88 Years Of History: The Story Of Air France

Today marks 88 years since Air France was founded. The airline is still one of the world’s most recognizable operators after its decades of impressive growth. As it celebrates this joyous occasion, here’s a look a the story of how the carrier got off the ground.

Air France was founded on October 7th, 1933, and the Farman F-301 helped get operations underway. Photo: Getty Images

A national institution

Air France was formed following the merger of five key French operators. Air Orient, Air Union, Lignes Farman, CIDNA, and Aéropostale went through a series of mergers and acquisitions to form a sole national carrier.

Entrusting the journalism community, the new outfit’s Director-General asked those attending a press conference to draw up a name for France’s carrier. Everyone agreed on the Journal’s Georges Raffalovitch’s suggestion, Air France.

The logo of the new airline was adopted from one of its predecessors, Air Orient. Thus, the winged horse with a dragon’s tail lived on, which went on to be nicknamed the ‘Prawn.’

The primary mission of Air France’s leadership was to upgrade the 37,800 km (23,500 mi) network that covered Europe, North Africa, Asia, and South America. Management also sought to slim down the mixed fleet of 259 planes. Thus, the french solutions of the Bloch 220, Potez 62, Breguet Wibault 282, and the Dewoitine 338 were the chosen few.  Impressively, the Dewoitine 338 would go on to flight time from Marseille to Saigon to five days thanks to its cruise speed of 250 km/hr (155 mph).

Even though Air France affirmed its base in the capital of France, it was a city in another European country that would help the airline get off to a flying start. The carrier formed itself on its route to London, which saw 39% of its passengers during 1938.

“The new airline was officially declared open by Pierre Cot on 7 October 1933 at Le Bourget, the country’s main airport. France finally had a national airline, which now had to work to find unity (…) Air France had to become a consistent, efficient and safe unit. Over a few years, the airline reduced its fleet from 259 to 90 mainly French aircraft. Air France built its network around three hubs: Marignane (Marseilles) for the Mediterranean and the East, Toulouse for South America, and, in particular, Le Bourget, for connections to major European cities,” Air France shares.

“The site of unforgettable exploits, such as Charles Lindbergh’s arrival after his New York-Paris flight in 1927, Le Bourget became the new airline’s launch base, from which a vast network to Europe and beyond was built. After all, the world was now accessible: Algiers in 8 hours 30 minutes, Dakar in 28 hours, Hanoi in a week. But it was Paris-London, the key European business link that was Air France’s most important route. It accounted for around one-third of Air France passengers, and the airline assigned increasingly powerful aircraft to this route, such as the Bloch 220 (300 km/h cruising speed) in 1938.”

This Bloch 220
Air France operated a total of sixteen of these Bloch 220s. Photo: Getty Images

Swift developments

During the launch decade, Air France went from strength to strength as it expanded to become a global force. As the 1930s were drawing to a close, the company had one of biggest airline presences in the world, flying to at least 85 destinations and serving more than 100,000 passengers yearly.

Operations were rocked during World War II. Notably, the armistice of 1940 gave way to two branches, an Occupied Air France and a Free Air France. The latter was under the now legendary General de Gaulle. Operations to North Africa continued until the two divisions were reunited in 1944. The flag carrier took to the skies as a single Air France in 1946.

The airline consulted US-built aircraft in the form of the Douglas DC-3 and DC-4 to help it in this next chapter. France’s Bloch 161 Languedoc also joined the fold as air travel evolved.

The reborn carrier focused on Middle Eastern and African routes, such as services to Damascus. Moreover, flights to the Far East were expanded with new operations to Shanghai, while the carrier saw success on its route between Paris and New York via Shannon and Gander. Altogether, the airline had the largest network in the world during its time, reaching over 188,000 km (116,817 mi).

This growth continued into the 1950s, with transoceanic flights continuing in number. The likes of Chicago, Montreal, Caracas, Bogotá, Lima, and Quito saw Air France aircraft fly in from across the Atlantic. Meanwhile, the Lockheed Super Constellation helped transport passengers to the likes of Hong Kong with its weekly service.

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The jet age

The jet engine revolutionized the aviation industry, and Air France wasn’t afraid to jump onboard. The carrier tried its hand at the De Havilland 106 Comet, but the pioneering jet plane was quickly removed from service after two BOAC accidents. Air France then introduced nine Caravelles and three Boeing 707s in 1959. The 707 was seen on the New York route, cutting down flight time to eight hours from 14 with the Super Constellation. The Boeing unit could also carry double the amount as guests. Before the 1970s arrived, Air France’s fleet was made up of 43 Caravelles and 33 707s.

The Sud Aviation Caravelle SE 210 during flight.
The short medium-range jet airliner Sud-Aviation SE 210 Caravelle on its inaugural flight in 1958. Photo; Getty Images

The Boeing 747 brought another revolution with new widebody opportunities on the scene. The aircraft opened up markets across the globe, bringing travel to many new passenger segments. Air France was an early adopter, introducing the plane across its network in 1970.

Nonetheless, just four years later, the Airbus A300 would enter the mix, marking the start of a new long-term rivalry with Boeing. Airbus and Boeing aircraft would make most of Air France’s fleet. Notably, the Concorde was also in service with the airline between 1976 and 2003. This supersonic airliner carried passengers across the Atlantic in around three hours.

Air France Concorde
Air France was one of two airlines to introduce the Concorde. Photo: Getty Images

Making connections

In the year after the Concorde was retired, Air France agreed a merger with Netherlands-based KLM. This merger was one of the largest in the history of aviation. The pair of carriers still operate under separate brands, but the move has allowed them to be one of the most dominant forces today.

The pandemic has undoubtedly taken its toll on Air France. However, the airline has managed to adapt with support from its stakeholders. As the complications of the crisis start to east, the airline will be looking forward to another nine decades of connecting communities to and from France.

What are your thoughts about the story of Air France? Have you flown with the carrier of the years? Let us know what you think of the airline and its history in the comment section.