Formation and early years
The inauguration of the Aérogare des Invalides on 21 August 1951
Air France was formed on 7 October 1933, from a merger of Air Orient, Air Union, Compagnie Générale Aéropostale, Compagnie Internationale de Navigation Aérienne (CIDNA) and Société Générale des Transports Aériens (SGTA). Of these airlines, SGTA was the first commercial airline company in France, having been founded as Lignes Aériennes Farman in 1919. The constituent members of Air France had already built extensive networks across Europe, to French colonies in North Africa and farther afield. During World War II, Air France moved its operations to Casablanca (Morocco).
In 1936, Air France added French-built twin engine Potez 62 aircraft to its fleet featuring a two compartment cabin that could accommodate 14 to 16 passengers. A high wing monoplane, it had a wooden fuselage with composite coating while the wings were fabric covered with a metal leading edge. Equipped with Hispano-Suiza V-engines, they were used on routes in Europe, South America and the Far East. Although cruising at only 175 miles per hour, the Potez 62 was a robust and reliable workhorse for Air France and remained in service until the Second World War with one used by the Free French Air Force.
1936 Air France ad for service using Potez 62
On 26 June 1945 all of France's air transport companies were nationalised. On 29 December 1945, a decree of the French Government granted Air France the management of the entire French air transport network. Air France appointed its first flight attendants in 1946. The same year the airline opened its first air terminal at Les Invalides in central Paris. It was linked to Paris Le Bourget Airport, Air France's first operations and engineering base, by coach. At that time the network covered 160,000 km, claimed to be the longest in the world. Société Nationale Air France was set up on 1 January 1946.
European schedules were initially operated by a fleet of Douglas DC-3 aircraft. On 1 July 1946, Air France started direct flights between Paris and New York via refuelling stops at Shannon and Gander. Douglas DC-4 piston-engine airliners covered the route in just under 20 hours. In September 1947 Air France's network stretched east from New York, Fort de France and Buenos Aires to Shanghai.
By 1948 Air France operated 130 aircraft, one of the largest fleets in the world. Between 1947 and 1965 the airline operated Lockheed Constellations on passenger and cargo services worldwide. In 1946 and 1948, respectively, the French government authorised the creation of two private airlines: Transports Aériens Internationaux – later Transports Aériens Intercontinentaux – (TAI) and SATI. In 1949 the latter became part of Union Aéromaritime de Transport (UAT), a private French international airline.
Compagnie Nationale Air France was created by act of parliament on 16 June 1948. Initially, the government held 70%. In subsequent years the French state's direct and indirect shareholdings reached almost 100%. In mid-2002 the state held 54%.
On 4 August 1948 Max Hymans was appointed the president. During his 13-year tenure he would implement modernisation practices centred on the introduction of jet aircraft. In 1949 the company became a co-founder of Société Internationale de Télécommunications Aéronautiques (SITA), an airline telecommunications services company.
Jet age re-organization
Passengers disembarking from a Sud-Est SE-161
In 1952 Air France moved its operations and engineering base to the new Paris Orly Airport South terminal. By then the network covered 250,000 km. Air France entered the jet age in 1953 with the original, short-lived de Havilland Comet series 1, the world's first jetliner.
During the mid-1950s it also operated the Vickers Viscount turboprop, with twelve entering services between May 1953 and August 1954 on the European routes. On 26 September, 1953, the government instructed Air France to share long-distance routes with new private airlines. This was followed by the Ministry of Public Works and Transport's imposition of an accord on Air France, Aigle Azur, TAI and UAT, under which some routes to Africa, Asia and the Pacific region were transferred to private carriers.
On 23 February 1960, the Ministry of Public Works and Transport transferred Air France's domestic monopoly to Air Inter. To compensate for the loss of its domestic network Air France was given a stake in Air Inter. The following day Air France was instructed to share African routes with Air Afrique and UAT.
The airline started uninterrupted jet operations in 1960 with the Sud Aviation Caravelle and the Boeing 707; jet airliners cut travel times in half and improved comfort. Air France later became an early Boeing 747 operator and eventually had one of the world's largest 747 fleets.
Air France Caravelle jetliner in 1977
On 1 February 1963 the government formalised division of routes between Air France and its private sector rivals. Air France was to withdraw services to West Africa (except Senegal), Central Africa (except Burundi and Rwanda), Southern Africa (including South Africa), Libya in North Africa, Bahrain and Oman in the Middle East, Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) in South Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore in Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand as well as New Caledonia and Tahiti. These routes were allocated to the new Union de Transports Aériens (UTA), a new private airline resulting from the merger of TAI and UAT. UTA also got exclusive rights between Japan, New Caledonia and New Zealand, South Africa and Réunion island in the Indian Ocean, as well as Los Angeles and Tahiti.
