Leisure airline French Bee is bullish on its business to the U.S., even as JetBlue Airways and Norse Atlantic Airways prepare to ratchet up competition on popular transatlantic routes to Paris.
Privately-held French Bee is in the midst of its own U.S. expansion. The airline will begin new flights to Miami from its Paris Orly base on December 15. And next year, the carrier plans to expand its offerings to Los Angeles and Newark ahead of what CEO Marc Rochet thinks will be a banner summer with “very strong” travel demand.
“We’ve been a bit surprised,” Rochet said in an interview on travelers’ seemingly insatiable appetite to fly places on both sides of the Atlantic. Ticket sales, he said, are split about equally between both France and the U.S. In addition to Los Angeles, Miami, and Newark, French Bee serves San Francisco in the U.S., as well as the islands of Reunion and Tahiti.
Robust travel demand is not unique to French Bee. Both European and U.S. carriers are seeing a similar phenomenon with executives from International Airlines Group to KLM and United Airlines also saying the same thing. They cite everything from people being unable to travel for nearly two years during the pandemic, to the strong U.S. dollar that makes it cheaper for Americans — and anyone earning dollars — to travel to Europe. The outlook has the industry confident that it could buck the economic tide that may be headed for recession.
But, as they say, a rising tide — or travel demand in this case — lifts all boats. JetBlue and Norse, which are seeing similar trends, both plan to add Paris to their respective maps next summer. The former will connect the city’s Charles de Gaulle, or CDG, airport with Boston and New York JFK using Airbus A321LRs, and the latter CDG with JFK using a Boeing 787. JetBlue offers what it positions as a more affordable premium product, whether in economy or business class, while Norse targets cost-conscious flyers with its budget offering.
Neither, as Rochet sees it, are a real threat to French Bee. This is in multifold, from its product offering — an all economy and premium economy layout on new Airbus A350s — to poor associations in France connecting Norse with Norwegian Air, which flew budget flights between CDG and the U.S. through 2020. But Rochet adds a third reason to French Bee’s strengths: Its choice of airports.
“Orly is the airport for France, CDG is the airport for the world. I’m not sure for our customers it’s the type of airport they want to be in,” he said.
Orly is the smaller and older of the two Parisian airports and located about 8 miles south of the city center, while CDG is larger and newer, and about 22 miles to the northeast of the city. The former caters more to local travelers and the latter to longhaul and connecting flyers.
Air France, according to Rochet, is French Bee’s “toughest competitor.” Air France, and all-business class carrier La Compagnie, are the only other airlines flying between Orly airport and the U.S.
American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines fly between Paris CDG and New York, according to Diio by Cirium schedules. Despite that level of service, New York-London will still be the largest transatlantic market by capacity.
The new Paris flights come as the airline industry faces lingering aircraft availability and staffing issues that slowed the recovery in 2022. Many airlines that had planned to fully recover this year, for example Southwest Airlines, have postponed their return to pre-Covid levels of service until 2023 or later as a result. Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr in October described the capacity discipline as being “forced” on the industry.
“Global aviation will not return to the overcapacities witnessed in the pre-pandemic times anywhere soon,” Spohr said.
Asked about future expansion, Rochet said French Bee plans to add one new U.S. destination in 2023 with an A350-1000 due later this month. He was mum on specifics but said an announcement was likely in January. French Bee and its sister airline, Air Caraïbes, currently operate 11 Airbus A350s, including both -900s and -1000s. They have one more aircraft on order.
“We want to take advantage of the situation to improve and grow in the U.S.,” Rochet said citing the strong dollar and pent-up travel demand.
After that, French Bee is focused on returning to profitability in 2023. The airline lost money during the pandemic, Rochet said. Once back in the black, it will then consider additional aircraft and growth, potentially from 2024.