French Bee to Resume San Francisco Flights
When French Bee launched its Paris Orly-Newark flights in July, the Delta variant had yet to wreak its havoc on the U.S. Now, several months later, the leisure carrier is confident in the recovery enough to increase frequencies on the route and to resume its Paris-San Francisco-Tahiti flights, which had shifted its technical stop to Vancouver after the U.S. barred entry to most Europeans last year.
The San Francisco flights will restart in November, and the Newark flights, now three times per week, will go up to four weekly flights in December. This could flex upward if demand warrants, President Marc Rochet said.
The carrier expects demand to come roaring back when the U.S. reopens to Europeans in November, but its optimism is tempered by a measure of caution. The Biden administration announced its plans to lift most restrictions for vaccinated travelers but has yet to specify a date, other than the month of November. Most of the carrier’s sales originate in France or elsewhere in Europe, but French Bee has yet to see the same kind of surge in bookings that Virgin Atlantic and other carriers have reported. Rochet attributes this relative hesitance to the lack of details from the Biden administration on its plans. “There is a lot of clarity that is missing,” Rochet told Airline Weekly. “We will have a real peak when the clarity is there.”
But when that clarity arrives, Rochet said the demand will be “huge.” Demand first will come from visiting friends and relatives (VFR) traffic, followed by leisure travelers and students returning to universities abroad. “Business travel will be very low,” he said. “Our model based on economy [class] and premium economy will be strong.”
Since it launched the Newark flight, French Bee’s bookings mainly have come from VFR, inbound from the U.S. Traffic has mainly been one way, thanks to the travel restrictions. Since the bulk of French Bee’s demand has come from inbound VFR traffic, the carrier says most itineraries don’t end in Paris but continue on to destinations around the country. From the July 14 launch to September 28, French Bee carried about 20,000 passengers on the Newark-Paris route.
Inbound tourism demand is an area of potential growth for the carrier. Although it is well known in France, its brand recognition among U.S. travelers is low, Rochet said. “To be clear, we didn’t break even, and we didn’t make money,” he said. “Still, we are a bit satisfied with the result.”
The carrier has had time to build market share now that its much larger competitors — the U.S. network carriers, IAG, and Air France-KLM — have stepped back from their transatlantic dominance. Air France-KLM alone had 64 daily flights to the U.S. before the pandemic, Group CEO Ben Smith said at the Skift Global Forum in September.
“We recognize that Air France is a very strong competitor,” Rochet said. “My feeling is that they will not come back as they were in 2019 for a very long time.” Air France’s fleet of widebodies equipped with large premium cabins will be a liability for the carrier when business travel — now widely thought to recover only by 2024 — remains depressed. “It will be very costly for [Air France] to fly to the U.S. and not have that business-class revenue,” Rochet added. “Our product is better suited to the market and also is cheaper to operate, so we are very optimistic.”
New entrants in the low-cost longhaul market, like Iceland’s Fly Play and Norway’s Norse Atlantic, also do not trouble Rochet, because their focus is on Northern Europe and not on France. And even if they do offer connections or direct flights to France, Rochet is not worried. “We of course do not think we will have the whole market to ourselves,” he said. “It would be totally stupid and arrogant to think so.”
When the Newark flight launched, Rochet said the first few flights were almost entirely cargo. Freight remains an important revenue stream for the carrier, but it suffers from a lack of brand recognition among U.S. freight forwarders and shippers. Most of the carrier’s cargo on the Newark flights originates in France.
French Bee’s Airbus A350s can carry up to 16 metric tons of cargo, but the carrier has been averaging about 12 metric tons on the Newark flights. Part of this is the changing nature of air freight, fueled by e-commerce, Rochet said: Package freight is light but it occupies a lot of space for its weight.
The carrier’s fleet plans have changed slightly since the summer. Now, it expects to take delivery of its fifth A350 in December, instead of October. Its sixth A350 will arrive in June 2022. One benefit of the pandemic is that there are a lot of “cheap airplanes on the market, even A350s,” he said. “So we know we can get more if needed, but we are cautious people.”
