Christine Ourmières-Widener talks about the Paris-based discount carrier’s plans and impact on luxury destinations
By Diane Brady, Forbes Staff
Its flight attendants wear jeans and you won’t get fed unless you pay for it, but French bee is winning fans because of its focus on price. With fares now starting at $161 each way from Newark to Paris, or $465 from Newark to Tahiti, the French discount airline can be a boon for budget travelers. (San Francisco passengers could fly to Tahiti and back for $460.)
French bee CEO Christine Ourmières-Widener says demand is coming from business customers and not just bargain-hunting tourists. Specifically, she says, the airline is proving to be a hit with French entrepreneurs who want affordable access to the U.S. market. “With the pressure on some budgets now, it’s especially important,” she says. “This may be a segment of the population that is not about status but efficiency.”
Of course, it’s easier to offer cheap fares on a new fleet of Airbus 350 XWB (extra wide body) aircraft that have 488 seats and low maintenance costs. The aviation industry is rich with tales of budget carriers that started strong and faltered when rising costs crushed razor-thin margins. Leisure travel is a seasonal business that can be tough to sustain with a few long-haul routes. It’s not just the need for volume and scale: a no-frills fare on a one-hour flight can be more appealing than cheap seats on a flight that lasts all day.
Ourmières-Widener, who previously ran TAP Air Portugal, Ireland’s CityJet and Air France-KLM in the United States, admits that there remain challenges. She’s coping with Covid-induced shortages of talent and spare parts, as are her competitors. Costs remain high.
“We need access to fuel at an affordable price,” she says. “Going forward, we need to think about hydrogen and other solutions” to make air travel more sustainable, too.
Despite all that, the airline has been profitable and has plans to grow. Innovations in aircraft design, fleet management, marketing and other areas may be upending conventional wisdom about the prospects for low-cost, long-haul airlines. WOW Air may be gone, after all, but Norwegian Airlines just launched 40 new routes, bringing its total to 332.
Ourmières-Widener sat down with Forbes for a frank conversation about how she’s deploying AI, industry trends and what’s ahead. She also spoke about her career and advice for fellow frequent fliers.
Watch the full interview for more.