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Air France takes off with big plan
( 2003-07-13 11:08) (China Daily)

With the pesky SARS outbreak out of the way, Air France is proceeding with very ambitious plans to expand its business in China.

Beginning on January 1, Air France will offer five direct flights per week from Guangzhou, in South China's Guangdong Province, to Paris.

Air France is the first European airline to operate a non-stop flight to Guangzhou.

Marc Benedetti, general manager of Air France for Asia-Pacific, and Zhang Guangning, mayor of Guangzhou, signed the deal last Thursday.

Media had been reporting Air France would begin flying the route in June 2004, after the opening of the new Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport.

Benedetti said Air France was not willing to wait that long.

The airline, he said, is confident about Guangdong Province's economic development.

Air France wants to quickly join the promising market, he said.

Five flights a week are expected between Guangzhou and Paris in the first half of 2004, but the flights will be daily when the new international airport opens, Benedetti said.

Air France will also establish a regional customer service centre in Guangzhou. The office will be responsible for customer service in Asia.

Air France has similar offices in North America, South America and Europe.

Guangzhou is not Air France's last destination in China, rather it's the company's take-off, said Patrick Alexandre, executive vice-president of Air France's international commercial affairs.

He was in China last week to discuss flight rights with China's aviation regulators.

Air France will have the right to operate flights to Southwest China's Chengdu by 2005, and possibly some other large cities in the area, he said.

"We cannot reveal our detailed plans at the moment, as our competitors might overhear them," Alexandre said.

"But one thing I can tell you is we will extend our flights to most major cities here in China, whether in the east or the west.

"But that doesn't mean Air France will fly to those cities directly. We might connect those cities with Europe through our partner's network in China."

Air France is confident about China's economic development, he said, noting the SARS outbreak did not affect the firm's flights.

Air France combined its daily flights to Beijing and Shanghai in April when SARS was rampant. The company flew to Beijing, then on to Shanghai before it returned to Paris.

"I think it is very important for us and our Chinese customers that our flights continue daily, even in hard times. Nothing could stop our exchanges," he said.

Daily flights to Beijing and Shanghai, and to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, are expected to resume next month.

Air France, the first European airline to operate flights to China, will celebrate in September the 30th anniversary of its Paris-Beijing route.

The firm's long-term goal is to become the most popular European airline in China, Alexandre said. Air France carries more than 60 per cent of the passengers departing from China.

High-quality service, Alexandre emphasized, is the main reason so many people fly Air France.

Each Air France flight to China has Chinese translators and attendants. Chinese cooking, movies, books, and newspapers and magazines are all available.

"Since Chinese people make up the majority of our customers, we have done everything possible to make them feel at home on our planes," Alexandre said.

In a customer survey, Air France learnt Chinese passengers prefer to eat instant noodles during their flights. As a result, the airline decided instant noodles would be the standard food selection for each flight to China.

"Instant noodles are far more popular than any other food on the planes," Alexandre said.

But there are situations Air France cannot control.

Many Chinese this year have been denied entry at Paris for various reasons.

Air France provided Chinese-speaking attendants to help its passengers deal with customs officials, Alexandre said.

During his trip to China, Alexandre discussed the situation with France's ambassador to China.

The ambassador, he said, promised to discuss the problem with relevant departments in France to help Chinese passengers have an easier time entering France.

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