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1909 - 1932 The Pioneers
As the oldest air transport company in France, the Compagnie Générale Transaérienne takes the Air France family tree back to 1909. It mainly operated airships and seaplanes.
The first passenger airlines appeared at the end of WWI, backed by private capital mainly from corporate bankers in association with aircraft manufacturers. Pierre-Georges Latécoère launched Les Lignes Latécoère in 1918 to carry mail. This was followed by l'Aéronavale, Les Messagerie Aériennes, les Grands Express Aériens, Les Lignes Farman and Les Messageries Transaériennes in 1919.
The Compagnie de Navigation Franco-Roumaine was set up the following year
The First Mergers
Little by little, French civil aviation became increasingly organized, encouraged by the French government, which substantially a business that was structurally loss-making. An initial merger took place in 1921 between C.G.T. and Les Messageries Aériennes. Les Messageries Aériennes and Les Grands Express Aériens subsequently merged under the Air Union brand. Aéronavale joined Air Union in 1926.
L'Aéropostale, set up in 1927, opened routes to Spain, Morocco and South America, thanks to a far-sighted businessman by the name of Marcel Bouilloux-Lafont, who took over the C.G.E.A. ( Compagnie Générale d'Entreprises Aéronautiques, formerly Lignes Latécoère).
Air Union and les Lignes Farman operated flights in Western Europe. The Compagnie Internationale de Navigation Aérienne ( CIDNA), formerly Franco-Roumaine, flew to Eastern Europe, and Air Orient set up in 1930, from Air Union-Lignes d'Orient, formerly Messageries Transaériennes, extended its network to the Far East.
Conquering the Skies
This was the time of the pioneering spirit, of eminent personalities and magnificent feats : Didier Daurat, Director of Operations for Lignes Latécoère and later Aéropostale, Jean Mermoz, Henri Guillaumet, Marcel Reine, Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Paul Vachet, Raymond Vanier, Jean Dabry, Georges Pivot, Léo Gimié, and many pilots and mechanics took great risks to take the mail as far as Santiago in Chile. Meanwhile Maurice Noguès pioneered new routes to Asia, and Jean Dagnaux to Africa.
Commercial air transport began with the carriage of mail. At the time, passenger transportation was developing fast, but was still reserved for a very select few ( only 6786 passengers in 1922) .
From 1923 to 1933, the French airline network grew fivefold.
1933 - 1939 The Birth of Air France
The financial crisis in the early 1930s, which inevitably left its mark on civil aviation, and the political determination of Pierre Cot, Minister of Aviation, resulted in the first major restructuring of the French air transport industry in 1933.
In 1933, Air Orient, Air Union, the Société Générale de Transport Aérien ( S.G.T.A. formerly Lignes Farman) and the C.I.D.N.A. ( formerly Franco-Roumaine), started up a joint airline named Société Centrale pour l'Exploitation de Lignes Aériennes ( S.C.E.L.A.). The airline was named Air France, in August 1933, following the takeover of the assets of the bankrupt Aéropostale. Air France was officially inaugurated at the Paris-Le Bourget Airport on 7 october 1933. Using the Air Orient winged seahorse logo, it moved into Air Orient's offices at 2, rue Marbeuf in Paris.
Modernizing the network
The main tasks of Air France's executives were to upgrade the 37,800-km network covering Europe, the Mediterranean region and South America, and destinations along the Saigon route. They also had to streamline the very mixed fleet of 259 aircraft of 31 different types. This was done using only French aircraft, such as the Bloch 220, Potez 62, Breguet Wibault 282 and the Dewoitine 338, which cruised at a speed of 250 km/hr.
The arrival of the Dewoitine 338 in Asia in 1938 reduced the flight time between Marseille and Saigon to 6 days ( 5 as from 1939) with no change of aircraft.
Comfort and safety
Comfort and safety were the two priorities of the brand new airline, which provided luggage racks, individual fans, heating, and the highly appreciated service of a steward. In terms of piloting, the introduction of radio goniometry meant that the plane could be flown in conditions of reduced visibility, which was quite a feat at the time.
1938 ended well for Air France, which, with 100 aircraft, boasted the world's third largest network ( 46,500 km), divided into four regions : Continental Europe including London with 4 daily flights, North Africa, South America and the Far East, via the Middle East. It carried 104,424 passengers (52,100 in 1933), 1,368 tonnes of cargo (973 tonnes in 1933), and 882 tonnes of mail ( 153 tonnes in 1933).
The war interrupted this expansion, the financing of which was still somewhat uncertain.
