Having decided that it wasn’t going to keep its 10 A380’s past the end of 2022, phasing the type out quite quickly over the next three years, AirFrance-KLM Group CEO Ben Smith said the airline would replace them with just nine aircraft.
Having ruled out the A350-1000, the options are amongst the A359, A330neo and more 787-9’s.
The 787-9’s seem the more remote possibility as the groups decision to move the 787’s towards KLM is recent, but Smith didn’t rule out more completely.
Replacing the A380, in terms of capacity (they carry 516 passengers, which is relatively dense compared to some), isn’t the issue. There are two reasons for this.
Firstly Air France A380’s are usually at about 80-90% full which means even to get to that figure, discounted fares have been used, especially in economy.
One very noticeable feature of the A380 appearing in airline inventories that wasn’t really accounted for prior to getting them, was the huge increase in capacity they represented. They exceeded market demand, but rather than cut flights, most airlines – BA are a a prime example, kept two a day on key routes like San Francisco, to keep slots.
Having operated two 744’s on the route for years they then added an A380 and took away one 744. Prices plunged – they soon cut the second 744 and put on a 772, with Fridays a 773 to re-balance the fares and the overall capacity.
AirFrance have had the exact same issue. Remove the A380’s and restrict availability through fewer seats per flight – but keep the frequencies – and you get a price rise. And on more economical twin engined aircraft, more profitability.
AirFrance also has a need to replace ageing A330’s, so the Neo version looks highly attractive and comes with the added kudos of being built in France, as does the A350-900, which by all accounts is the main contender, not that anyone is keen to admit it.
Another plus for the A330neo and the A359 is similarity in engines as both units are powered by Rolls Royce technology and pilots can be switched from one to the other with ease, as they have interchangeable certification.
There is an opening for the 777-8, the 777-9 – its just another massive aircraft and that’s what they seem keen to avoid.
Profitability is key here – lower costs, higher prices, reliability. The GE/PW Engine Alliance GP7220 engines have been a flop on the A380’s and AirFrance consider them fundamentally unreliable. Recent quotes that “one A380 a week is out of action with engine issues” are not uncommon. It’s only a year since one of them exploded sending debris into central Greenland that’s only just been located.
Whatever AirFrance eventually choose, under Ben Smith’s aegis, it will be coldly rational, commercially driven and prudent. Don’t expect some fanfare or anything extravagant. Those days are for now at least, over.