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Air France-KLM's new 'Boost' airline to be aimed at millennials, but flown by same old pilots

At its investor day on 12-May-2017, Air France-KLM gave an update on plans for a new "lower" cost airline (project name 'Boost') alongside Air France at Paris CDG. It hopes Boost can regain market share, particularly from Gulf airlines, on loss making 'ultra competitive routes' that combine both business and leisure. If successful, Boost should allow Air France to return to growth.

The new airline aims to launch in winter 2017 and to operate 28 aircraft (10 long haul and 18 medium haul) by summer 2020. It will use Air France pilots, but its ex fuel unit cost target is 15% to 18% below that of Air France – mainly from a new cabin crew agreement and savings in areas such as catering and station activities. Further unit cost savings are anticipated when Boost's long haul fleet switches from A340s to A350s, from winter 2019.

Air France-KLM has not yet announced a brand name for the new airline, but says it will be positioned towards 'millennials' as a market segment. The Boost airline will also be Air France-KLM's digital laboratory, but this stops short of the dedicated digital innovation incubator/accelerator programmes of leading European competitors. A final agreement with pilots remains on the critical path to the launch of Boost.

Boost should allow Air France to resume growth

Air France-KLM plans annual long haul ASK growth between 2% and 3% until 2020, compared with 0.6% in 2016. Across all networks, Air France has experienced little or no growth in recent years, cutting ASKs by 1.4% in 2016, while KLM has grown steadily at rates of between 2% and 4%.

For 2017, the group plans ASK growth of 3.0% to 3.5% and Air France foresees enjoying a return to growth (albeit at a modest 1.5% to 2.5%), mainly due to utilisation and seat densification measures.

Growth will be higher for the group's other network airline, KLM, planned at 3% to 4%, and for its LCC Transavia, where ASK growth of 10% to 15% is planned in 2017.

The Air France-KLM group had previously made future long haul growth at Air France conditional on labour productivity improvements. The Boost project, first announced in Nov-2016, is effectively another way to achieve the same thing.

See related report: Air France-KLM: Attempting to rearrange the deckchairs while pilots remain on full steam ahead

On long haul, the aim is for the combined activity of Air France and Boost to grow by 10% in 2020. Air France is planning for Boost to start operations in winter 2017, growing to operate around 10% of Air France activity by 2018.

Operations to start in winter 2017; fleet of 28 by 2020

Boost aims to start operating on medium haul routes in winter 2017, with six A321s, and on long haul routes in summer 2018, with three or four A340s. The A340 fleet will be joined, and then progressively replaced, by new A350 aircraft from winter 2019.

By summer 2021 it will be operating 18 medium haul aircraft (12 A321s and six A320s) and 10 long haul aircraft (all A350s). The Boost fleet plan will not require any change to Air France-KLM's overall group capex plan. The 10 Airbus A350s have already been ordered (for Air France), and the A320s/A321s are to be transferred from Air France.

The draft agreement between Air France and its pilots limits the Boost fleet to these totals of 18 medium haul aircraft and 10 long haul aircraft. Air France itself will not grow its long haul fleet numbers to 2020, although it hopes to achieve some ASK growth through increased utilisation.

At the end of 1Q2017, Air France had 106 widebodies and KLM had 66, so the new operation will represent less than 10% of Air France's long haul fleet and less than 6% of Air France-KLM group's long haul fleet.

Boost project: fleet plan to summer 2021

Agreement with pilots is crucial to Boost

The Boost operation will have a wet lease agreement with Air France. Its cockpit crew will be exclusively Air France pilots, on Air France terms.

In Feb-2017 Air France management presented a draft agreement to the pilot unions SNPL and SPAF to enable the creation of a 'newco' subsidiary of Air France to progress the project.

Growth will be through the newco, at least until its fleet limits are reached, and this can only be done if pilots agree to productivity improvements embracing both newco and legacy Air France operations.

The draft agreement contains a commitment to increase the number of newco pilots over time, and a mechanism to handle pilot unit cost increases. Although a final agreement has not yet been reached, Air France pilots have indicated broad approval of the plan and management continues to target a winter 2017 launch for Boost.

Long haul is Air France-KLM's most profitable activity

To give the broader strategic context for the Air France-KLM group, its long haul passenger network is its most profitable activity.

This activity generated around EUR1.3 billion of operating profit – more than the EUR1.0 billion operating result for the group as a whole in 2016.

Long haul traffic revenue of EUR12.7 billion was just over half of total group revenue. The long haul network's operating margin can be calculated to be around 10%, a respectable level of profitability.

See related report: Air France-KLM Group dreams of CDG airline boosting Air France; KLM again makes more profit in 2016

Boost aims to recover profitability on 'ultra competitive routes'…

However, Air France-KLM cannot afford to take its long haul profitability for granted. Moreover, Air France is less profitable than KLM, and it operates a long haul network that is not uniformly profitable.

Air France identifies three broad categories of routes in its long haul business, defined by the nature of the customer. At the two extremes are the 'ultra business' and 'ultra leisure' routes, both of which are profitable.

In the middle are routes that mix both business and leisure, many of which are structurally loss making, and where Air France feels competition from Gulf airlines most keenly. These are the 'ultra competitive' routes.

