On Monday April 18th 2011 Air France announced that it was introducing a 60th Boeing 777 into its long haul fleet. This latest addition of a brand new Boeing 777-328ER brings the airline’s -300ER fleet to 35 aircraft that operate alongside 25 Boeing 777-200ER. It may come as a surprise to realize that these 60 Boeing 777s share among themselves no less than five different cabin configurations; three different cabin configurations are observed throughout the 777-300ER fleet and another two throughout the 777-200ER model. The different cabin products offered on board these aircraft help better understand how Air France differentiated cabin products have creating niche markets within its fleet. We will gain insight on key trends that are also likely to impact the airline near-future marketing initiatives.
I. The New Business Class on the five newest Boeing 777-300ER (383 passengers in 3 classes).
Of all the factors affecting Air France long haul fleet configuration and the products its aircraft incorporate is the new Business class. This new product has recently been deployed to the fleet with the acceptance of the five newest Boeing 777-300ER delivered between December 7th 2010 and this week. The five aircraft played an experimental role for the new 6′ 6” ½ (200 cm) long, 24” (61 cm) wide, 180 degree fully horizontal recline seat supported by a 15” screen multimedia system. The flurry of superior reviews received from passengers (see our March 29th 2011 entry) actually flown on three of the five aircraft available through March 2011 convinced the airline management to expand the new product deployment to 26 additional aircraft by this summer and 62 by the summer of 2012. The five aircraft involved can seat 383 passengers in three classes involving 42 of the ‘New’ Business class seats arranged 7 abreast in a 2-3-2 row configuration, 24 Premium Voyageur class (Economy Premium) seats, 24 in rows of 8 (2-4-2) and 317 Voyageur class (Economy) seats provisioned with a 17” width and 32” pitch, 10 abreast in a 747-like 3-4-3 row. The airline is now scrambling to deploy these aircraft with priority given to business travellers destinations like New York (Newark and JFK), Rio de Janeiro, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Osaka, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, and Santiago de Chile. Clearly these five new Boeing 777-300ER the youngest in the fleet are key to understanding the various configurations on board the entire Boeing 777 fleet. The new highly praised Business cabin is positioned to become the premium cabin aboard most of the long haul fleet into the near future.
II. The 21 mainline Boeing 777-300ER (303 passengers in 4 classes)
The 21 mainline Boeing 777-300ER configured with 303 passengers in 4 classes have been as important to showcasing Air France already established products, as have been the 5 youngest 777-300ER that now showcase the new Business class seats. The 21 aircraft involved, delivered between 2004 and 2009 have been the only 777-300ER aircraft offering passengers exposure to Air France highly coveted and exclusive ‘La Premiere’ (First) class along with the innovative Premium Voyageur (Premium Economy) class. These two cabin products became value differentiators in the airline marketing strategy as the old Business class seat also available on these aircraft, along with the more traditional Voyageur (Economy) cabin retained limited appeal. The old Business cabin seat now slowly being phased out had limited competitiveness due to its inability to lay horizontally when reclining into a fully flat bed. Having business travellers resting at an angled position to the cabin floor was a clear disadvantage in that market segment. The Voyageur cabin with 10 narrow 17”-wide seats had a pitch limited to 32” exacerbated by the presence of In-Flight-Entertainment equipment underneath each individual seat limiting leg room.
The highly exclusive First Class cabin implementing a private space/suite has been strategically placed on those aircraft offering 8 passengers the unique service of a 3-wines, 3-menus selection with 24” wide, 6′ 7” long seat, offering 79” pitch transformable into bed, along with various amenities such as reading light, storage drawer, laptop power ports in a partitioned private personal quarter.
The 28 new Premium Voyageur cabin seats (8 passengers seating abreast on a 2-3-2 layout) deliver ‘enhanced’ economy class service with 40% additional leg room compared to the standard Voyageur economy class (space-constrained by the In-flight-Entertainment equipment underneath each seat in front of the passenger). This product was aggressively introduced on the premium Tokyo and New York routes in 2009 until being retrofitted to the rest of the long haul fleet. The 17” (48 cm) wide seat uses a sleeping pod approach when reclined to 123 degree. They also provide a 38” (100 cm) pitch. Individual LED light, power plug, headphone and 500 hours of multimedia entertainment are supplemented by wine and champagne.
