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Air France improving passenger experience at Paris airports

Rotation

Since a successful passenger experience hinges on both airline and airport, Air France wants to change how its passengers use airports in Paris.

In the short-term Air France will re-position Paris Orly to include European flying and appeal to Orly’s wealthy and business-friendly catchment area.

Most passengers experience Air France through Charles De Gaulle/Roissy (CDG), where Air France has its own list of irritants. Rather than rush to open a sub-par new terminal in 2024, Air France supported a four-year delay so improvements could be made to its hub that will also accommodate partner airlines.

Air France’s changed Orly strategy begins in March with new flights to Madrid. CEO Anne Rigail differentiates this strategy from Air France’s previous European flying out of Orly. “It’s not the same initiative that we’ve done in the past,” she told investors. “This one is really targeting business customers with very good frequencies, very good timings.”

The new morning Orly departure to Madrid overlaps with a CDG departure to Spain’s commercial hub. While the Orly flight has a 10-minute shorter block time, Rigail expects geography to be a deciding factor for which flight to take. “Orly has transformed to a very convenient airport. The area around Orly is a wealthy area and Parisians often prefer to go directly to Orly.”

Rotation
Orly’s rail links are improving, and the airport was renovated, providing a newer and faster experience than cavernous CDG. “The refurbishment of Orly offers really good opportunities,” Rigail says. That is also the case for finances, which group CEO Ben Smith acknowledges have been strained at Air France. “We do make money, however, on a local basis on the European and short-haul into and out of Paris,” he says.

More destinations could be added as Air France restructures its loss-making domestic network. Air France is confronting domestic competition from high-speed rail TGV and low-cost carriers, and new opportunities with its own LCC, Transavia France. Air France does not want to decrease its position at constrained Orly. “We have over 50% of the slots there, which is a huge asset,” Smith says.

Changes at CDG may be less evident. Smith succeeded in pushing for improved road access while Rigail wants all medium-haul flights to be handled by jetways, as long-haul flights already are. Airport operator ADP is planning for a few additional jetways and improvements to the baggage systems to address mishandled luggage, a regular passenger complaint.

Rigail is all too familiar with the shortcomings at CDG, having first worked there in 1999. She is determined to have improvements at the new terminal four, CDG’s first major infrastructure development since the 2012 opening of satellite 2E.

“What we want with T4 is really to have all these irritants fixed,” she says.

It is already behind schedule. But perhaps for good reasons, Smith says. “This delay of first opening from 2024 to 2028 has been in part because of our insistence that the first phase is either at the level we have today or an improvement in terms of connectivity and check-in facilities.” Rigail says Air France needs “all the aspects of customer experience taken into account.”

The initial phase’s 2028 opening is distant, and the final phase is even further away with a 2037 opening that will ultimately accommodate 50 million annual passengers from Air France and its partners. Managing the interim period is a concern for Smith: “What’s extremely important for us is that we are not negatively impacted during this long transition.”

Also a risk, as at London Heathrow, is that expansion comes with higher passenger fees. Smith says CDG “is already a very high cost airport.” While Air France sister KLM has been growing in recent years due to its lower costs, there is public resistance to expanding slots at constrained Schiphol.

Unlike Heathrow or Frankfurt, CDG is unique in Europe for being a major airport with growth opportunity, Smith says. “We do have something that’s not available at our other two major competition hubs.”

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