Boeing 787 'first' for Air Austral
Reunion Island carrier, Air Austral, has taken its first Boeing 787, joining the 21 African 787s already in service with Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways and Royal Air Maroc. Victoria Moores reports.
Air Austral ordered two 787s in February 2015 and the first of these, configured with 18 business and 244 economy seats, was handed over at Boeing’s Everett delivery centre on May 20.
The new twinjet arrived in Paris on May 24 and performed its first flight to Reunion on May 25. Its sister aircraft will follow in October/November.
“We will have to do a lot of things completely differently,” Air Austral chairman and CEO Marie-Joseph Male said. “We are the first French airline to operate the 787 – we have absolutely no reference point.”
Air Austral started life in 1975 as an inter-island carrier and expanded into 777 long-haul services 13 years ago. Since then, there has been little fleet variation, so the 787 marks a huge shift into the unknown.
Minor challenges for a larger airline have been a steep learning curve for Air Austral. Its scheduling and planning department had no experience of aircraft selections, it struggled to find office space to house Rolls-Royce’s on-site representatives, local electricity supplies had to be boosted for the power-hungry 787 and Air Austral’s French-speaking maintenance staff had to travel to London Gatwick to learn – in English – how to look after the twinjet. “It seems fairly minor, sending 30-40% of our mechanics off for long training, but substituting them was quite difficult,” Male said.
Air Austral operates two ATR 72-500s, a single 737-300QC, two 737-800s and three 777-300ERs. It selected the 787 over the Airbus A330 for fleet commonality, its mid-sized capacity and ability to operate into Mayotte with a full load. “The choice was rather straightforward with what we wanted to do,” Male said.
However, the only way Air Austral could get its hands on a 787-8 before 2020-21 was to take early-build aircraft. These fitted Air Austral’s needs perfectly. “It was a question of opportunity,” said Male. “For longer routes, it could become a real issue, but not with the routes we have.”
The first 787 will replace a 737-300QC that was brought in on short-term lease after Air Austral sold its 777-200LR last October. “The 777-200LR was bought by my predecessor to do Mayotte-Paris, but it was too big at 362 seats, twice-weekly. We couldn’t fill it and it wasn’t profitable.”
Overcapacity has been one of Male’s key challenges. In April 2016, he finalised the cancellation of two 824-seat Airbus A380s, originally ordered in 2009 for delivery in 2014. “When I arrived in 2012, the company was almost bankrupt. Almost right from the beginning, I said this did not correspond to our plans. We were not in a position to fulfil and respect that contract.”The more moderately sized 262-seat 787 flies to Mauritius and Madagascar. After two days’ pilot training on the special short-runway and obstacle procedures at Mayotte, Air Austral will then use the 787 on direct services between there and Paris Charles de Gaulle, cutting out the current stop in Reunion.
Air Austral may send Ewa, its Mayotte regional subsidiary, a second ATR 72-500 to support its 787 feed.
The 787 will also be used to serve Bangkok direct twice-weekly, replacing a 737-800 that flew via Chennai. Air Austral will continue to serve Chennai using 737s, without the onward leg.
“We are going to do new things and we are going to do things differently. That is the whole purpose of changing our fleet composition,” Male said, adding that the mid-size jet will open up opportunities in China, east Africa, the Indian subcontinent and south east Asia.
The 787s are not Air Austral’s only new arrivals. In November/December 2016, it will replace two of the three 442-seat 777-300ERs that operate between Reunion and Paris. It may also consider another 737QC to boost its Indian Ocean passenger flights and add cargo capacity, which makes up 10% of its revenues.
This will finalise Air Austral’s mid- and long-haul fleet renewal until 2022-23. “We will then think what aircraft we need at that point, whether that is the 787-9 or -10, the 777X or the A350. We have already started and will continue planning in the months to come,” said Male.