French all-business class carrier La Compagnie has taken delivery of its first Airbus A321 neo aircraft, and will operate the jet on its Paris Orly-Newark route from next month.
The aircraft has been undertaking a crew familiarisation “tour” around France ahead of its inaugural scheduled transatlantic service on June 6.
The A321 neo is configured with 76 seats (two more than the carrier’s current B757s) in a 2-2 layout, and crucially will offer the fully-flat Diamond seat by Collins Aerospace, compared with the angled lie-flat seat on the B757.
There will also be free wifi for all passengers, and new seatback IFE screens (compared to the Samsung Galaxy tablets used on the existing B757s).
As previously reported, the A321 will operate the morning flights from Paris Orly, arriving into Newark at 1300, and the 1900 service from Newark, landing into Paris at 0840 the following day.
Speaking to Business Traveller, La Compagnie’s EVP and co-founder Jean-Charles Perino explained the plans for the carrier’s fleet following the introduction of the A321.
“The second A321 will be entering the fleet in September, and we plan to retire one of our existing B757s in late September, keeping the other one. In other words we’ll be moving from a two-aircraft airline to a three-aircraft airline,” Perino said.
“At this time we are concentrating on our existing routes, on top of which we are developing a charter business occasionally. The retention of the B757 will help us to bridge the situation for future development. But at this point we are not reviewing new routes.”
La Compagnie took the decision to switch from Paris CDG to Orly last year, and with the finishing of the first phase of the airport’s transition into a single-terminal facility, Perino feels the decision was well made.
“Orly is a very small airport compared to CDG, very close to the city centre, in the heart of our catchment area, and on top of that Orly is a huge connection point to other European destinations, either in France or in Europe, and we know that self-connecting business is increasing.
“This is why, not only for Parisians but also for New Yorkers coming to Paris, the efficiency of Orly made great sense for La Compagnie, and on top of that we could then develop the self-connecting business, which is more and more an important part of our passenger numbers.
“For example, there are some flights from Orly to Switzerland which help us to pick up a bit of traffic, and on top of that we have the French provinces, as well as some other destinations in Italy and Spain.
“So it’s a mix of either French destinations ex-Orly, or other European destinations that are either underserved or with direct [transatlantic] flights with a very high price tag, and when the price tag is very high this is where the people are fishing for an alternative.”
“It’s very good news that the end of the work on the first phase is coming, and with the arrival of our Airbus A321 neos, the customer will be experiencing the best of Orly after the work that has been done the last two or three years.”
La Compagnie also partners with Easyjet, allowing customers to self-connect through its Worldwide by Easyjet service.
The move to Orly also sees La Compagnie differentiate itself from Air France on the Paris-New York route both in terms of departure and arrival airport (Air France operates between Paris CDG and New York JFK), although it does now compete with IAG low-cost subsidiary Level on the Orly-Newark route, albeit with a very different offering.
“Level is going at a different market than the one we are serving,” said Perino.
“We are definitely on the same route but not exactly competitors, because we are not after the very low-cost leisure segment of the market. Even though we are competing for money, our price tag starts anywhere around €1,200 round-trip from Paris to New York, where Level is way below that.”
This month also saw the launch of a new seasonal Nice-Newark route, which will operate until the end of October. It’s early days, but Perino said that “we are strong believers that there is a market” for the service.
“During the summer season there are roughly 200,000 people flying between New York and Nice or the other way round, so we feel we can attract a lot of people that are used to flying via connections.
“It’s very early stages but what we are seeing is tremendous reaction from the market, flying in comfort at affordable prices in summer – 80 per cent of what we have sold so far has been sold in the US, but the French are coming back and are starting to book so it’s heading in the right direction. We are about what we expected to be doing on the route, and we expect to be around 75 per cent load factor for the whole carrier.
“In May and June, Nice and the French Riviera are home to a lot of incentives and conventions – Cannes Festival, the Monaco Grand Prix, and it continues in September and October with a lot of MICE market operations, and this is where it’s a good mix between [being] very leisure oriented in July and August, and more incentive/MICE segment when it comes to June and September/October.”
Offering two long-haul routes with just a handful of aircraft does mean there is little slack in the system should aircraft go ‘tech’ – a complaint often levelled at long-haul carriers with smaller fleet. In response, Perino said:
“We are in the airline business, so things do happen. We try to have the best solution either through alternatives on our flights since we are flying several daily on our New York-Paris route, or on other airlines. There are constraints but we try to minimise the impacts on our customers, and when things happen it’s really a matter of communication, to offer them a choice of solution.
“But we are no different to others [in the respect that] where aircraft are going tech on the last flight from New York, whatever the airline you are on, if it’s the last flight it’s the last flight. But with our size we try to be flexible and the key message there is the matter of communication, with alternatives for our end users.”
The airline will celebrate its fifth birthday this year, which surpasses the length of operation of the three business class carriers which operated transatlantic flights between London and New York in the mid 2000s – Maxjet (2003 to 2007), EOS (2005 to 2008) and Silverjet (2006 to 2008).
La Compagnie did itself operate flights between London Luton and Newark between 2015 and 2016, stating at the time of suspension that the decision “has been made in view of a new economic climate in Europe, fuelled by Brexit, and that has already affected various significant players within the airline industry”.
With Brexit still to be delivered, Perino said there are currently no plans for a return to the route.
“We are very humble when it comes to our size – to be in that market [London-New York], particularly with the uncertainty. I’m not saying that we won’t come back in the future, but we are at too early a stage for us to discuss it. As I mentioned we are not studying new routes, but when it is the case London will be part of the discussion – but it’s not on the radar at the moment.”
Perino also spoke of the evolution of the carrier over the last five years, and in particular the take-up from the business travel sector.
“When we first launched we saw ourselves as a mix of leisure and business – obviously at the very beginning of the airline we were mostly leisure, because as you know when it comes to business travel it takes a lot of time to enter the market.
“At the very beginning when it came to corporate we were [mainly used by] the entrepreneurial type of professionals, the type of segment where the shift between airlines can be very easy, but we were barely known by the large cap type of companies.
“But currently the fast moving segment is the large cap, because people are seeing us as an alternative, with almost 30 per cent of the business cap market between New York and Paris.”
“We are at the time of our development where the large cap are more and more coming to us, because we are a great alternative for them to save some money when it comes to travel between New York and Paris, with a unique product proposal which will be even more upgraded with the neo introduction.”