Interview: French bee CEO Christine Ourmières-Widener

DALLAS — With the 2024 Summer Olympics coming to Paris, French bee (BF) holds an exciting opportunity to introduce itself to Americans traveling to the games.

In an interview with Airways, French bee President and CEO Christine Ourmières-Widener spoke about the airline’s transition from an upstart airline to a more established carrier operating on a low-cost, long-haul model with a modern Airbus A350 fleet.

Ourmières-Widener was appointed as the airline’s CEO earlier this year. She previously ran TAP Air Portugal, Flybe, and CityJet. Beyond lower airfares, Ourmières-Widener believes the airline’s French background, coupled with a multicultural, English-speaking crew, uniquely positions French Bee as a fresh alternative for American travelers.

Brent Foster: How is French bee unique among low-cost airlines operating long-haul flights?

Christine Ourmières-Widener: I think that it’s difficult to find a real name for long-hauls that are providing identity onboard widebodies because calling us ‘low-cost’ will mean that people will expect no service onboard or almost nothing.

In fact, we provide quite good service onboard with two classes: our economy class and our premium class. We even have a welcome drink in our premium class, and we are French, so the quality of the food is quite good in both classes.

We have very modern aircraft. So, when you look at our climate change priorities and you see the number of passengers we are carrying with a very modern aircraft, we can say we have the best footprint per passenger crossing the Atlantic from the U.S.

I think customers are deciding to fly with French bee. I personally think that it’s much better to cross the Atlantic on a dense, modern aircraft solution because that’s the best way to contribute to something.

One of French Bee's Airbus A350-941 aircraft registered as F-HREY prepares for landing. Photo: French bee
One of French Bee’s Airbus A350-941 aircraft registered as F-HREY prepares for landing. Photo: French bee

What are your predictions for off-season consumer travel? How does French bee attract passengers in off-season periods?

Well, we are very lucky because, as you know, Paris is a top destination for all people willing to travel to Europe. We see a lot of tourists in Paris, and we also see a lot of French tourists in New York, for instance. I think the two cities have strong links. We are approaching the end of the year, and we have a peak of booking requests for our business.

Nevertheless, we are a bit cautious because, with everything going on around us, there is a question of the direction of travel and whether people will not start to be a little more careful about their budget. So far, the trend has been quite strong. Maybe there are some things to watch for the next year, but 2023 will definitely finish as a very strong year.

With the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris approaching, how will French bee serve fans traveling to the games via the city’s Orly Airport?

We will do our best to do so efficiently, and they will be very lucky to arrive in Orly and not in Roissy in Paris. Orly is the closest airport to the city and also the fastest way to go from one airport in Paris to the center.

We will also have Orly connecting next year with a new metro line; it’s very efficient, and it’s the 14 Line that will also bring our customers directly from the city. Not only is it efficient, but it will be the cheapest way to go to the center of Paris or anywhere they will stay from the airport.

French bee offers not only economy but a premium cabin as well. Photo: French bee
French bee offers not only economy but a premium cabin as well. Photo: French bee

How is the Airbus A350 fleet advantageous for French bee from operational and passenger experience perspectives?

So, operational efficiency has been proven by all the numbers coming from the manufacturer. We are talking about an average of 25% less fuel consumption. So, I think it’s not only greener, but it’s cheaper at a cost level than everything we carry. We have a modern, very comfortable cabin with a different light structure and brand-new seats.

When we launched our New York service in 2021, it was very bold for a company that was born between 2016 and 2017, so we are very young. From our experience, the A350, as a young aircraft, resonates very well with a very young crew.

We have 25 nationalities in our crew, and they all speak English as a common language, which is quite unusual for a French company, but that’s why the U.S. market is a natural destination for us. All of our crew is fascinated by the U.S. market. We can say the culture at French Bee is still a startup culture moving to a little bit bigger company with more experience, but it’s amazing.

As French bee’s new president and CEO, what is your vision for the airline going into 2024 and beyond?

We are a group of two airlines and one cargo company. We have a joint venture for alignment. The two airlines are French bee and its sister, Air Caraïbes, they are very different, but they share a common fight in a world of giants.

However, we are a family-owned private company that has always been showing positive results because our shareholders don’t own the business for fun; they own the business to create a positive margin and contribute to the global economy.

Our first objective is to be profitable because we think that with no profitable business, we cannot create value for the economy, for our employees, and for everybody. Maybe that is our difference with some new players who are trying to compete on some routes and are not showing any hope for positive results.

The second is also for us, being very young on some routes, to confirm our presence on routes, for instance, in Miami. We only launched the route one year ago, so it is just for the market to get to know us. That’s why we are talking today.

We want to make sure people know who we are, that we have wonderful aircraft and a wonderful crew, and that the food we have onboard and the pitch of our seats definitely bring a fantastic experience at an affordable price. So, next year, we will consolidate this position. We have a vision because the group received a new capacity at the end of 2024, so we will then launch new destinations in 2025.

In 2024, there is still a little bit of uncertainty. We don’t know where the war in the Middle East will end up, and hopefully, at some point, it will end because that is what everybody wishes. However, this has an impact on some level of cost that we have to deal with. 2023 was very successful for all airlines because of the willingness of our customers to fly again. 2024 could have a different picture, so we are a little bit more careful.

