Flying Low and Light between Paris and New York

Low-cost transatlantic airlines are now forcing traditional companies to expand their offering. Air France is just one example, and is now fighting back with a new “light” fare.
The Paris-New York line, inaugurated in 1946, is historically the busiest operated by Air France, with six flights every day. © Collection Musée Air France

“Well, I did it!” proclaimed Charles Lindbergh after landing in Le Bourget on May 21, 1927, after 33 hours aboard the Spirit of St. Louis. The American aviation pioneer was the first pilot to fly from the United States to France. His achievement was seen as collective, with a journalist from French newspaper L’Humanité writing that “millions and millions of people […] will now feel more like neighbors, closer, and more fraternal.”

The Paris-New York line was inaugurated in 1946 by Air France and nicknamed the “Star Ribbon Route.” The company first operated two commercial flights per week, before launching the Constellation in 1947. This luxury aircraft manufactured by Lockheed in the United States was able to transport some 50 passengers. The flight took 17 hours with two stopovers: one in Shannon, in Ireland, or Santa Maria, in the Azores, and another in Newfoundland. The stewards were former employees of the Georges V hotel in Paris, and the in-flight food was prepared by Michelin-starred chefs. And to top it all off, on Fridays passengers were offered American cigarettes and Champagne aboard the day’s flight known as the “Parisian Special.”

The Legend of Supersonic Flight

Paris-New York was the only line to be sustainably operated by the supersonic Concorde planes. Between 1977 and 2003, the aircraft enabled passengers to “travel back through time,” taking off in Paris at 11 a.m. and landing in New York at 8 a.m. The trip only lasted three and a half hours, and the then French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing described this feat of technological prowess as the “continental drift in reverse.” The newfound closeness between the two countries was a global first, but it came at a price. During the 1990s, a round-trip ticket cost around 30,000 francs (5,666 dollars today).

Before it was decommissioned in 2003, Concorde planes were popular with the world’s elite, including François Mitterrand, Jackie Kennedy (who would reserve two seats for more room), cellist Mstislav Rostropovitch (who would book two seats – the second for his instrument), and orchestra conductor Daniel Barenboim (who reserved a second seat to avoid having to endure an unbearable fellow passenger).

The aircraft consumed a metric ton of fuel per passenger, and had become a money pit. A rise in oil prices, mediocre profits, and the 2000 crash in Gonesse that cost the lives of 113 people all combined to put Concorde out of business. But the supersonic dream lives on, and other projects are currently being developed, such as the Boom Overture, financed by Virgin Atlantic. But how realistic are they? After all, it would take five Concordes to transport the passengers of just one Airbus A380.

Strangely, the speed of traditional aircraft has increased very little since the 1950s, and planes still fly at an average of between 500 and 560 miles per hour. This may be because any increase in speed would imply a considerable technological and financial cost for airlines. As a result, the duration of flights from Paris to New York has remained at eight hours. However, flights from Paris to New York are around 45 minutes shorter, thanks to winds created by the rotation of the Earth.

On board an Air France Boeing 747 in the 1950s-1960s. © Collection Musée Air France

A Market Dominated by the Air France Joint Venture

Air France has achieved iconic status thanks to its length of operation and the quality of its services, and has 4,000 seats available on its Paris-New York line every day. The French-American route is also the only one to fly two A380 aircraft daily during the summer. But competition in this transatlantic segment is growing significantly. In an attempt to keep the upper hand, Air France offered to partner up with other companies to offer flights on all lines leaving from Paris-Charles de Gaulle, Amsterdam and London-Heathrow to North America.

By joining forces with the Dutch KLM, Italian Alitalia, and the American Delta (which manages Air France sales across the U.S.A.), the French airline has created the very first joint venture on the transatlantic market. Together, these companies make up 30% of all lines between Europe and the United States.

This leading market position has also been reinforced by a recent partnership with British airline Virgin Atlantic. “Our historical competitors are the alliances formed between United/Lufthansa (Star Alliance) and British Airways/American Airlines (Oneworld),” says Stéphane Ormand, vice-president of Air France in North America. But over the last two years, new low-cost players such as Norwegian Airlines have begun competing with the traditional market leaders.

