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Air France Sell Off Tickles French Pride

The whole of France talks with pride of the apparent Air France sell off...

Le tout Paris, or at least its financial journalists, are gushing over the coming privatisation of Air France. Tricolor tailfins are plastered over the front pages of the newspapers and there is a feeling of triumph that Air France is being sold at a moment when BA and Lufthansa are lost in the French carrier?s jet stream.

They have good reason to gloat. Air France has come out of the September 11th disasters with distinction, and profits as well. BA mutters privately that ?the French got more help than we did?, but even if that was the case it was small beer in the scheme of things. What has really helped Air France is that the French carrier is benefiting from the strategy of building national champions.

Notwithstanding the billions of state aid, support for Air France has been more important in political, than financial, terms.
To describe it as the flag carrier is to understate its importance. When the British Government consults the airline industry, it talks to BA, but it also talks to Virgin and to BMI and perhaps to EasyJet and Ryanair. The conversation in Paris avoids such cacophony.

Such focus has provided Air France with the best hub in Europe, at Charles de Gaulle. While our Government puzzles about building airports in Kentish bird sanctuaries, CdG seems to add a new terminal every month and offers Air France the ability to poach BA passengers in Manchester for flights to the Far East. Small wonder that Air France should next year surpass BA, with a fifth of Europe?s market.

The French airline has some innate advantages. After September 11th it was able to shift capacity from the Atlantic to African destinations and profit from the demise of Sabena.

Will Air France ever be private? The airline owes the state more than it can repay. One wonders whether the French carrier could ever cancel its Corsica service in the way that BA dumped Belfast. Add the state?s residual 20 per cent to the staff shares, and well over a third of Air France is owned by investors with a political agenda. No bad thing in a highly political industry. Antoine de St Exupery said the airplane has shown us the true face of the earth. Perhaps Air France shows us the true face of aviation.

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