Part of Europe's largest airline group pins hopes on trendy offering for younger demographic
Air France targets millennials with new carrier Joon
In challenging times for commercial aviation, launching a new airline seems a risky venture - but that is what Air France, which has become Europe’s biggest airline group since merging with KLM in 2004, has just done with its new lower-cost Joon subsidiary.
The industry’s troubles have been highlighted by the collapse of Monarch in Britain’s biggest airline failure after it posted losses of £291 million (Dh1.4bn) for 2016. More than 2,000 staff are losing their jobs.
Ryanair, whose chief executive Michael O’Leary had controversially - but in the event accurately - predicted Monarch would not survive the winter, is embroiled in a crisis of its own.
This has been portrayed in the UK media as a “fiasco” after more than 20,000 flights were cancelled, causing enormous disruption to customers, over what it claims were errors in crew rostering arrangements. Mr O’Leary admits the company “messed up”.
The German government has been forced to prop up Air Berlin after Etihad withdrew financial support. The Italian airline Alitalia, in which Etihad is the largest shareholder, filed for bankruptcy in May after employees rejected a cost-cutting plan and it is now up for sale.
But Air France believes it has found a potential winner in Joon, a lower-cost service aimed at so-called millennials, consumers aged 18-35 who are “digitally savvy and like simplicity” and whose own purchasing practices have a significant influence on more general developments in consumer choice.
Air France says this group is “hyper-consuming”, with almost nine in 10 having taken between one and three long-haul flights during the past year.
The gap it has spotted and wants to fill is that while millennials account for 38 per cent of air travellers, only 22 per cent of its own passengers fit the description.
With its short, snappy name, adopted after extensive market research among potential customers, the carrier aims, in its own words, to break with convention.
Traditional national airlines have been forced to rethink their strategies as budget-conscious passengers have increasingly turned to low-cost options, from Ryanair and EasyJet to relative newcomers, notably Norwegian, previously called Norwegian Air Shuttle, and Iceland’s Wow.
Air France says Joon is pitched between low-cost and the traditional carriers. The first routes, to be introduced in December, are short haul, taking passengers from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport to Barcelona (51 flights a week), Berlin (37) and two Portuguese cities, the capital Lisbon (28) and Porto (three). Fortaleza in Brazil (two) and the Mahe in the Seychelles (three) will be added next May.
Fares will range from €39 (Dh168), tax included, for a single ticket to the German, Spanish and Portuguese destinations and €249 and €299 for Brazil and the Seychelles respectively. Wi-Fi will be available on board, USB charging sockets will be installed for each seat and passengers are promised a digital new look at in-flights entertainment.
By 2020, the airline is expected to be flying a fleet of 10 long-haul and 18 short-haul Airbus planes and to have recruited a total of 1,000 cabin crew.
For Jean-Michel Mathieu, the chief executive of Joon, the new subsidiary is intended to offer a different option to travellers “in a spirit of creativity, innovation and agility. Joon is Air France’s little sister, who breaks with tradition and takes inspiration from the new expectations of travellers to offer an experience that goes beyond the aircraft doors.”
Speaking from his office in Paris, Mr Mathieu tells The National he is unwilling to discuss the issues facing other airlines. But he readily acknowledges the obstacles to success or even stability given the industry’s present state.
“For Air France-KLM, there is fierce competition from the low-cost and [Arabian] Gulf airlines,” he says. “In this changed environment, we need constantly to adapt. That is why we really need Joon, to provide a new tool the better to compete on some routes against this competition.”
Declining to be drawn into controversy between Gulf and other international carriers, especially in the US, Mr Mathieu says only: “We love competition but we love fair competition.”
He is the first to recognise that Joon benefits from the back-up of Air France’s engineering, maintenance and ticketing facilities. And he believes Joon’s developing “test and learn" approach, one that Air France might find “more costly and complex", will in turn aid the parent airline. He also says the addition of an unspecified Middle East route is under consideration.
Franck Terner, chief executive of Air France, adds that “Joon is a new model of airline, between a traditional and low-cost airline, a new travel experience for all customers”.
He describes the launch as part of a strategic plan called Trust Together, announced last year with a mission to devise new ways for Air France-KLM to trade more competitively.
Joon executives are eager to talk up an array of innovations intended to portray the airline in a trendy and zestful light.
From the livery of the aircraft to seat design and “chic sportswear" staff uniforms of slimline trousers, sneakers, sailor stripes and a sleeveless quilted jacket, the dominant colour will be “electric blue".
Joon is even calling itself a fashion brand and a “rooftop bar" as well as an airline in publicity material.
A promotional film is accompanied by a soundtrack by the electro pop group Blanche Palace. In-flight services will include organic food - catering free in business class, paid-for in economy, although everyone gets a free drink after take-off - and entertainment “in tune with the times".
“We wanted to create a direct, friendly and authentic brand," says Caroline Fontaine, the global brand vice president at Air France, emphasising what she calls Joon's “fun spirit". “The choice of this electric blue immediately illustrates this strong identity.”
The concept is open to both praise and mockery. Mr Mathieu makes light of the criticism of those who question either the gimmicks or the attempt to appeal to 18-35-year-olds, insisting that Joon is “not just for younger generations”. On sales of tickets for the first flights, he reports that “it’s working pretty well”.
In farsi, the new airline’s name is a term of affection, often used in conjunction with a person’s name - and can also apply to a good-looking young woman or man, or something seen as “cool”.
“If Joon translates as good-looking girl or guy,” Mr Mathieu says, “that’s not a problem for us.”