Air France unveiled its first Airbus A220 on Wednesday, joining its European peers AirBaltic and Swiss to operate the only clean-sheet, medium-sized commercial aircraft on the market.
The Paris-based carrier has 60 A220-300s on order with the type set to replace the 49 Airbus A318s and A319s, plus some A320s, in its fleet by the middle of the decade. At that point, the 148-seat A220 will make up 60 percent — or more if the airline exercises any of its 30 options and 30 purchase rights — of Air France’s medium-haul fleet.
“This is the most technological and environmentally friendly airplane of its size,” Air France-KLM Group CEO Ben Smith said of the A220 at the Skift Global Forum earlier in September. These attributes will help the group reduce costs while also helping it meet its goal of cutting overall carbon emissions 15 percent — or 50 percent on a per passenger basis — by 2030 from 2005 levels.
On the cost front, the group targets 8-10 percent lower unit costs once capacity recovers from the pandemic to 2019 levels. These savings come in part from structural cuts — for example reducing overhead and making staffing reductions at Air France — and fleet changes in favor of newer, more efficient types. On the latter front, Air France has retired all four-engine jets, including its Airbus A380 superjumbos. The new A220s bring the airline 10 percent operating cost savings and 20 percent lower fuel burn compared to the A318s and A319s they replace.
And the A220 will not be the only next generation aircraft in the Air France-KLM fleet. The group is in talks with Airbus and Boeing over an order for up to 160 narrowbodies — likely either A320neo or 737 Max family models — for its KLM and Transavia subsidiaries. The group has no outstanding orders for either the neo or Max unlike nearly every other major airline in Europe.
“What is totally in our control is the decision on what aircraft we’re going to fly, which aircraft we’re going to replace and at what speed,” Smith said when asked about meeting Air France-KLM’s carbon goals at the forum. Other aspects, like sustainable aviation fuels, depend on both technological developments and government support to bring costs down.
Air France estimates that the A220 emits 20 percent less carbon than the jets it replaces.
The Airbus jet, formerly the Bombardier CSeries, has proven one of the more popular jets through the pandemic. The combination of the plane’s small size and high performance made it something of an ideal fit for airlines looking to cut capacity but continue to fly efficiently in the face of greatly reduced travel demand. AirBaltic accelerated the retirement of its Boeing 737s in favor of the A220 in 2020, and Air Canada, Delta Air Lines, and Swiss all relied heavily on the type while storing many other models in their fleet.
However, the A220’s strength during the crisis has not — yet — translated into sales for Airbus. The airframer only added 13 net orders to its backlog for the jet this year through August compared to 111 net orders for the A320neo family. And as Courtney Miller at The Air Current, citing the added operational complexities a new aircraft type poses for airlines hit hard by the crisis, put it last year: “Adding more aircraft of a known quantity is safe, whereas it takes a certain bravery for a management team to commit the company to a new fleet type.”
It was a big deal for Air France — long a stalwart Airbus narrowbody customer — to order the airframer’s Canadian-made model in 2019. And it’s notable for the airline to bet the majority of its European medium-haul fleet on the type before the first plane is even in the air. Though, it comes as less of a surprise, given that Smith is Canadian and was a long-time Air Canada executive before assuming the helm of Air France-KLM in 2018.
The first A220-300, registration F-HZUA, arrived in Paris at 10:07pm local time after a nonstop ferry flight from Montreal’s Mirabel airport on Tuesday, according to Flightradar24. The airline will unveil it in a ceremony at Charles de Gaulle Airport at 10:00am local time on Wednesday.
Air France plans to operate six A220-300s by the end of the year. It will add another 15 to its fleet in 2022 with all 60 due by 2025. The airline will introduce the A220-300 on flights between Paris Charles de Gaulle and Barcelona, Berlin, Madrid, Milan Linate and Venice on October 31, and expand service to Bologna, Copenhagen, Lisbon and Rome Fiumicino through the winter.