Since Benjamin Smith took over as chief executive of the Air France-KLM group last August, things have been looking up for the French side of the business. Smith became the first non-French CEO of the company after Jean-Marc Janaillac resigned following crippling strikes in a bitter dispute over pay and conditions that impacted nearly every frontline workgroup of the Paris-based airline.
Despite initial reservations by some on the French side of the business, Smith has managed to bring peace to Air France and is now focusing on the future rather than firefighting industrial disputes. The ex-Air Canada executive quickly managed to negotiate a pay deal and then took the axe to the confused Joon brand, in turn, bringing the lower-paid flight attendants back into mainline Air France brand.
Obviously, this means that Air France’s costs have been going up – The French side already underperforms compared to its Dutch partner KLM so going forward Air France is really going to have to step up its game.
We’ve already seen some changes – like a long-haul fleet rationalisation, the cutting back of some loss-making routes, as well as an investment in the hard product on some of its widebody fleet.
Now it looks like Air France managers have started negotiations with the powerful unions on a bigger change initiative coming to both the Economy cabin and Business Class cabin on long-haul flights. There are believed to be three main strands to the project:
- Simplifying the Economy Class product
- Upgrading the Business Class product
- Negotiating a new agreement on crew complements
In some cases this will result in an improvement. For example, Air France has actually agreed to introduce an additional crew member on one long-haul aircraft type, while on some other aircraft types a crew member will be moved from Economy to work in Business Class.
This is pretty big news when you consider that most airlines have been doing their very best at reducing crew complements wherever possible. Last year, United Airlines caused controversy when it said it could remove one flight attendant from its Business Class cabin by pre-plating meals in casserole-style dishes – a method that has been used by a number of other airlines.
In contrast, Air France wants to plate up meals onboard and introduce an improved offering so has decided to commit the staff numbers to achieve this.
These improvements upfront, though, may well require a compromise for Economy Class passengers. On certain aircraft, the ratio of cabin crew to passengers is going from 1/43 up to 1/48. In order to make that change palatable to flight attendants and unions – and, in fact, make the service realistic, Air France has agreed to simplify the service routine.
One idea is to eliminate a separate aperitif/bar service, although one union suggests this in itself isn’t enough and that further service changes will have to be introduced.
Negotiations are expected to continue throughout the summer and a four-month inflight testing process is also expected to get underway shortly. We’ve reached out to Air France for further details but had not received a response at the time of publication.