Air France has put aside its differences with Dubai aviation authorities by introducing more Mideast flights.
Bruno Matheu is surprisingly candid about Air France's Middle East competition. The European carrier's vice president of marketing is never afraid to tackle sensitive issues and the region's airport authorities are no exception.
The Frenchman's gripe concerns taxes at Dubai International Airport. Indeed, Matheu insists carriers from outside the region pay more to land at the hub than local airlines.
It is about offering the best service possible to our customers, which involves more frequencies and non-stop flights.
"We are not convinced the game is played with exactly the same conditions on both sides," he says. "If you look at the taxes, some companies are paying less than we are. I don't think the competition is fair."
Whether Matheu (pictured) has a point is debateable. The executive vice president for network management and marketing refused to reveal how much Air France pays whenever its planes land in Dubai. But he is adamant the carrier is overcharged.
Despite his frustration, Matheu is resigned to seeing few changes in the immediate future. As Air France CEO Jean-Cyril Spinetta recently pointed out, ensuring fair competition within the industry is the World Trade Organisation's job and not the airline's. He added that businesses across all sectors encounter similar problems.
With no control over airport charges, Matheu admits he cannot afford to dwell on the matter. His main priority is to increase passenger loads across all Air France networks, including the Middle East.
"The plan is to try and reinforce our frequency, especially in Dubai," he says. "We have some multi-leg flights and the objective is to fly non-stop to the furthest destination, which is what we would like to do in the future. It is about offering the best service possible to our customers, which involves more frequencies and non-stop flights."
The airline provides 12 weekly flights operating from Paris Charles de Gaulle International Airport to Dubai. Meanwhile, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, which merged with Air France in 2004, flies to the emirate 10 times a week. The Amsterdam-based airline also provides daily services to Abu Dhabi, which continues to Bahrain, and regular flights to Kuwait.
Air France services to the Middle East operate using Airbus planes, such as A330s and A340s. Elsewhere, KLM uses Boeing aircraft, including 747-400s and 777s when flying to the region. According to Matheu, the Middle East has always been a popular route. "These destinations are doing very well these days, mainly because the oil price has attracted businesses to the region," he says. "Our business is to try and satisfy peoples' demand, whether they are flying for leisure or personal reasons, meeting relatives or on business trips."
Flights to the region were launched several years ago, although Matheu is unsure about specific dates. Nevertheless, he is clear about the reasons for introducing the service. "They are always the same - customer demand. If we think we can operate it profitably, we will launch additional services."
It's an obvious but crucial basis for establishing new routes, according to Matheu. He adds the airline's management always gauges passenger demand before launching services to target destinations. The directors also constantly monitor cultural changes to avoid alienating or offending travellers from various regions.
As Matheu points out, changing the aircraft layout to accommodate travellers from different regions is impractical. But investing in staff training to ensure flight attendants and crew are aware of cultural issues is manageable. For example, the airline never serves pork on Middle East routes, while in-flight entertainment, such as movies and TV programmes, is adapted to the audience's taste.
If we need to operate additional flights in whichever region we will do it. After that, it’s a question of arbitration between one route and another.
Communication between flight attendants and passengers is also crucial, according to Matheu. "The codes in terms of language are not the same from one country to another. We have lots of Indian passengers on our Asian flights and we know they will never ask for something. You have to propose to them, so our cabin crew knows if they want to provide satisfaction and feed the expectation of our customers, they have to be pro-active."
Other cultural references referred to include victory sign salutes and jesters. The first is a common signal used in France, according to Matheu. His example involves a French boy buying chewing gum from a store managed by Chinese owners. The boy uses the victory sign to show he wants two packs - an innocuous signal in France but highly offensive gesture in China.
Meanwhile, Chinese nationals consider jesters fun characters for children's amusement. But Matheu says French people find them nauseating. With this in mind, the airline ensures all movies and TV shows include characters that the audience is accustomed to. Air France also educates flight attendants about gestures that have different connotations, depending on the region. "It illustrates the difference in culture and many people aren't aware, so we try to educate our cabin crew about all these things," Matheu says.
"It's about adapting and making sure the movies and food on offer, for example, meet the passengers' requirements. We also make sure the cabin crew is aware of certain gestures when communicating with travellers."
According to Matheu, the Middle East isn't Air France's most profitable. "Our operations over there are reasonably successful but they are not the main source of revenue," he says. Nevertheless, he is keen to increase frequencies and introduce flights to new destinations. The plan is to add two extra flights to its service, while introducing four more to KLM's. Once in place, both carriers will offer twice daily services to the region. To achieve this objective, both carriers require additional aircraft. "We have some new planes coming in for both KLM and Air France," Matheu says. "If we need to operate additional flights in whichever region we will do it. After that, it's a question of arbitration between one route and another."
While the Middle East is an important region, the airline will continue focusing on matters closer to home. Last month, Air France unveiled the S3 boarding satellite at Charles de Gaulle airport. The new passenger hub is expected to handle 8.5 million passengers each year when Terminal 2E is reopened next April. When fully operational, the S3 satellite will help increase the airport's capacity to 43.5 million in 2009 from 35 million.
The boarding satellite will be used for long-haul flights to several destinations in North and South America, the Far East and Africa. Since June, eight gates have already been opened, with 26 expected to be operational in the coming years. Furthermore, the S3 building will accommodate six A380s from mid-2009, have 18 security checkpoints and walkways to help passengers travel through the hub.
In a recent press conference, Air France's Spinetta said the opening of S3 would signal the airline's rebirth. He also said the new boarding area will establish Charles de Gaulle as Europe's leading hub. The coming years will reveal whether Spinetta's statement was accurate. In the meantime, he and his colleagues, including Matheu, will concentrate on increasing the airline's routes, fleet and passenger numbers.
"Our job is to try to combine the necessity of having a stable and consistent product with the need to adapt to each market across all regions," Matheu adds. "The general idea is to have a common basis and to do that you need a stable grounding for all flights, regardless of destination. But at the same time, it's essential we balance that with meeting the passengers' cultural demands. That's the objective, and it's something we strive to achieve."