TORONTO — The cinematic backdrop of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival was the perfect place to introduce the brand new General Manager of Air France-KLM Canada.
Jean-Eudes de La Bretèche made his debut in his new Canadian role yesterday, speaking with travel industry media to outline Air France’s plans for the Canadian market this coming fall and winter.
De La Bretèche may be new on the scene, but Air France isn’t new to TIFF. Air France has been the official airline of the Toronto International Film Festival for six years and its ‘Bulle du Cinéma’ pop-up lounge will enjoy a prime location from Sept. 8 – 11 on ‘Festival Street’, TIFF’s epicentre on King St. West. For this 2022 edition, TIFF visitors to Air France’s Bulle de Cinéma can enjoy Madeleine cake and bubbly lemonade, plus take a director-style photo in front of the booth and enter a film trivia contest to win prizes including two economy Air France tickets from Toronto to the cultural destination of their choice in Europe.
De La Bretèche began his 13-year career with Air France-KLM in Paris as part of the Revenue Management team before joining the CEO’s office as Project Coordinator. In 2013, he became Chief of Staff to the Executive Vice-President Commercial, moved to the Tokyo office in 2014 as Commercial Director overseeing the Japanese, Korean and New Caledonia markets.
He returned to Paris in 2017 to assume the position of Alliances Director Americas, where he was primarily in charge of coordinating the management of the transatlantic joint ventures with Delta and Virgin Atlantic, and negotiating commercial agreements between Air France-KLM and its partner airlines in the Americas, including WestJet and AeroMexico.
“I am delighted to take the helm of the Air France-KLM Group in Canada at a time that is so particular,” he said. “After more than two years of travel restrictions, we are thrilled to finally be able to welcome so many of our passengers aboard our planes again. I have every confidence our teams will provide our Canadian customers the very finest travel experience. Together, we will continue to work alongside our partners Delta, Virgin Atlantic, and also continue to foster our partnership with WestJet.”
INTERVIEW WITH DE LA BRETÈCHE
Travelweek spoke with de La Bretèche on a wide range of topics, from Air France’s rapid recovery in the Canadian market, to new routes, Canada’s summer air travel woes, the outlook for the winter season and more.
De La Bretèche says he’s excited about his new role in Canada, and the group’s recovery in this market. “We’re just coming out to two years of the pandemic, of constrained travel. Now we can really see that the demand is back, the passengers are back on the plane. It’s a good momentum.”
Capacity out of Canada is just about 100% of 2019 levels, he added. It’s an amazing accomplishment considering the past two and a half years. “What we operated this summer, compared to 2019, which was the best reference we have, we’re almost 100%. So it’s quite impressive.”
And just in case there’s any doubt that Canada is just falling in line with every other market the airline operates in, that’s not the case, says de La Bretèche. Some markets in Asia, particularly China and Japan, are not even half-recovered for the company. “But Canada is fully recovered and the flights are full. So we have the seats and we have the passengers on board,” he says.
In May 2022 Air France opened a new seasonal route for Canada, with direct flights from Quebec City to Paris. “It was the first time Air France operated a direct flight into Quebec City, which is fantastic news for the region and a great opportunity for the city. We are very grateful for the support we received also, by the airport, by the city of Quebec, and by the province. So we really hope we will make it a success.”
Plus, starting Oct. 23, Air France will bring back its Montreal – Pointe-à-Pitre service, offering a sunny Caribbean destination for winter weary travellers. The route first opened in late 2021, but the timing was challenging – to say the least – because of Omicron. This go-round for the route will no doubt be more successful.
This summer in Canada Air France serviced Montreal, Toronto, Quebec and Vancouver. For KLM, there are five Canadian gateways: Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. “KLM is the only airline flying to Europe from Edmonton. So we really have this unique positioning,” said de La Bretèche. He added with a laugh: “We’re only allowed to say it for a couple of months because we’ll get a new competitor entering the European market from Edmonton next summer. But we’re not here to talk about them.”
Asked about other Canadian cities, he said: “We don’t have a short-term project at the moment, nothing to announce for now. But we’re always always curious and eager to find any opportunities. Canada is a big country. Canada is a performing market. So we will be looking at opportunities.”
De La Bretèche had this to say about Air France-KLM’s success in this market: “We’re coming out of two years of constraints on travel, especially in Canada. So I think there is like a peak of demand that we are enjoying as airlines. That is true for Air France-KLM. It is also true for our competitors. There was this question mark whether COVID would really change behaviours, would people get back to our flights. And we are very happy to see our passengers coming back really strong. As soon as restrictions lifted there was this eagerness to reconnect. We have also in Canada a lot of VFR traffic, and a lot of traffic to the Indian subcontinent. And for two years, three years, all these passengers were not able to reconnect. Now they can fly back to visit their families and their friends or relatives.”
De La Bretèche was also asked about the hours-long lineups, deplaning delays and other challenges at Canada’s main airports, particularly Pearson Airport. “Flying is a whole infrastructure,” he said. “You have airports, you have airlines, you have also the government for security check. And I think in terms of anticipation, everybody was surprised by how quickly traffic recovered. At the same time we were coming out of two years where the airport organization has been disorganized because of the lack of traffic. And to restart the machine is not like pressing a button. You have to find staff, and this staff shortage issue is something we see country-wide in Canada and also in the U.S. It takes time. What we observed especially at Pearson and at Montreal, at the beginning of summer, we paid the price of this disorganization and we had to upscale the whole organization. Things are now getting back to normal.”
He says he’s expecting a good winter for both Air France and KLM. However, as always in the airline industry, there are a few storm clouds on the horizon.
“Working for an airline is never a straight line, and you’re always facing a crisis in the world,” says de La Bretèche. “We’re coming out of two years of crisis, plus the Ukrainian war and the oil crisis, soaring prices. So that’s the number one challenge. For us as an airline fuel represents more than a third of our costs. The second challenge we see is inflation, that’s putting pressure on the demand. We are coming off with a very strong demand environment, so we still see demand coming in, [but] it’s like a dark cloud approaching. And the third one is the global economic downturn. We’re still confident, but very vigilant about the evolution of the situation.”
Airlines are used to navigating turbulent times, and Air France – at 89 years – and KLM – at 102 years – continue to thrive no matter what.
Speaking specifically about Air France, on the glamorous 2022 TIFF stage, De La Bretèche said: “What we offer is a different customer experience for our passengers. Our promise is also that when you’re onboard when you’re stepping in on an aircraft, you’re already in France.”