These aircraft, by accommodating 67 ‘old’ Business Class seats and 200 Voyageur (Economy) Class seats offered Air France’s entire long haul line of products available at that time.
III. The 9 High Density 777-300ER (472 seats in 3 classes).
These aircraft also acquired from 2004 on have characteristically inherited old cabin products from the 747-400 fleet they intended to replace. But these cabin products and configurations were primarily dictated by the market for which they were intended. Air France niche market destinations in the Indian, Caribbean and Pacific ocean French overseas territories had long shown tremendous leisure passengers density. The French ‘Tropical’ destinations had long been operated by high density 747-400 capable of squeezing 474 passengers per trip. However Air France also demonstrated the 777-300ER prowess as a high density passenger aircraft capable to accommodate 472 passengers in a 3 classes configuration. These aircraft are configured to achieve such high capacity by altogether eliminating the Premiere and Premium Voyageur cabins in favor of the Business and ubiquitous Alize cabins. The Business seats are limited to 14. The Alize class which offers a more economical approach to the Premium Voyager class uses only 36 seats. Being narrower than Premium Voyageur seats (18” versus 21.5”), they only occupy 4 rows of 9 seats abreast in a 3-3-3 layout. This permits both cabins to aggregate seats into only 6 rows, leaving the rest of the 777-300ER cavernous interior available for another 422 Tempo (the designation replacing Voyageur on these aircraft) seats. In this role the 777-300ER is proving very effective as proven by three of the oldest Air France 747-400 long assigned to those routes recently being spotted awaiting dismantling (F-GITA, F-GITB and F-GITC).
IV. Other Factors
The overall picture indicates that since 2004 when the new 777-300ER aircraft began arriving there has been a constant struggle to innovate. The 777-300ER had key marketing selling points of its own but at that time Air France was hampered by its lack of a truly strong Business Cabin offering. The Premiere (First) Class cabin had limitations inherent to its exclusive character. Things began to improve in 2009 when a very aggressive Premium Voyager Cabin was implemented as part of Air France new brand identity. In that sense the 2010-2011 introduction of the new Business class cabin in the 3-cabins, 383-seats newer aircraft cemented the re-branding initiatives with very robust product offerings in the 777-300ER fleet. All along the three different configurations and four cabin products difficulties were the signs of a re-branding transition phase in which different products lacked complementarity. This was exacerbated by the traditionally high passengers density pressure on Air France niche market in the Indian, Caribbean and Pacific oceans routes. The 777-300ERs, Air France flagships reflected these contradictions during that time. Fleet wide repercussions ensued naturally primarily across the 25 Boeing 777-200ERs component of the fleet.
There we found two familiar configurations;
-11 aircraft flying 309 passengers in 3 cabins with 35 Business seats, 24 Premium Voyageur seats and 250 Voyageur seats.
-14 aircraft accommodating 247 passengers in 4 cabins comprising 4 Premiere seats, 49 Business seats, 24 Premium Voyageur seats and 170 Voyageur seats
In similar fashion to the Boeing 777-300ER, the 4-cabins 777-200ER intended to expose primarily the Premiere and Premium Voyageur products, complemented with Business and Voyageur. The 3-cabins layout maintained some edge with the somewhat less competitive (but soon-to-be-replaced) old Business Class being paired with the very aggressive, innovative Premium Voyageur cabin. Naturally with the Boeing 777-200ER being a smaller aircraft, a high density configuration for the Caribbean, Indian and pacific destinations was absent.
The near future for the Boeing 777 and long haul fleet is clearly giving pre-eminence to the two marketing weapons consisting of the new Business class and the Premium Voyageur class. Together they will consolidate Air France newly acquired brand in a rational way. We now understand that the Premiere class will only be available on the Airbus A380. This will probably lead to the 25 Boeing 777-200ER being rationalized to the 3 classes layout. The 777-300ER fleet, given the diminishing role of Boeing 747-400 will remain Air France most effective high density utility aircraft (with the exception of the A380) in the 472, 3 classes format. However most of the 4-cabins/303 seats 21 Boeing 777-300ER are likely to be re-configured into the more viable 3-classes 383 seats standard that generated so much rave.