ANALYSIS: Air France attempts to recapture its glory years

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Journalists attending Air France's latest media briefing on 18 September were handed a notebook on their way into the venue. On its covers it features reproductions of the beautifully stylised posters promoting the airline in its heyday. "Air France - dans tous les ciels" boasts one slogan.

For the non-French speakers (more of whom, later), a rough translation is: "Air France - in every sky". And while its aircraft still fly around the globe, the lustre has long since been removed from the carrier's glamorous image. Net losses at parent company Air France-KLM hit €809 million ($1.04 billion) last year.

This is part of the airline's myriad of problems. While its short-haul operation has been seriously eroded by the low-cost, no-frills models operated by the likes of Ryanair and EasyJet - to which it has yet to come up with a convincing answer - its high-end, long-haul business has been undermined by the higher standard of service boasted by the newer Gulf and Asian carriers. Although in some quarters France is still a byword for glamour and sophistication, prefixing it with "Air" does not have the same effect. Put simply, the newer entrants to the market have been beating the French at their own game.

July's SkyTrax World Airline awards bear this out. Air France does not appear in the lists of winners for any of the premium categories, whereas the mentions for Qatar, Emirates and Etihad are numerous (although it did manage a 10th place in the Best Premium Economy Cabin category). Even in Europe it is rated only as the 10th best carrier, behind EasyJet in 9th.

So, finally, a response. Air France has committed to spend "hundreds of millions" of euros completely refurbishing its Boeing 777 fleet, followed by its Airbus A380s, to bridge the gulf in class between itself and the likes of Emirates Airline. The La Prèmiere- and Business-class cabins will be completely redesigned, too, as the airline looks deliver a "more upmarket positioning" of its products. As chief executive Alexandre de Juniac notes: "Gulf and Asian carriers have set higher standards than we had previously and we must do better."

Its marketing materials are at pains to point out that the refurbishment will be built around the concepts of "excellence, attention to detail and choice" and that it wants its customers to feel like "privileged guests".

As well as new seats and up-to-the-minute IFE systems, the carrier promises to deliver that certain je ne sais quoi for all its travellers. So, while those passengers who habitually turn left on entering the aircraft will see a promised improvement in service and a diminution in price - through a rationalising of its products from seven to four - the rest of the passengers will not be neglected either.

As part of that rationalisation, from 18 September it has also rebranded its "Voyageur" class to "economy" in a belated realisation that much of the world does not speak French. Economy- and premium-economy class passengers on long-haul will also be able to upgrade to a better menu, for a fee of around €30 a time. Connectivity and IFE, too, will be available to all via a new tie-up with telecoms company Orange.

The fleet upgrade comes hot on the heels of the opening of the airline's new satellite zone at Charles de Gaulle airport. Developed in conjunction with airport operator Aéroports de Paris, "Hall M", a satellite of terminal 2E, is a completely new building and boasts the airline's newest lounge. It is intended to be its response to the riches available to travellers transiting the Gulf, featuring a more spacious and modern design, luxury retail outlets and even a modern art museum. It has also been designed around the specific access requirements of the carrier's fleet of Boeing 747s and Airbus A380s.

The question is whether any of this will make a difference. A revamp of the long-haul fleet, particularly for lucrative, high-yielding premium passengers, is necessary simply to stand still and head off any future threat, says Peter Morris, chief economist at Flightglobal's consultancy arm Ascend.

"It's one of those situations where people wake up and realise they have slipped behind [the competition] and suddenly there's a step-change required," says Morris. "If they start to lose high-end passengers that has a disproportionate [financial] effect and they simply can't afford to do that."

However, on the plus side, he notes that Air France retains a strong presence on routes to China and west Africa where local carriers "lack credibility on business travel".

Ultimately, though, premium long-haul travel is not where Air France's problems lie. "It needs to find a steep reduction in short-haul costs," says Morris. "There's a reluctance to take some of the decisions needed, like replacing jets with turboprops, because it's seen as a retrograde step."

But for the airline's staff, the problem is rendered in simpler terms. "What I want to know is if [de Juniac] really believes he can grow Air France," says one short-haul pilot, doubtfully. Cabin crew meanwhile believe mass redundancies are in the offing as part of the airline's Transform 2015 cost-saving plan.

Unless these fundamentals can be addressed, the "tailored service" and "visual elegance" of the first-class cabin will cease to matter.