1940- 1945 Expansion interrupted by the war
On the eve of the W II, as the airline industry entered trhe world economy, French air travel services were provided by five airlines : Air France and its subsidiary Air France Transatlantique ( for North America), Aéromaritime, specialized in Central Africa, Air Afrique ( which, in 1937, brought together L.A.N.A., Lignes Aériennes Nord Africaines, the Régie Air Afrique, and the Régie Malgache) and Air Bleu, set up in 1935, for domestic mail transport, by Beppo de Massimi, with Didier Daurat, as Director of Operations.
Air France significantly reduced its operations during the war. In 1941, a network of Lignes Aériennes Militaires ( LAM) was set up in Damascus. Run by Lionel de Marmier, under the authority of the General de Gaulle, its purpose was to link up the territories of Free France. It was replaced in early 1945 by the Réseau des Lignes Aériennes Françaises ( R.L.A.F.).
On June 26, 1945, the French civil aviation industry was nationalized and the former private company Air France became state-owned. A decision on December 29,1945 terminated the activities of the RLAF and turned the entire French airline network over to the Société Nationale Air France.
In 1945, Air france and the French Postal Services set up thre Centre d'Exploitation Postale, called the Postale de Nuit (night mail). It was run by Didier Daurat to begin with, and then by Raymond Vanier as of 1st January 1948.
The network then covered 160000 km, the largest in the world.
1946 - 1948 Reconstruction
Now that the war, with the inevitable misery and destruction, was over, an abundance of Douglas DC3 and DC4 surplus American aircraft and the construction of the French Bloch 161 Languedoc new technology aircraft enabled French air transport to take off again. Air travel was gradually changing, increasingly becoming the rule rather than the exception.
Air France became a member of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) as well as of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), founded in 1945, and took its place among the world's major airlines. The French Government authorized the setting up of new airlines, the TAI ( Transports Aériens Intercontinentaux) in 1946, and SATI in 1948, which subsequently became UAT ( Union Aéromaritime de Transport) in 1949.
A new dimension
In March of 1946, the first stewardesses appeared, and in June the first students took the entrance exam to the Ecole des Apprentis de Vilgenis. The Paris-Invalides Terminal opened, with buses providing transportation from Paris to the Airport.
On 1 July of the same year, the Paris-New-York routewas officially inaugurated, operated by a DC4 with a flight time of 19 hours and 50 minutes. In 1947, Air France and the French Postal Services set up the Centre d'Exploitation Postale, called the Postale de Nuit (night mail). It was run by Didier Daurat to begin with, and then by Raymond Vanier as from 1st January 1948.
The network then covered 160 000 km, the largest in the world.
Air France regained its position among the world's leading airlines. It operated a fleet of 130 aircraft and got off to a flying start over the next few years. From January 1, 1946 to December 31, 1948, the number of staff averaging 31 years old more than doubled, going from 6,033 to 13,725. 61% of these had been with the company less than 2 years.
1949 - 1959 Soaring high
In 1948, Air France became a National Company, a state-owned corporation governed by the Civil Aviation Code. Passenger traffic increased by an average of 14% per year.
A new airport
The Paris-Orly Airport, opened to air traffic in 1946. It handled long-haul flights only until it took over medium-haul flights from Le Bourget in 1952. The network continued to expand. In 1953, it covered 250 000 km (46 500 km in 1938). The fleet was modernized. In January 1954, it included the Douglas DC3 and DC4, but also the Bloch 161 "Languedoc" and Vickers Viscount, whose comfort was particularly appreciated by passengers. They also liked the solid Bréguet Deux Ponts and the grand Lockheed Constellation flying steamships that crossed the Atlantic on a daily basis.
The golden age
This was the golden age of civil aviation. The Air France luxury services, the Epicurien flight to London and the Parisian special to New-York were known all over the world. The New York service offered private cabins and gourmet meals on board the Super Constellation. The French airline particularly focused on its customers' enjoyment, offering them Champagne and hot meals as early as September 1949.
Air Inter was set up on November 12, 1954, on the initiative of a group of private sector carriers and bankers. Its mission was to promote a streamlined network of domestic air services between French cities. In 1955 several companies invested in Air Inter, including Air France (24%), The French Railways-SNCF (24%), and the Caisse des dépôts et consignations (4%). On march 16, 1958, it operated its first flight to Strasbourg, but its scheduled passenger operations only really started in 1960.
1960 - 1973 Jet era and modernization
Jet propulsion was responsible for the significant changes in air transport in the early 1960s.
Air France was one of the first international airlines to acquire jets. After the De Havilland Comet, grounded for technical reasons, Air France put into service the Caravelle and the Boeing B707 in 1959/1960, for which it had signed purchasing agreements in 1956. According to the slogan of the day, Air France operated "the best two jets on the largest network in the world, which then on covered 350,000 km.
