Podcast: French Bee CEO Talks About A350 Ops And Transatlantic Market

Air Transport World Editor-in-Chief Karen Walker speaks with French Bee CEO Christine Ourmieres-Widener as the Paris-based long-haul leisure carrier is gearing up for the Summer Olympics. 

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Karen Walker: Hello everyone, and thank you for joining us for Window Seat, Aviation Week Air Transport Podcast. I'm ATW and Aviation Week Network Air Transport editor-in-Chief, Karen Walker, welcome on board. I'm absolutely delighted to be joined today by Christine Ourmières-Widener, the president and CEO at French Bee Airlines. Christine, welcome. Great to see you.

Christine Ourmières-Widener: Hello, Karen.

Karen Walker: French Bee is a long-haul leisure airline that began service in 2016 and operates out of Paris Orly with a fleet of four Airbus A350-900s and two A350-1000s. The carrier now flies non-stop from Paris Orly to Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Newark, and San Francisco, as well as from San Francisco to Tahiti and from Orly to Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. Now, Christine has 35 years of aviation and travel industry experience. So I'm really looking forward to this conversation today. Christine, let's start with those A350s. It's a beautiful plane. It's a lovely plane to fly on and the destinations that you go to with those planes. It's historically challenging for an airline to survive in the long-haul leisure market, especially in the very competitive transatlantic market. There's so many established major carriers there. So who are your target customers and how does the A350 work for you?

Christine Ourmières-Widener: Thank you so much, Karen. I'm very delighted to have discussion with you. So in fact, our passenger segment, our customers who are willing to have a good experience but don't always want to spend a huge budget to travel, so it's quite a diverse group. We have leisure travelers, mainly VFRs. We have groups and two operators, and we have also entrepreneurs, startup leaders who are maybe not yet comfortable with the [inaudible 00:02:17] and want to really have and to be role model in the way they spend their money. So it's quite diverse. They expect to have also very good service for the money they're paid. So we don't have any business class. We have a premium and economy, and it's true that by not having a business class, we have a density of the cabin that is quite significant. We go up to 480 seats on A350-1000.

And because it's very recent aircraft, the newest Airbus aircraft, we have very efficient fuel burn. It's around 2.7 liters per one kilometer per passenger, means quite very the greenest experience to cross the Atlantic. In addition to that, what is very nice is that the altitude of the cabin is much lower than the other aircraft type, a difference up to 800 meters. That's quite significant and you can feel it, meaning being our employees, the cabin crew, the pilots, our customers, they really feel the difference because the pressure is really lower.

So the comfort of the cabin is different and everything else, meaning the lighting in the cabin and the equipment we have. So I think it's very good aircraft for the route we serve. It means route with significant volumes, with also a segment of this diverse group of customer. We need volumes to fly this route and what we need to be as efficient and to be profitable, it's a very competitive cost base. That's the only secret for what we do, not only for us, but for all airlines and that we are just trying as hard as possible, so just to do every day.

Karen Walker: Excellent. So yeah, the other thing with the A350 from a passenger perspective, well, the crew, it's very, very quiet. It's a really peaceful airplane to... I mean, I know the A380 is famous for being quiet, but the A350 is incredible. It's a very peaceful plane for a long flight.

Christine Ourmières-Widener: Yeah, I have an anecdote for that. Last time I was traveling on the A350-1000. There was a cat in the business class because we have a business class on one other airline. And honestly, it was like absolutely the cat was close to me and it was like at the end of the cabin. That was quite different.

Karen Walker: Can hear everything. So just give us a little bit of insight on the passenger experience here. As you say, there's no business class, but this is a big widebody aircraft. So just give us a little bit of an insight as to what the experience is once people arrive and onboard the aircraft.

Christine Ourmières-Widener: So because we have a quite identity aircraft, we have been defining all the procedure and processes, for instance, for boarding our customers and also to welcome them on board. So we are doing everything to speed up the process because as you know, it could be quite long for an aircraft of this size. So it's something that we do everywhere. So we pre-board the aircraft for both classes. In addition to that, for in premium, everything is included. And what could be a surprise, we have a welcome drink for our premium customers. Our crew are amazing. We have only good feedback on our crew, are smiling and be really welcoming and trying to help our customers. I think that because the aircraft, as you said was created a few years ago, we have quite a significant percentage of our cabin crew who started in the industry with the company.

So they have this relationship with the company that is very different because it's recent and they've seen the company, in fact, our ASK have been doubling two times between 19 and 2023. So there's been a significant growth and I've been part of this adventure. So the emotional investment they have is very positive. So the service is definitely very good in premium, and we have menus that are available in premium. In the economy side, it's more like what I would call à la carte. So during the booking process, you choose the type of service or you want to buy. Do you want to buy meals? Do you want to buy additional space with your seat? Do you want to buy additional bags in the cabin or in the hold? So it's really something you can choose depending on your expectation, your budget or the expense you want to have. So it's really something you can customize.

