Air France will add ten more A350-900 aircraft to its fleet in the coming years, supporting the retirement of its A380s and A340s. The deal will help the carrier to simplify its operations and deliver a more consistent passenger experience across its long-haul operations.
The first results observed from Air France’s operation of the Airbus A350 are excellent in every way – customer satisfaction, operational performance, and a reduced environmental footprint.– Anne Rigail, CEO of Air France
Describing the A350 as “a core asset of the Air France fleet” Benjamin Smith, CEO of Air France-KLM Group, is keen for the expanded order book to help continue the carrier’s turnaround plans. “Rationalising and modernising the fleet is central to our effort to regain our leading position in Europe,” he continued. “It will strengthen our performance from both an economic and operational standpoint.”
With the A380 set to depart the Air France fleet by the end of 2022 the carrier needed a replacement option. While the A350s carry far fewer passengers than the A380s the planes are much more fuel efficient and better suited to the majority of Air France’s routes.
The expanded A350 order also allows for accelerated retirement of the A340-300s still flying. This subfleet should disappear from the Air France operation in Q1 2021 based on the revised schedule announced with this order. Those A340s were previously tasked to the Joon long-haul service before that experiment was scrapped earlier this year. Terminating the Joon operation is another step taken by Smith to rationalize operations and improve the consistency of Air France’s value proposition to passengers.
Dropping the A340 and A380 types also allows Air France to realize operating efficiencies within its pilots group. From 2023 the carrier will reduce its pilot qualification groups to only three: Airbus A330/A350, Boeing 787, and Boeing 777. While that simplification is an achievement the KLM side of the operation is taking it a step further, combining its 777 and 787 pilots into a single pool with common type rating across both types. That combination requires additional training for the crew and is driven, among other things, by the smaller 787 fleet at KLM. Air France runs sufficiently large 787 and 777 operations that the complexities of the common pilot certification is not worthwhile to pursue.
The Air France A350 experience
From a passenger experience perspective the A350s offer RAVE IFE from Safran and GX Aviation inflight wifi connectivity from Inmarsat, along with newer and generally more comfortable seats on board. The A350 is a significant upgrade from the A340s and generally better the A380s as well.
That’s good news, especially for the bulk of travelers who do not fly first class. For that tiny subset of the market the future is much less clear. The A350s do not offer a first class cabin today to replace that which will disappear as the A380s are retired. Unless something changes in the A350 layouts Air France will be down to only 18 planes with the La Premiere first class product on board, all 777-300ERs, by the end of 2022.