From 1974, Air France began shifting the bulk of operations to the new Charles de Gaulle Airport north of Paris. By the early 1980s, only Corsica, Martinique, Guadeloupe, most services to French Guiana, Réunion, the Maghreb region, Eastern Europe (except the USSR), Southern Europe (except Greece and Italy), and one daily service to New York (JFK) remained at Orly. In 1974, Air France also became the world's first operator of the Airbus A300 twin-engine widebody plane, Airbus Industrie's first commercial airliner for which it was a launch customer.
Concorde service and rivalry
On 21 January 1976, Air France operated its inaugural supersonic transport (SST) service on the Paris (Charles de Gaulle) to Rio (via Dakar) route with Anglo-French BAC-Aérospatiale Concorde F-BVFA. Supersonic services from Paris (CDG) to Washington Dulles International Airport began on 24 May 1976, also with F-BVFA. Service to New York (JFK) – the only remaining Concorde service until its end – commenced on 22 November 1977. Paris to New York was flown in 3 hours 23 minutes, at about twice the speed of sound. Approval for flights to the United States was initially withheld due to noise protests. Eventually, services to Mexico City via Washington, D.C. were started. Air France became one of only two airlines – British Airways being the other – to regularly operate supersonic services, and continued daily transatlantic Concorde service until late May 2003.
By 1983, Air France's golden jubilee, the workforce numbered more than 34,000, its fleet about 100 jet aircraft (including 33 Boeing 747s) and its 634,400 km network served 150 destinations in 73 countries. This made Air France the fourth-largest scheduled passenger airline in the world, as well as the second-largest scheduled freight carrier. Air France also codeshared with regional French airlines, TAT being the most prominent. TAT would later operate several regional international routes on behalf of Air France. In 1983 Air France began passenger flights to South Korea, being the first European airline to do so.
In 1986 the government relaxed its policy of dividing traffic rights for scheduled services between Air France, Air Inter and UTA, without route overlaps between them. The decision opened some of Air France's most lucrative routes on which it had enjoyed a government-sanctioned monopoly since 1963 and which were within its exclusive sphere of influence, to rival airlines, notably UTA. The changes enabled UTA to launch scheduled services to new destinations within Air France's sphere, in competition with that airline.
Paris-San Francisco became the first route UTA served in competition with Air France non-stop from Paris. Air France responded by extending some non-stop Paris-Los Angeles services to Papeete, Tahiti, which competed with UTA on Los Angeles-Papeete. UTA's ability to secure traffic rights outside its traditional sphere in competition with Air France was the result of a campaign to lobby the government to enable it to grow faster, becoming more dynamic and more profitable. This infuriated Air France.
In 1987 Air France together with Lufthansa, Iberia and SAS founded Amadeus, an IT company (also known as a GDS) that would enable travel agencies to sell the founders and other airlines' products from a single system.
In 1988, Air France was a launch customer for the fly-by-wire (FBW) A320 narrowbody twin, along with Air Inter and British Caledonian. It became the first airline to take delivery of the A320 in March 1988, and along with Air Inter became the first airlines to introduce Airbus A320 service on short-haul routes.
Acquisitions and privatisation
On 12 January 1990, the operations of government-owned Air France, semi-public Air Inter and wholly private Union de Transports Aériens (UTA) were merged into an enlarged Air France. Air France's acquisition of UTA and Air Inter was part of an early 1990s government plan to create a unified, national air carrier with the economies of scale and global reach to counter potential threats from the liberalisation of the EU's internal air transport market.
On 25 July 1994, a new holding company, Groupe Air France, was set up by decree. Groupe Air France became operational on 1 September 1994. It acquired the Air France group's majority shareholdings in Air France and Air Inter (subsequently renamed Air Inter Europe). On 31 August 1994, Stephen Wolf, a former United Airlines CEO, was appointed adviser to the Air France group's chairman Christian Blanc. Wolf was credited with the introduction of Air France's hub and spoke operation at Paris Charles de Gaulle. (Wolf resigned in 1996 to take over as CEO at US Airways.)
In 1997, Air France Europe was absorbed into Air France. On 19 February 1999, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's Plural Left government approved Air France's partial privatisation. Its shares were listed on the Paris stock exchange on 22 February 1999. In June 1999, Air France and Delta Air Lines formed a bilateral transatlantic partnership. On 22 June 2000, this expanded into the SkyTeam global airline alliance.
Air France-KLM merger
The merger of Air France and KLM occurred in 2004
On 30 September 2003, Air France and Netherlands-based KLM Royal Dutch Airlines announced the merger of the two airlines, the new company to be known as Air France-KLM. The merger became reality on 5 May 2004. At that point former Air France shareholders owned 81% of the new firm (44% owned by the French state, 37% by private shareholders), former KLM shareholders the rest. The decision of the Jean-Pierre Raffarin government to reduce the French state's shareholding in the former Air France group from 54.4% to 44% of the newly created Air France-KLM Group effectively privatised the new airline. In December 2004 the state sold 18.4% of its equity in Air France-KLM. The state's shareholding in Air France-KLM subsequently fell to just under 20%.