A snapshot of an economy cabin section aboard one of French bee's Airbus A350s. Photo: French bee
A snapshot of an economy cabin section aboard one of French bee’s Airbus A350s. Photo: French bee

Is French bee, with routes like Miami and Los Angeles, looking to add more North American routes or any further afield?

Well, we have to look at routes that have the capacity to sustain our aircraft type. Our A350-941s have 411 seats, and we are targeting routes for three weekly flights. We are targeting routes that are consistent with this position.

When you look at all the data in our industry, which is quite open to everybody, you know the potential of the routes. So that is the profile of the routes we are looking at.

Definitely, New York is our star in the U.S. We want to be bigger; we want to be more visible; we want to just make sure people know we are here, and we are here to serve.

Is French bee succeeding in attracting American tourists traveling to France? Is the airline gaining visibility among American tourists?

Yes, absolutely. We think we can do better. We already have quite a number of loyal U.S. customers, including some commuters who love the service, not only from New York but also from Miami, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

We have a significant number of loyal customers already, but we think we can increase this footprint and make sure more people know about it.

Does French bee have more room for growth in French overseas departments and collectivities like Tahiti and Réunion?

Well, it also depends on our competition. That’s something unpredictable. Our sister, Air Caraïbes, is flying to Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and the Bahamas. So, the network of territories is quite significant for us.

We have wanted to serve New Caledonia, but we are not covering it because it is quite a stretch.

We always say that we have a duty to cover these routes, and it is also consistent with our DNA. At Air Caraïbes, we have quite a significant number of our employees who are based in Guadeloupe, Martinique, and French Guiana.

I think that given this proximity to the Caribbean, we understand the culture, and we want to be very close to them.

How does French bee meet recruiting needs to develop a diverse workforce?

At a group level, at Groupe Dubreuil, we have quite a fantastic diversity level. So, I am the chair, but the general manager at French Bee is also a woman. In French Bee, because we have all of these different cultures and nationalities, diversity and inclusion is really fostered.

You cannot work in the same environment, a very French one with everybody speaking the same language. You need to speak a language that is maybe on a more neutral territory.

 It’s also bringing a different perspective. I think it is important for any leader to understand the reality that diversity and inclusion if you’re successful, can positively impact your results and the motivation along with the engagement of your team.

We definitely believe in that and in Air Caraïbes, there is the fact that we are multicultural with all of our colleagues based elsewhere. You need to open your mind and your soul to understand that, if you are different, it’s good for the company.

Ourmières-Widener believes French bee's Airbus A350s provide not only modern cabins but sustainability advantages as well. Photo: French Bee
Ourmières-Widener believes French bee’s Airbus A350s provide not only modern cabins but sustainability advantages as well. Photo: French Bee

Beyond lower fares, how can low-cost airlines focusing on long-haul service effectively and sustainably compete against legacy competitors?

I fully agree with you that it’s first about price. The first reason for customers to choose is quite price-driven as you know. To do that, we need to keep our costs very low and that’s a challenge every day with all that is going on around the world that we don’t control.

However, I think it’s more than that. It’s how people book and how we want to be seen. So, it involves quite significant work from the team online which includes a different tone of voice on social media and the way we use influencers we want to work with. That’s a daily challenge to be seen as an alternative.

When we arrived for instance in Tahiti, in fact, we were the ones democratizing travel because there were only these legacy carriers. We bring an alternative. An alternative that is not on the stock exchange. The only objective is to deliver good service at a good price.

There is no hidden agenda and there are no big investment banks or shareholders. It’s a family business in the west of France. It’s quite a genuine and honest proposal coming from France with a willingness to charm and attract U.S. citizens because it’s a good deal. For that, you need to also be true through the whole experience.

The welcome has to be nice, people have to smile, people really have to be showing their love for what they do and that it’s a good service. It’s a tough job because our employees are working hard because they know they are in a different type of airline. However,  they know that whatever they do onboard, I have always been delighted by the quality of service and our crew love what they do.

Also, we have the engagement from our pilots who talk differently when they do their announcements. Everything should be from one, how did you discover French Bee and how did you finish this experience? That’s what we are trying to do.

French bee Airbus A350-941 registered as F-HREY on an evening departure. Photo: French bee
French bee Airbus A350-941 registered as F-HREY on an evening departure. Photo: French bee

What is your overall outlook for the low-cost carrier industry in 2024?

Well, you have two types of low-cost carriers, you have the medium/short-haul carriers that have been in place for decades now and have been opening significantly medium/short-haul routes with more affordable fares. I think low cost is a little more complicated but it’s our mission because when you’ve seen the increase in fares on some destinations was quite shocking.

So, it depends on the flow of traffic but we have a role to play. To keep travel affordable for customers. It centers around discipline on our costs because we need to have much lower costs than the legacy carriers. So, it’s a different business model but that’s our mission.

Business is freedom so freedom is to be something that everybody can have access to.

As a duty, we have to ensure that as many people as possible can afford to go to the Olympics next year in Paris or to spend a few days walking around the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower. That’s something we would like everybody to have the opportunity to experience.

Featured image: French Bee President and CEO Christine Ourmières-Widener. Photo: French Bee

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