Karen Walker: So in the premium economy, that sort of included the menu and everything?

Christine Ourmières-Widener: Yes.

Karen Walker: And the economy in the main part of the cabin, it's a sort of à la carte that you select ahead of time and pay for. Gotcha. Right.

Christine Ourmières-Widener: Exactly.

Karen Walker: Now, I mentioned earlier about how competitive of course, the transatlantic market is, and that you've got all the major carriers on both sides of the Atlantic in there, but you've also now got what I'd call independence. We've got North Atlantic operating in here and JetBlue of course based in the US. So they offer very competitive fares and Paris is a destination for them. What's the impact of that in terms of competition?

Christine Ourmières-Widener: Well, I think that as you know, you've been quoting two competitors, but they're not the only one. So we have a long list and if you don't like competition in our industry, you better find another business because it's our life every day and you have people arriving and leaving, and it's always a continuous change. So first, we fly from Orly. So when people know Paris, as I know there is a significant difference between Charles de Gaulle and Orly. Orly has a fantastic unique selling point, which is that it is the closest airport from the city, meaning that the access to Paris is easier. From Roissy, Charles de Gaulle, you could go up to two hours by cab and not everybody wants to take public transportation for safety reasons. So Orly is very closer to Paris and we'll have with the French Olympics, they arrive directly in the terminal of the underground, so Tube Station.

So it's really an experience that is definitely way better from point to point if you stop in Paris. So that's for a start. After that, I think that you need to differentiate yourself and you need not to try to be somebody you are not. So we are trying in our positioning, our communication to explain to our customer our product, who we are and the type of product they'll have on board, etc. And we also are trying to have customers that are repeated customers. Why? Because we think that with all the segments that I've been listing with you, there are a number of customers that are coming back because they've been very happy with the product and I think is quite well. So competition can be dealt by price, but also not having a surprise between what you think is a product and the reality of what you live on board.

And also by maybe good surprise you could have on board by a service maybe you would not expect to have on any other airline. But honestly, when we compare, because we do comparison between product, we are very proud of our economy and premium class because honestly, for our cabin crew, the premium class we offer, for them they're business class. So they see that as a highest quality of sales they want to deliver. So it creates a different type of service because most of the airlines premium is really between the business and the economy is a little bit between a rock and a hard place. So it's just like it could be also not having all the attention you could expect.

Karen Walker: Absolutely. And certainly Orly is very much more convenient to the city center and also it's just a quicker airport to get in and out of, my experience. You mentioned the Olympics there. I just want to quickly pick that up. Of course, Summer Olympics will be in Paris this year. Can you talk a little bit about what that means to French Bee and just in general how spring and summer bookings are looking?

Christine Ourmières-Widener: Well, I think the Olympics, honestly, in our booking show, we're not sure yet because all these events, we are trying to prepare ourselves with everything, but at the end, the behavior of customers is something that could be completely different. We are preparing ourselves. I think the first thing that we have to be really prepared for is from the organizational and operational perspective, what are the risks and how to make sure we mitigate them as much as we can. And there are plenty of things because first the airport, for instance, and Orly airport will change the infrastructure because you will have an Olympic village, you'll have more bags, you'll have athletics. So it'll completely destabilize the way we operate in a normal world. So you have an operational challenge, that's one. Then you have also from operation perspective, the impact that this game could have from a perspective of access to the airport or going to your job.

So it's not only for the airport itself, is your employees, what do you have to do for them? How do you recommend for them to do remote work more than coming in the office? But you have the operational people. So what are the infrastructure impact, not only and the organization impact. So that's two level, operational and your employees and your stakeholder, and also your partners, meaning the handlers in the airport, etc. So that's quite complicated. So we have some teams working on it. From a business perspective, Paris has always been and will always be a very... It's the first destination from a leisure perspective. So we are used to have peak level of traffic during summer. Today we are watching, as you can imagine, for booking. We see some inflection from the US market that is starting to show in our projection. Not as much, I think it'll be in one month that we'll be sure what it means. But we definitely start to see some inflection mainly from the US market into Paris for this time period.

Karen Walker: As you say, it's going to be a very, very busy time, big event there. So you have Interline agreements with Air Tahiti and Alaska Airlines and the co-chair with Air Caraïbes. Do you have any aspirations for deeper partnerships or joining a global alliance, that sort of thing?