On long haul, Boost will mix Asian routes where there is competition against Gulf airlines with new routes. Routes that are currently loss making, and which the plan aims to return to sustainable profitability, will form 70% of Boost's long haul activity (including routes previously operated by Air France that have been closed), and new destinations will make up 30%.

The new airline was originally aimed at long haul operations, but it will also operate medium haul routes in order to maintain hub feed in a manner that fits being more competitive against the LCCs in Europe.

…where recovery through mainline cost reduction is "rather unrealistic"

Jean-Michel Mathieu, Head of the Boost project at Air France, presented more details of the planned new airline at the Air France-KLM investor day on 12-May-2017.

"Competition from Gulf carriers is so fierce that it is really hampering our profitability level", Mr Mathieu said to analysts and investors at the event.

"It occurred to us that trying to recover the profitability on these routes through a cost reduction plan within the Air France mainline seems rather unrealistic. That's why we think the creation of a new entity with a significantly lower cost structure is the only way to sustain our presence on these markets", Mr Matthieu added.

This does not mean that the Air France-KLM group has abandoned mainline unit cost reduction plans. The group continues to target an overall unit cost reduction of more than 1.5% pa to 2020 (at constant currency and fuel price). However, on these ultra competitive routes it needs a more dramatic solution.

Boost aims for 15%-18% unit cost savings vs Air France

The cost savings sought by the Boost project are on a much bigger scale. Relative to Air France, it aims for ex fuel unit cost 15% lower on medium haul and 18% lower on long haul.

Mr Mathieu described the unit cost targets as "quite ambitious", but Air France has identified the sources of cost saving. These are principally a new labour agreement for cabin crew more in line with market conditions (Boost plans to have 1,000 cabin crew by 2020), but also from lower catering and outstation costs, and limited support costs. There will also be more use of paid on board product options.

The stated long haul unit cost targets are by comparison with the existing Air France A340 operation. The introduction of A350 equipment into the Boost network from winter 2019 should allow for further unit cost reduction, not only due to its more efficient technology, but also due to the planned Boost configuration, which has a smaller galley to allow for higher density seating.

A brand positioned towards 'millennials'

Air France also sees Boost as a vehicle with which to position itself better to capture new customer segments.

As a new brand in the Air France network, Boost will be positioned towards the so-called 'millennials', or people born in the 1980s and 1990s. "It doesn't mean that we will accept on board only this customer segment", said Mr Mathieu.

However, it gives an indication of how the marketing of Boost will be focused. This is a growth segment in which Mr Mathieu conceded that Air France is currently underperforming commercially. He noted that this segment provided 38% of passengers in the airline industry, but only 20% for Air France.

Boost should be a different experience from Air France, while being aligned with Air France standards and not being perceived as downgraded. It will have a new on board catering offer, a wider range of inflight entertainment and strong representation on social media.

The long haul markets from Europe have recently seen a number of new brand names, particularly in the value end of the range, including Norwegian, Eurowings and IAG's new brand – Level. The successful establishment of a new brand will require investment, and will take some time.

Boost also to be Air France-KLM's digital laboratory

Air France-KLM group CEO Jean Marc Janaillac has also identified another role for Boost, "an innovation laboratory for the whole group in terms of processes and customer experience".

Air France-KLM's recognition of the importance of a digital strategy is important, and welcome in today's digital world. However, it is alone among Europe's five largest airline groups in not having a distinct and dedicated digital innovation incubator/accelerator programme.

See related report: Europe's big five airline groups embrace disruption via digital innovation; some more than others

IAG has its Hangar 51 accelerator programme in partnership with L Marks, an innovation specialist and early stage investor, and has recently invested in two new technology companies. easyJet has a partnership with the incubator Founders Factory and has selected two travel startups for its accelerator programme.

The Lufthansa Group established its Innovation Hub in 2014 and started a new partnership with the Californian startup investor ‘Plug and Play’ in 2016. While these three groups chose external partners, Ryanair has its in house Labs team, set up in 2014.

By contrast, Air France-KLM's decision to assign the role of digital laboratory/incubator to Boost gives the perception that it does not view this key strategic area with the same importance as do its leading European peers. The new Boost airline is yet to launch operations, while Europe's four other large airline groups are pressing ahead with what look like their more concerted approaches to digital strategy.

Air France-KLM's ambitions for Boost are limited by its pilots

Air France expects Boost to generate similar unit revenue to that of the mainline operation. It will have the same customer satisfaction targets as Air France, which are to improve its net promoter score from 25 at the end of 2017 to 50 at the end of 2020.

For an unknown brand, particularly one that is targeting a younger demographic, these aims could present a challenge.

On the cost side, its targeted unit cost differential to Air France would put it among the more efficient legacy/full service operators, but not among the LCCs. This should be a minimum aim for the whole group.

This chosen model for the Boost project, between a low cost airline and the existing Air France product, may partly reflect the reality that the group's hands are tied by pilot agreements when it comes to setting up a true low cost long haul operation.

If done properly, the new airline should provide Air France-KLM with an opportunity to do things differently, not only in terms of better cost efficiency, but also in terms of fostering a culture of innovation.

However, the group's ambition for Boost is limited in scope, and it will always have to keep one eye on Air France pilots before any further development of the business. This half way house has many precedents - few of which succeeded.

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