The Low-Cost Long-Haul Strategy

Norwegian made a name for itself in just a few months with a loss leader pricing strategy, selling its first tickets at an unbeatable 65 euros. These low fares were made possible by stripping down services, with tickets offering no hold luggage, no in-flight food, and no option to modify dates. Originally launched in summer 2016, the transatlantic low-cost offering from Norwegian operates daily. And 2018 will see the cut-price pioneer competing in turn with the Danish Primera Air, and Spanish airline Level, which has marketed its first one-way tickets at 129 euros.

Low-cost airlines use a new generation of aircraft that use less fuel, such as the Boeing 737 MAX. These models are smaller and adapted to carrying fewer passengers, and the offering is aimed at customers who care more about the price than their own personal comfort. The low-cost experience on mid-haul flights in Europe helped to change public mentalities, with EasyJet and Ryanair proving their services were just as safe as those of traditional airlines.

The price of Paris-New York flights has dropped across all airlines, tumbling from an average of 726 euros in 2014 to 535 euros in 2016 – a 26% decrease according to a comparative study from the website Liligo. And today, passengers can reserve round-trip tickets two months in advance with hold luggage, an in-flight meal, and cancellation insurance for 400 euros.

Traditional Airlines Fight Back

Air France has opted for the adjective “light” instead of “low-cost.” The French airline is set to offer a new Economy pricing range on flights between Europe, the United States, and Canada from April 10, 2018. The new offering will feature three levels: “Light,” a low-price ticket without hold luggage nor the ability to change flight dates beginning at 450 euros; “Standard,” a ticket that includes a piece of hold luggage and the possibility of changing flight dates for an extra charge; and “Standard Plus,” which includes the possibility of changing dates, reimbursement for cancellations, and a piece of hold luggage.

But when it comes to comfort and quality, there’s no competing with the traditional airlines, which always provide a minimum level of in-flight service such as a hot meal. In comparison, dinner on a Norwegian airlines flight will cost you 35 euros (XL Airways is the only low-cost company to include a meal and hold luggage in its price). Reliability and comfort are also sales arguments for the traditional market players. “The regularity of our flights is a real plus for the Air France offering,” says Stéphane Ormand. Six planes take off every day from Roissy-Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports, flying to LaGuardia, Newark, and JFK.

“This is a major advantage for our business travelers, who are looking for flexibility and a high level of service,” says Stéphane Ormand. What’s more, in cases of unexpected weather events or technical problems, traditional companies are able to draw on a far larger fleet of replacement aircraft than their low-cost competitors. During the snowstorm in New York in January 2018, XL Airways customers were stuck in Paris for several days because the airline only has four planes, and was unable to charter emergency aircraft.

Battling It Out in Business Class

Business-class passengers make up 20% of Air France customers, and generate half of the airline’s revenue. Since Asian and Emirates companies started investing in ultra-luxury flights and services, European airlines have had to up their standards to satisfy an increasingly demanding clientele. The new offering features plated service, menus developed by leading French chefs (such as Daniel Boulud, for Air France flights taking off from the United States and Canada), fully-reclining seats, and private airport lounges. The average price for a Paris-U.S.A. round-trip flight in business class is 5,000 euros with Air France.

The big gamble for competitors is now to create low-cost business-class flights between Paris and New York. A few airlines have tried, with mixed results. Between 2006 and 2009, L’Avion exclusively offered business-class flights at cut prices. The company was then acquired by British Airways and renamed OpenSkies, and now features fares across all classes. La Compagnie then tried its hand at specializing in cheap business-class tickets in 2013, but its fleet is comprised of just two old Boeing 757-200 aircraft.

Today’s low-cost companies do provide a few “premium” seats with added comforts, but they are still far behind Air France. It seems the world’s airlines will continue battling it out for the lion’s share of transatlantic flights.

Article published in the March 2018 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.