- Out with the new, in with the, uhh, newer? Allegiant Air, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines are all exiting some relatively new — one very new — markets. Allegiant is out of Cleveland, citing rising operating costs early in 2022, after nearly five years. Delta will drop Durango in October after just six months in the outdoors-oriented Colorado city. And United is calling it quits in Rochester, Minn. — a market long touted by CEO Scott Kirby as the exemplar of how the airline’s large regional jet cap makes it less competitive vis a vis American Airlines and Delta — also in October. Notably, all of the exits occur after air service protections under the federal coronavirus payroll support program sunset on October 1.
- Lufthansa Group carriers Austrian Airlines and Eurowings are swapping several routes to streamline their networks. Austrian has taken over the Vienna-Hanover route from Eurowings to improve connections over its Vienna hub this summer. And Eurowings, the group’s budget arms, is moving on the Stuttgart-Graz route, as well as adding frequencies on Dusseldorf-Graz to support westbound connectivity. These are just some of the latest route map changes within the group that has also seen non-Lufthansa brands land in Frankfurt and Munich for the first time in years.
Separately, Eurowings will add new service between Hamburg and Beirut from November 7. The route will be its third to the Lebanese capital after nonstops from Berlin and Düsseldorf.
- Frontier Airlines is betting on the seemingly bottomless pit of sun demand to Cancun this winter. The discounter will connect the Mexican beach town with Baltimore/Washington, Boston, Detroit and Minneapolis/St. Paul in December, and with Columbus and Raleigh-Durham in January. With the additions, Frontier will serve 19 U.S. cities nonstop from Cancun.
- Not Norwegian Air but at the same time Norwegian Air clone Norse Atlantic Airways outlined its initial U.S. service plan in an application for a foreign air carrier permit from the Department of Transportation last week. The long-haul low-cost operator plans to connect Oslo with Fort Lauderdale, New York Stewart and Ontario, Calif., from the Summer 2022 season that begins in March. A key caveat — and an unusual move on Norse Atlantic’s part — is the application comes before the receipt of an operating certificate from Norwegian officials. Norse Atlantic said it expects such a certificate by early November, though when have regulators behaved the way airlines want them too?
- Ryanair will reopen its base in Cork, Ireland, this winter after a pandemic-related closure. The discounter will station two Boeing 737s at the airport with plans for 12 routes this winter and 20 next summer. Only two, however, are now: Cork to Birmingham and Edinburgh. Both new routes fill the gap left by the collapse of Stobart Air in June.
Speaking of Edinburgh, Ryanair will also expand its base in the Scottish city with three new routes. Nonstops to Madrid, Palermo and Paris Beauvais begin in October and will operate through the winter.
- WestJet‘s budget subsidiary Swoop is continuing its sun expansion with new service to the Dominican Republic in December. The airline will connect Toronto Pearson and Punta Cana twice-weekly from December 5.
- Vueling is making a splash at Paris Orly with the 18 slots it received as part of a divestment by Air France-KLM. The IAG-owned discounter will add 28 new routes — almost all with less than daily frequencies — from Paris. New nonstop destinations include Asturias in Spain, Birmingham, Dublin, Edinburgh, Hamburg, Milan Bergamo, Nuremberg and Stockholm. Most of the routes begin in early November.
- U.S. startup Avelo Airlines continues to adjust its map with plans for new service to Tucson this winter. The discounter will connect its Burbank base with the Arizona city from December 16.
- American and United are adding partners in some of their newest markets. American has signed a codeshare with IndiGo to provide connections for its return to Delhi on October 31, and new service to Bangalore on January 4, 2022. No word yet on whether the new American-IndiGo tie up could turn into an equity partnership like the U.S. carriers recent deals with Gol and JetSmart in South America.
And in South Africa, United signed a codeshare with Airlink that fills the gap left by struggling partner South African Airways. United added Johannesburg to its map in June, an addition that followed its first-ever service to South Africa with flights to Cape Town in December 2019. Airlink was previously a regional affiliate of SAA but went separate ways with the carrier before the pandemic.