A380 Returns to JFK in Air France Colors

 - November 30, 2009, 10:44 AM

Air France officially joined the A380 operators club on November 20, when it took its first newly delivered Airbus superjumbo on a ceremonial inaugural flight from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport to New York JFK. Of the 538 passengers on board, 380 of them, as well as a similar number on the outbound leg, bid a collective $450,000–donated to the airline’s charitable foundation–for the distinction of flying the first run on the massive airliner. The airline joins Singapore, Emirates and Qantas as the only carriers to have taken deliveries of A380s.

For Air France, it certainly seems a case of better late than never. The French carrier placed its order for the double-decker jumbo in the summer of 2001, just before the events of 9/11. Despite numerous production delays and a first-delivery slippage of three years, which forced the airline to order new aircraft and keep others such as the 747-400 past their anticipated retirement dates, Air France finally became the first European carrier to receive the aircraft, edging out Lufthansa, which expects delivery of the first of its 15 A380s some time next summer.

Even though the aircraft has just entered service, a change in class seating is already in the works, according to an airline spokesman. The delivery of the fifth Air France A380 will see a new class installed in the upper deck, replacing some of the 106 economy seats and filling a niche between economy and business class. The new Premium Voyager class will occupy the first several rows of economy seating and will increase the pitch between rows from 32 to 38 inches, and in the process reduce the aircraft’s capacity by some 14 seats.

Regularly scheduled flight service began on November 23, when the aircraft launched into a schedule that called for one round trip to New York six days a week. According to Air France/KLM CEO Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, the capacity of the A380 will allow it to take the place of two of the airline’s five daily New York-Paris flights, previously served with an Airbus A340 and a Boeing 777.

Though the commercial air travel landscape has changed considerably since the airline placed the order for the A380, the airplane’s economic relevance might now prove greater than ever. “This aircraft is exactly what we need in Air France because it is well adapted to the CDG hub, which is the largest internationally,” Gourgeon said upon landing in New York after the maiden flight. “If you are strong enough to create a big volume of traffic on a given route then you better use the largest aircraft you can because the larger it is, the lower the cost.”

While the honor of the first scheduled U.S. A380 service went to Emirates, which staged its much publicized arrival last year, the Middle Eastern carrier quietly removed the airplane from the New York to Dubai route this past summer and replaced it–at least temporarily–with the Boeing 777-300ER. Emirates cited the economic downturn for the decision to return to the lower capacity models.

Air France, which placed an order for 12 A380s, expects to receive another three in the beginning of next year and plans to place them on the Paris to Johannesburg and possibly Paris to Tokyo routes.

Read A380 pilot report on AINonline.