The Air France KLM Group is one of the world’s largest airline groups. It operates both the Air France and KLM brands. Frank Legré serves as general manager for both airlines in China.
According to him, China is Air France’s most important Asian market, and the airline is intent on transforming itself into the business airline of choice among Chinese travelers.
Q: What overall demand trends do you see?
A: Demand for air travel between China and Europe in total is going up about 15% a year. This is why we want to cope with this demand. The first thing is that we see more and more Chinese business travelers. This is due to the fact that the Chinese economy is opening to the world; we have more and more Chinese corporations going international. We all know them: Lenovo, Huawei, and the rest. They travel a lot not only to Europe but also to Africa and South America.
Q: How did your partnership with South Beauty come about?
A: We were looking for a well-known brand in China. We had this idea of finding a good partner in China, so we thought about what would be a top ranking Chinese restaurant that would have a presence in not only Shanghai or Beijing but in all the main cities. We came to the conclusion that South Beauty was the best choice. We talked to them and we started this exclusive agreement. The food is prepared by our caterers but they designed the menu. They came to Amsterdam and Paris to see how the food will be prepared and to give their advice to our chefs there.
Q: How else are you wooing the Chinese business traveler?
A: The key is offering good connections to the continents they are flying to. That is, Africa and Latin America. Air France and KLM have a complementary network of good destinations in Africa. We are working on even better connections. For example, Algeria in northern Africa. I think there are 100,000 Chinese working there, building highways and airports and working in the oil industry. Now we are able to connect from Beijing and Shanghai to Algeria via Paris. So for the Chinese business traveler, they have comfort, they have Chinese food and they have good connections.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge Air France has had operating in China?
A: The biggest challenge is being able to get slots from Chinese airports. We have a nice relationship with the Chinese aviation authorities; they have been very open to us. But there are big problems with big airports like Beijing and Shanghai; all airlines would like to fly to Beijing and Shanghai, especially new and foreign airlines. So now we have some difficulty getting the departure, landing, or arrival slots in these airports. That is a big concern for us because if we want to increase our business here we need to add slots. We have the traffic rights, in principle we can fly, but we are in a difficult situation to get slots because airports are very congested.
Q: Is China doing enough in expanding its infrastructure to cope with added air travel demand?
A: I think China is doing a lot. If you look at the new airport expansions being done now in Shanghai and Beijing, it’s definitely going in the right direction. I would say China is a victim of its own quick success; it’s getting more and more popular as a destination for leisure travelers around the world. As we all know building airports takes time, you cannot build one overnight, so we think the situation will improve with the new airport capacity. But for the time-being it is a difficult time.