Why the African love story continues to grow
Air France-KLM has lengthy historical ties with Africa and today boasts one of the strongest networks to the continent. Victoria Moores caught up with Air France-KLM SVP Africa Frank Legré to learn about the group's expansion plans.
“Air France has a long story – and at the same time a love story – with Africa,” according to Air France-KLM SVP Africa Frank Legré. “Even at the creation of Air France, we were already flying to Africa.”
Air France was created in 1933 from the combination of a series of smaller airlines and, much later, it merged with west African specialist Union de Transports Aériens (UTA), cementing its ties with the continent.
The Air France-KLM executive has overseen other geographical patches but, over the last three years since he took up his current role, he has seen a huge amount of potential. “One of the things that we are most happy with is the quality of our network. We are specialists in Africa. There are many more opportunities in Africa than in other continents. There is a lot more to be done, but it’s not always easy,” he said.
And things were certainly not easy in 2016. Countries like Angola, Congo, Nigeria and Tanzania were badly hit by softening oil and commodity prices, making it hard to repatriate funds. Legré said this has been a “huge issue”, as the resource business is a lifeline for these countries, but the group is confident in Africa’s future and wants to invest more.
One of the ways Air France-KLM is achieving this is through its partnerships with Air Cote d’Ivoire and Kenya Airways. Air France holds a 20% stake in Air Cote d’Ivoire and has been very involved in the airline’s development. At the moment, the airlines have a pro-rate agreement, but Legré believes this will ultimately be expanded to a codeshare.
Ivory Coast is important to the group’s African strategy because it is a regional hub and the country is “booming,” posting 10% growth in 2015. The country ranks as the fastest-growing economy in Africa and has been named as the top destination for investment in west Africa. There are also major businesses based in Ivory Coast, including the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO).
This means Air France is keen to maintain a “significant share” of Air Cote d’Ivoire, although it will never dominate its partner’s business. “We are not there to dictate what they do. We want a partnership with no political tension. There are so few reliable carriers and that makes it important to support these regional airlines. It is difficult for them to break even with just four or five aircraft.”
Air France’s relationship with the Ivory Coast dates back to before Air Cote d’Ivoire was born. Air Afrique – the original pan-African airline – was headquartered in Abidjan and Air France was a shareholder. “We are committed by the past to the Ivory Coast,” Legré said.
Kenya Airways is another important strategic relationship, with KLM holding a 27% stake in the Kenyan airline. Kenya Airways and KLM also operate a joint venture on flights between eastern Africa and western Africa, plus the three carriers – Air France, KLM and Kenya Airways – are SkyTeam alliance partners.
Beyond this, Air France also holds a very small share in Tunisair, of around 1%. “This is something that comes from the past and shows the Tunisians that we are still partnering with them. It is symbolic.”
While Air France-KLM’s main focus is long-haul flights to Africa, Legré believes that there is scope to improve general infrastructure by boosting regional connectivity and the group is open to forming new cooperations. “There are lots of people talking to us who I can’t mention,” he said. “We are looking at any opportunities in Africa and will pursue anything that makes sense.”
In theory, plenty of African opportunities could be about to open up with intra-African open skies finally expected to happen in early 2017, followed soon after by the introduction of a pan-African passport. However, Legré is not expecting a “big bang” effect from liberalisation, as some countries are already fairly open. “It is more a political issue than a legal framework,” he said. “Let’s see.”
Within its own operations, Air France-KLM is working to optimise its African strategy and operations across the group. For example, Air France will begin flying to Accra in Ghana in 2017, even though KLM already serves the city. “If there is enough space, we will both fly there. Where we need both, we will fly dual hub to that destination.”
Meanwhile, KLM recently opened services to Windhoek (Namibia), while Air France has added Oran (Algeria). KLM will also open a route from Amsterdam to Freetown (Sierra Leone) and Monrovia (Liberia) in March 2017, taking the Dutch carrier to 13 destinations in Africa next year In winter 2016-17, the group – including Transavia – will serve 48 African destinations, which Legré claims is unrivalled in the industry. This is supported by more than 23 codeshare routes across the group this winter, operated by partners including Kenya Airways and South African low-cost carrier Kulula.
As a sign of Air France-KLM’s commitment to Africa, the group is deploying its most recent aircraft to the continent, including Airbus A380s and Boeing 787s. When Air France’s new cabin design was unveiled, it was displayed in Libreville in Gabon, alongside New York, Paris and Shanghai.
“This shows the importance of Africa,” Legré said. “We don’t use a specific fleet. We consider Africa to be part of the world and do not offer any less comfort on these routes. We also try to find small details and offer local choices that you will only find on our African flights. We give the best of Air France-KLM and adjust it as much as we can to African tastes.”
The group offers specialised food, drink and in-flight entertainment on its African routes, including premieres of Nollywood films originating from Nigeria. It also has dedicated ambassadors on specific routes who are trained in African culture. “They are trained to be closer to the African spirit and they explain what the expectations are to the rest of the crew. Africans are warm, respectful and generous. These are their key values.”
So what is the attraction of Africa to Legré? “What I like very much about Africa is that relationships with people make a real difference, much more than in other countries. It calls for personal involvement,” he said.