Christine Ourmières-Widener: I think yes, we would like to have more partnership being Interline or co-chair. That's definitely... The same time, we are a small airline, so the first top priority we have is to have automatic solution in case of disruption for our customers at the first level and then the Interline, that is co-chair. So yes, we are keen to have a more partnership in the future. We are working on it. On global alliances, I don't think we are big enough for a global alliance, and honestly, our team are so small that I don't even know if we'll be able to even attend any meetings and take the time. I'm not saying it's not good. I'm saying that you need also to be quite pragmatic about your capacity to be part, because if you commit, you need also to be able to deliver and to dedicate time, and our resources are quite limited.

Karen Walker: That makes sense. Can I just ask you about Canada? I think French Bee served Toronto and Vancouver at one point, but obviously there are French-speaking territories in Canada. Obviously, they've also got a very big airline operating out of there too. But is there any interest in that market?

Christine Ourmières-Widener: Well, as you can imagine, we are looking at a number of potential opportunities for French Bee. Canada could be part of it because we have been flying the past, but at this point it's nothing confirmed for the future plan. We already published anyway, all our, obviously, our summer and winter. So any project would be for next summer 2025, and nothing decided yet.

Karen Walker: Okay. Can I just talk to you a little bit about government, taxes, fees, and then also sustainability because sometimes those things sort of overlap, particularly in Europe? So French government's proposing a new tax, I think it's 4.6% on airports that have revenues above 120 million euros. That would probably be passed on to the airlines. And then of course, France and the European Union are taking strong action on sustainability, aviation sustainability. Everybody gets the point about aviation has to be sustainable. We all get that. But a lot of the way that they're tackling this is again through taxes and mandates on airports and airlines and route restrictions and mandates for sustainable aviation fuel. Just give me your thoughts on that as somebody who has to make a business, as you say, be profitable.

Christine Ourmières-Widener: Well, what is interesting is to see the same year that we are looking at putting more taxes on airlines is a record year of sales for Airbus. Interesting.

Karen Walker: Yes.

Christine Ourmières-Widener: That's quite, you could have some analysis about that too. I think that for me, it's too easy to tax airlines and also by taxing airlines, in fact, you are exactly doing the opposite of, I think we should aim altogether. Travel is a way also for people to discover other countries or other culture. It's a way also to avoid extremism. Okay. So because if you don't know anything else and where you live and what you believe in, you'll have difficulty also to be somebody with a broad perspective and all these movements of nationalism and extremism everywhere in the world. The best way to fight against that is to offer to as many people as possible the capacity to understand that [inaudible 00:19:02] people are different, but it's a problem.

So I strongly believe in the role of travel and in airlines because it's not only traveling to your next door, but traveling to something that will be completely different for where we are coming from. So sustainability, it's our duty. We have to do everything. By buying new aircraft, we are doing the best we can and we've done it. And honestly, we can also impact the way we operate the aircraft, and we do that with our pilots, with the ATCs, etc. But the reality is to reach a real carbon zero aviation, it's with a huge investment in technology. And SAF are a transition solution, but they will never be the final solution. So it's a lot of money. And unfortunately too, believe me or not, airlines don't build aircraft or engines. So we are punished for something we cannot change unless there are big investment and new technologies that of course, we would love to buy and to use.

But when you see the dates and the planning for this new technology is quite long time. So if all this money is used, but it's not what I see to finance this new technology, okay. And okay, well, it depends, but unfortunately it's not the purpose most of the time of these taxes. So I think that everybody knows that we'll need billions for this new technology. So the investment could be a shared pain, but with a common goal and a common vision of what needs to be done. And it's a lot of money and its technology, it will and is a solution. So I'm not sure that it's something that is communicated by all players.

Karen Walker: Very well said. Yes, absolutely. It's a very expensive, very complicated challenge, but it's going to take money in technology, as you say. It's not just in Europe, but you see around the world where there's the taxes, but you don't see that money being invested in that.

Christine Ourmières-Widener: And honestly, if you have systems that are completely unbalanced between regions of the world, then you create a distortion of competition that is also impacting airlines that have an economical role for a number of countries. So the question is, everybody knows that airlines have a role in the economy, developing the economy, not only on social aspects. So the question is, what is the right balance and by punishing... I think that I'm always more inclined to believe in incentive than in punishment. So I think incentive and even in management, that it's much better to have incentives, not to have punishment for anybody you want to change, but okay.

Karen Walker: More carrot than stick. Yeah. Christine, thank you so much for your time today. Been a pleasure talking with you and wishing you and French Bee a very successful 2024 through the Olympics. Thank you also to producer, Andrea and of course, a huge thank you to our listeners for following Window Seat. Remember to follow us on Apple podcasts or wherever you like to listen. Until next week, this is Karen Walker disembarking from Window Seat. Thank you.

Karen Walker

Karen Walker is Air Transport World Editor-in-Chief and Aviation Week Network Group Air Transport Editor-in-Chief. She joined ATW in 2011 and oversees the editorial content and direction of ATW, Routes and Aviation Week Group air transport content.