The last long-haul aircraft with propellers were withdrawn from operation in 1966.
With the Boeing B707, flight time was cut in half. New York was now only 8 hours and 10 minutes from Paris. Los Angeles and Rio de Janeiro were served by non-stop flights. Time-savings were coupled with a comfort till then unheard of. After TAI, the precursor, Air France was one of the first airlines to introduce movies on long-haul flights.
As for Air Inter, it provided services on a tight-knit domestic network, purchased Vickers Viscounts and offered as early as 1963, the world's firts air travel saver cards.
In 1969, an Air Inter Caravelle made the first All Weather Landing.
In 1961, Air France set up its operations and workshops in the extended and modernised buildings of the Paris-Orly Airport.
A new organization
On February 1, 1963, the French Government decided to redistribute international traffic rights and assigned routes in West (except Dakar), Central and Southern Africa, the Pacific and the US West Coast to the private-sector airline, UTA, which resulted from the merger of UAT and TAI in 1963.
An international Dimension
From 1963 to 1970, Air France was increasingly subject to international competition. The share of international traffic in the airline's total traffic exceeded 90% in 1966. It increased at an average yearly rate of 7,5%, less however than that of the previous period.
In 1965, Air France moved its head office to the Paris-Montparnasse district.
New aircraft were put into service, the medium-haul Boeing 727 (1968) and the long-haul Boeing 747 (1970), the century's biggest passenger airliner which could carry some 500 passengers. It added a new dimension to the passenger air transport industry. The Orly Ouest Terminal, well adapted to domestic traffic, opened in 1971
Expansion of air freight
In 1972, Air France set up a cargo division and developed this activity, which grew considerably. In 1974 the Boeing 747 freighter, known as the Super Pelican joined the fleet of Boeing 707 freighters known as the Pelican (1965). Air France thus became one of the leading airlines for the transport of air freight and mail.
At the same time, new computer systems were implemented : ALPHA 3 and GAETAN by Air France, UTAMATIC by UTA, and ARMA and SIRENE by Air Inter. They brought a greater flexibility and additional time-savings to the booking process.
1974 - 1989 Mass air travel and new technologies
The arrival of wide-bodied aircraft with 300 to 500 seats ( Airbus A300, Boeing 747) opened up air travel to a larger number of people. However, it coincided with the world economic crisis and rising fuel prices triggered by the first oil crisis in 1973, followed by the second in 1979.
This shook up the economics of air travel and competition became even fiercer. Price wars, the haphazard development of charter airlines, and chronic overcapacity characterized this period.
Air France coped with the situation by diversifying its offer and developing its cargo operations. It became one of the first airlines in the world to become committed to developing mass air travel, notably with travel promotions such as Vols Vacances (1979). It introduced its Business Class (1981), followed by Air France Le Club (1983) to meet the demands of its business customers.
As for Air Inter, the French domestic carrier innovated with tricolour flights and tiered pricing depending on flight times.
Paris-Charles de Gaulle Terminal 1
In 1974, Air France and UTA moved into the new airport, Paris-Charles de Gaulle terminal 1. Air France was the launch airline for the Airbus A300, Europe's first medium-haul wide-bodied aircraft. UTA operated the Douglas DC10, first flying it in 1973 as part of the technical cooperation with KLM, SAS and Swissair (KSSU Group)
Paris-Charles de Gaulle Terminal 2
In 1982, Air France moved into the state-of-the-art terminal at Paris-Charles de Gaulle terminal 2. It served as a base for conquering the European market with a small medium-sized aircraft, the Boeing 737, which replaced the Caravelle.
Supersonic air travel
On January 21, 1976, Air France introduced the supersonic Concorde on the Paris-Dakar-Rio de Janeiro route. The pride of the French and British aeronautics industry, it came onto the scene at a difficult time from an economic point of view. No aircraft built since has fulfilled such dreams as has the Concorde. It flew at Mach 2,02 speed ( 2,200 km/ph).
In 1983, Air France celebrated its 50th birthday. With a workforce of 34,600 employees, a fleet of 99 aircraft and a network covering 634,400 km with 150 destinations in 73 countries, it was impressive. It ranked 4th worldwide for the number of passengers carried, and 2nd worldwide for cargo. It was the 3rd ranking French export company, and the first-ranking French service export company.
In June 1987, Air France Iberia, Lufthansa and SAS jointly developed a new global distribution system (GDS) - AMADEUS - which was able to compete with the large-scale American systems.
In July 1987, Air France introduced in-flight video on all its long-haul Airbus A300, then on all its Boeing 747.
In 1988, Air France and Air Inter took a major technological step forward with the Airbus A 320, the first fly-by-wire plane.
