Despite the fact that commercial aviation has been plagued by bad news almost everywhere, Europe has been a ray of sunshine in recent months. Of course, traffic is still much below summer highs, but several European airlines have managed to reinstate a large number of flights, and demand seems to have been strong enough to fill them — particularly to summer vacation locations and on low-cost carriers.
Many parts of Europe were struck badly by COVID-19 early on, but they were able to bring things under control and maintain them that way by summer. There’s also the reality that a number of European locations depend heavily on summer tourist money to keep their economies afloat, so there was a lot of business pressure, and hence political will, to get aircraft flying again.
Even while certain parts of Europe have witnessed fresh surges in illness and others have restored quarantines or lockdown measures of some form, the resumption of flying has held up until today, with no obvious decline. Western Europe led the globe in percentage increase of seats provided for the week ending August 3, according to OAG statistics, jumping 14.6 percent from the week before.
At CDG, Air France
In July, an Air France A319 was parked at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris (CDG).
Recently, Air France has had a lot of activity.
Since the extremely low lows of April, Air France (AF), whose home city of Paris is said to be the world’s second most visited tourist destination, has been able to significantly increase flights. A lot of it has been inside Europe. In reality, flights on Air France A320 family aircraft, which mostly fly inside Europe and to locations in North Africa and the Middle East (along with a few Caribbean legs), have almost recovered to pre-pandemic levels. Summer flight schedules are often more busier than February’s, but the contrast is noticeable.
Graph of flights by Air France’s A320 family
Looking at the numbers, it’s also intriguing to see how close Air France came to shutting down completely in April, with just a few domestic flights still operational. It’s also interesting to see that, despite the fact that one A318 was kept flying for the majority of the time, the A319 fleet was completely grounded for about a month, despite its smaller size, which would normally seem to be a good choice given the relatively empty planes – no sense in flying more planes than you need to. However, for the last five or six months, the bigger A320 has handled the majority of the flights, with the much larger A321 being utilised on certain trips virtually the whole period.
Flights by Air France subtype of the A320 family
During COVID-19, I flew Air France
Air France is now the sole nonstop flight option from Stockholm, where I currently reside. Many of SAS’s routes between Arlanda (ARN) and continental Europe have yet to reopen, despite the fact that it usually operates a few daily flights. So I thought it’d be fun to experience what it’s like to travel throughout Europe in the summer during COVID-19, and to see how Air France handles pandemic service.
The A319 wing of Air France.
After taking off from Stockholm (ARN) towards Paris, the view from seat 23A on the Air France A319 (CDG).
The positive aspects
I hardly seldom travel Air France, so I can’t compare the service to what it was like before COVID. I was, nevertheless, pleasantly pleased. While SAS is providing no service on European flights at this period (if the trip is long enough, you will get a bottle of water), Air France has arrived with a variety of French goodies, including multi-colored madeleines and, in an overabundance of good taste, an apple cake. The beverage service was typical in economy class, and included alcohol on the return journey. Above all, and maybe most crucially, the flight attendants were beaming. They were all warm and accommodating, regardless of the situation. That makes a tremendous impact at a moment when many passengers are already nervous and tense.
Breakfast on Air France is included.
Air France flight AF1463 from Stockholm to Paris provided a very good service.
Both flights to Paris and return in late July were completely booked, which surprised me. The departure flight, AF1463, was almost completely booked. The return flight, AF1462, was probably 85 to 90% filled a few days later. To be honest, Air France offers no promises about seat reservations. It was surprised, however, since I’d heard for a long time that flights were almost empty and that social distancing was rather simple on many of them. Although research indicates that aircraft are not especially unsafe places to contract the virus, it does seem a lot more comfortable when there is some space throughout the cabin. That’s owed in no little part to the fact that everyone on board seems less uptight, but when everyone is crammed into row after row, everyone appears to irritate a bit faster.
Air France A319 on board
On the 24th of July, onboard a crowded Air France aircraft from Stockholm to Paris.
The second rather disappointing feature, which was beyond Air France’s control, was everyone pulling their masks half-down their faces whenever they believed they could get away with it. This is utterly ridiculous to me. There is a lot of evidence that wearing a mask and having everyone in it reduces the danger of transmission in a crowded environment. Of course, wearing a mask for two hours does not appeal to me, but is it really that difficult? It isn’t true. And being on a plane with the knowledge that everyone else has one is considerably more appealing. On the return journey, a flight attendant tried valiantly to stop others from wearing masks, but it was fruitless.
Two significant flaws
One of the most unpleasant aspects of going to Paris is having to utilise its airports, the worst of which being Charles de Gaulle (CDG). The fact that the Skyteam elements of Terminal 2 are such magnificent buildings to look at yet perform so badly as air terminals is a source of great frustration. When one of Terminal 2F’s concourses becomes even somewhat crowded, it a) becomes excessively hot due to the building’s greenhouse design and lack of air conditioning, and b) entirely prohibits any physical separation.
The CDG airport in Paris is packed.
At one of the concourses of Paris CDG Terminal 2F, crowds swell as two flights embark at once. For pandemics, this isn’t the best airport.
Furthermore, both passengers and personnel seemed to be perplexed by the arriving process. On the aircraft, we were instructed to complete contact forms, but these were never collected. We had to go through a passport check to enter France (which is generally optional inside the Schengen zone), and numerous transit passengers got into furious fights with airport employees after being ordered to move to one line only to be sent back after 20 minutes. These aggravating factors are amplified during a pandemic.
However, the most serious problem with the flights was that on the return leg, it was evident that our seats had not been cleaned in any way. Air France is now promoting “Air France Protect” as a service, which includes a promise of comprehensive cabin cleaning between flights. The skipper even made a statement about how “carefully” the ship was being cleaned. Even so, there was oil on the glass from someone’s head or hands, and the tray table had a recent spill on it. This is a really significant case of not following through on a service guarantee.
Is it possible to sustain the recovery?
There is certainly much more that has to be done in order for the majority of passengers to feel secure and safe in air travel, at least as long as the virus is still present in some form. Of course, the promised cleaning must take place on schedule. But, at the very least throughout Europe, procedures must be standardised and properly explained to passengers and employees, whether it’s immigration checks on arrival or completing out papers. Passengers also won’t feel as though the regulations and procedures may change at any moment, as they do now.
A321 winglet by Air France
As an Air France A321 takes off from Paris (CDG) on its route back to Stockholm, the sun sets over northern France.
Despite the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus, it’s encouraging to see European aviation traffic returning rather well. Despite the drawbacks, it was refreshing and comforting to see Air France flying people again, and doing so with a high level of customer care.
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