you know what it means to fly the flag.