On July 1, 1988, the deregulation of the European air transport industry, due to be fully implemented by 1993, was gradually phased in. Competition increased significantly and became the norm.
1990 - 1998 Recovery and profitable growth
The Air France Group
In the early 1990s, the economic crisis hit airlines worldwide and led to a series of mergers. Air France, UTA and Air Inter merged to form one of the world's largest air transport groups, the Air France Group, on January 12, 1990 (after Air France acquires UTA stake)
Back to profitability
Air France developed a staff-backed, wide-scale strategic plan, the Corporate Plan, which covered the period 1994-1996.
The company caught up with its rivals by building the Paris-Charles de Gaulle 2 hub, introducing new products, launching sophisticated revenue management and pricing, tools and techniques, and finally implementing a very stringent cost-cutting policy.
At the end of the 1996-1997 financial year, the results came in : Air France was profitable once again.
In 1995, Air France set up its head office at Roissy at the heart of its operations. By upgrading its products, the Company offered its customers a new concept in air travel, particularly with the new seat-bed in the Espace Première cabin and an entire range of new ground and in-fligt services.
During the same year, Air France was the launch carrier for the Airbus A340, a wide-bodied long-haul aircraft with an operating range of 14,350 km. It enabled Air France to increase its non-stop services on long-haul routes ( 252 seats), and went into operation two years after the roll-out of the Boeing 747-400 super jumbo jet.
Paris-Charles de Gaulle 2 Hub
1996 sawf the opening of the Paris-Charles de Gaulle 2 hub. It enables rapid connections between short, medium and long-haul flights operated by Air France and some thirty companies, through a single transfer airport. It is Europe's most efficient hub with 14,000 medium and long-haul flight connections opportunities a week.
La Navette shuttle service
That same year, the Navette shuttle service was launched from Paris-Orly to Marseille, Nice and Toulouse, then Bordeaux in 1999. It strengthened Air France's position in Europe's biggest domestic market.
Air France merges with Air Inter
After completion of the UTA/Air France merger in 1992, Air Inter, already indirectly under Air France's control, merged with the Company on April 1, 1997
On June 3,1998, Air France was renamed Société Air France.
At the same time, Air France continued to expand. Over thirty agreements and alliances were signed or developed with US carriers such as Delta Air Lines, and also with European, Asian and African carriers.
1998 marked the arrival of the Boeing 777-200ER with an operating range of 12,945 km, fully loaded with 270 passengers, and a range of 11,200 km with an additional 12 tonnes of cargo. During October, the new cargo terminal G1XL, Europe's largest cargo hub, was opened at Roissy.
The Paris-Charles de Gaulle 2 Hub continued to expand with the opening of the very modern Hall F in 1999.
Air France launched its 1999-2002 Corporate Plan aimed at evolving from a national carrier to a world-class airline major.
Initial Public Offering
In February 1999, the Company successfully completed its IPO, with 2.4 million individual shareholders. Its share capital reached 3.15 billion Euros. Over 72% of the staff became shareholders in their company, gaining an 11.8% stake in capital.
1999 - 2006 A global alliance
On June 22,1999, Air France and Delta Air Lines signed a long-term agreement, laying the foundations for a global alliance.
Air France ended its 1999-2000 financial year showing better growth than any other European carrier. It posted consolidated operating revenues of FF 67.7 billion ( 10.3 billion euros), up 13.5%, net operating income of FF 2.4 billion (0.36 billion euros), up 34.1%, and a net profit of FF 2.3 billion ( 0.35 billion euros), up 42%.
These results endorsed its strategy of profitable growth.
The birth of SkyTeam
On June 22, 2000, four major airlines : Aeromexico, Air France, Delta Air Lines and Korean Air, launched SkyTeam, a powerful global alliance, focused entirely on customers and aimed at meeting their expectations with high quality, seamless service.
SkyTeam offers one of the world's largest networks, with 4 strategically located hubs in Asia, Europe, Latin America and the United States. The alliance provides connecting opportunities with over 6,400 flights daily to 451 destinations in 98 countries. SkyTeam operates more non-stop flights between the US and Europe than any other alliance, and covers an area which generates half the world's air traffic.
It also benefits from two hubs that are among the world's leading airports in terms of development potential : Paris-Charles de Gaulle 2 for Air France, and Seoul Inchon, Korean Air's hub.
With the new global alliance which flies over 174 million passengers a year and boasts 985 aircraft ( passenger and cargo ), Air France is ready to take off into the new millennium. Its recent investments in major regional carriers ( Proteus, Regional Airlines, BritAir) have enabled it to strengthen its position on the French market and in regional air services.