Air France-KLM became the largest airline in the world in terms of operating revenues, and third-largest (largest in Europe) in passenger kilometres. Although owned by a single company, Air France and KLM continued to fly under their own brand names. Air France-KLM remained part of the SkyTeam alliance, which then included Aeroflot, Delta Air Lines, Aeroméxico, Korean Air, Czech Airlines, Alitalia, Northwest Airlines, China Southern Airlines, Air Europa, Continental Airlines, Garuda Indonesia, Vietnam Airlines and Saudi Arabian Airlines. As of March 2004, Air France employed 71,654 people. As of March 2007, the airline employed 102,422 personnel.
Open Skies venture
On 17 October 2007, the creation of a profit and revenue-sharing transatlantic joint venture between Air France-KLM and Delta Air Lines was announced during a press conference at Air France-KLM's headquarters. The venture became effective on 29 March 2008. It aimed to exploit transatlantic opportunities to capture a major share of long-haul business traffic from London Heathrow Airport, which opened to unrestricted competition on that day as a result of the "Open Skies" pact between the EU and US. It was envisaged that Air France and Delta would begin nine daily round trips between London-Heathrow and destinations in the US, including a daily London (Heathrow) to Los Angeles service by Air France. Once the new Air France-Delta venture received antitrust immunity, it was to be extended to the other two transatlantic SkyTeam partners, enabling all four partners to codeshare flights as well as to share revenue and profit.
The new transatlantic joint venture marks the Air France-KLM Group's second major expansion in the London market, following the launch of CityJet-operated short-haul services from London City Airport that have been aimed at business travellers in the City's financial services industry. However, the daily London (Heathrow) to Los Angeles service was not as successful as hoped, and was discontinued in November 2008.
On 12 January 2012, Air France-KLM announced a three-year transformation plan, called Transform 2015, to restore profitability. The plan was to restore competitiveness through cost-cutting, restructuring the short- and medium-haul operations and rapidly reducing debt. The main objective of this plan was to turn Air France-KLM back into a world player by 2015. Air France had been losing 700 million euros a year. As the financial results of 2011 demonstrated, the long-haul operations, also subject to increasing competition, would not be able to offset these losses. On 22 February 2012, Air France released its plan for the summer schedule. Because of the uncertain economic environment, Air France-KLM set a limit of 1.4% maximum increase in capacity from 25 March 2012 – 28 October 2012.
On 21 June 2012, Air France-KLM had announced its decision to cut just under 10% of the total 53,000 workforce (about 5,000 jobs) by the end of 2013 in an attempt to restore profitability. The airline expected to lose 1,700 jobs through natural turnover and the rest by voluntary redundancies. As of August 2012, the Transform 2015 plan was accepted by ground staff and pilot unions but rejected by cabin crew unions.
At the beginning of July 2012, it was announced that Air France-KLM found partners for the new African start-up airline Air france, which was co-founded by six countries in Central Africa to replace the former Air Afrique. But several problems and two partners, who decided to back out, delayed the implementation of the project. Following its launch, Air france announced it would commence operations in 2013.
In September 2013, Air France introduced a brand new Economy product along with an improved Premium Economy seat and service. It is expected that the new improvements would be fitted on aircraft from June 2014 onwards. In October 2013, Air France-KLM announced it was writing off the 25% stake in Alitalia, as it was hesitant the struggling carrier would obtain the 300 million euros in financing. The group has denied Alitalia of additional funds as it is currently struggling to restructure itself to profitability with the Transform 2015 plan.
In December 2013, Air France announced that Cityjet no longer meets the short haul needs of the group and is in the process of closing a deal with German firm Intro Aviation by the end of Q1 of 2014.
In 2014, the airline was targeted by a negative publicity campaign, spearheaded by PETA, for being the only major airline that permits the transport of primates for research.
On 4 February 2014, the new business product was unveiled, featuring a fully flat bed from Zodiac Aerospace. The seat was fitted on Boeing 777 aircraft from June 2014 onwards. In September 2014, Air France announced it would sell a 3 percent stake in travel technology company Amadeus IT Group for $438 million.
Late in 2015, Air France faced a financial crisis, which was exacerbated by a pilot's strike against the airline. The airline answered the strike by announcing it would cut some 2,900 jobs. In December 2015, Air France announced the retirement of its last Boeing 747-400 with a special scenic flight on 14 January 2016. The airline operated the 747 in several variants since 1970.
In January 2017, Air France received its first Boeing 787-9.
In November 2017, CityJet no longer operated on Air France flights and the affected destinations were served by Air France and HOP! from then on.
In July 2017, Air France-KLM entered into a multi-airline strategic partnership with Delta Air Lines, China Eastern Airlines and Virgin Atlantic Airways, solidifying the existing ties between the carriers. Under the agreement Delta and China Eastern would each buy 10% of Air France-KLM, while Air France-KLM would buy 31% of Virgin Atlantic.
Air France announced it would terminate services to Iran from September 2018, explaining the concern that the route to Iran is no longer commercially viable due to the redefined US sanctions.