Vietnam and Franceare two beautiful, well-watered green lands lying at opposite extremities ofthe vast European Asian landmass connected by history and, since 1930, by air.Travelling between them these days could not be simpler. There are frequentdirect flights by Air France from both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City that do thetrick in only around twelve hours. Curious, I went along to the Air Franceoffice in the latter city to talk to Country Manager Mr Guilhem Laurans tolearn more about the history of this air link and also about its marketingstrategy and how it engages with the public in Vietnam.
The first flight, now eighty-six years ago, was operated byAir Orient. It took ten days and required seventeen stops for refueling! MrLaurans has a plaque on his office wall detailing the route. It stopped over incountries that are today pretty much off limits-Iraq, Iran and Pakistan. Theflight landed at the airfield in the Phu Tho area of District Eleven, H.C.M. SpaceCity close to where the Saigon Horse Race Track was to be built two yearslater. Air Orient was to merge with another airline in 1933 to form Air France,which apart from a few years due to war, has operated the line continuouslysince that year.
Mr. Laurans explained that Air France is the only Europeanairline that has direct flights to Vietnam and it has a vast network ofconnecting flights within Europe, as it merged with K.L.M. Dutch airlines anumber of years ago. Vietnam Airlines also flies direct to Paris and a coupleof other European capitals. Increasingly, as the country gets wealthier, theVietnamese are travelling more for leisure. Paris is an attractive destinationfor them. Whilst European holidaymakers, businessmen and expatriates still makeup the greater percentage of passengers on the Paris-Vietnam routes, it is nowa two-way street. ‘Our aim’, Mr Laurans said, ‘Is to be the mostVietnamese-friendly foreign airline.’ He explained that there is always atleast one Vietnamese-speaking cabin crew member on every flight and that thereis always a choice of Vietnamese meals served. In case of visa refusal, ticketfares are reimbursed one hundred per cent. This applies even to discounted andpromotional fares.
Air France has done thorough market research into the needsof its customers. ‘We have listened to our Vietnamese customers’, said M.Laurans. Recently, a marketing campaign called ‘Air France va Tôi’ (Air Franceand I) was undertaken. Twelve of the more perspicacious customer comments havebeen recorded in the 2016 Air France calendar, which I was shown. Mr .Lauranswent on to say that they have learned that it is not just in the cabin that theairline needs to excel, but also in services on the ground. There is oneairline I know which aspires to Air France’s Skytrax four-star status thatfails abysmally in this area.
Mr Laurans went on to give a general profile of theVietnamese leisure travel. ‘They tend to like to travel in groups’, he said. Hegave the reasons for this. Firstly, as less-experienced travellers they feelmore confident in a flock. Then, given the limited holiday time they have(typically only fifteen days per year) it makes it easier to see more if theitinerary is arranged for them. Then also for a people that like to carry cash,they feel there are fewer money worries this way.
Aeroplanes flying long distances necessarily will use up alot of polluting aviation fuel, but I nevertheless asked about Air France’senvironmental policy. They are responsible as it is possible to be in thisarea. Firstly, the KLM part of the company is at the forefront into researchinto the use of biofuels. Reducing their negative impact on the environment isat the very heart of the airline’s strategy and in 2015, Air France wasrecognised for this by being awarded the number one spot in the airlinecategory of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for the eleventh consecutiveyear. Air France also invests in research into how to make aircraft lighter andboth airlines have introduced a uniform recycling policy. Every employee playsa part in helping this to be a socially responsible business.
Turning to Air France’s commitment to society at large, theAir France Foundation supports charities. Notable among these in Vietnam areone that provides poor deaf people with hearing aids and May Nha (Roof) in MuiNe, which not only provides a home for orphans but takes care of theireducation, social development and training until they are of an age to enterthe workplace. The company sponsors many events too, for example, when Iattended an event a few years ago at the ‘Vattel Hotel and Restaurant TrainingSchool’, the first prize for a competition was an Air France return ticket to Paris.
I consider myself very lucky to live in the centre of one ofAsia’s great cities, which once had the sobriquet of ‘Pearl of theOrient’, and where with a twenty minutedrive to the airport, I can be on a plane that can get me to Paris in half aday’s time. Not only can I make this journey in comfort, but I and my familycan be well looked-after on the ground by a company that takes its role insociety seriously and works for the common good. This company and I may beEuropean, but like myself who has a Vietnamese family, it takes good care tointegrate itself into the country it serves.