A variety of topics around sustainability are coming to the fore at the French regional airport of Bordeaux as its network revives this year.
Mark Pilling reports
Red is the colour most closely allied with southwestern France’s beautiful city of Bordeaux.
Red wines from this area, where Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes are found in abundance, are world-famous, helping put Bordeaux, the capital of the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, on the map.
However, for a variety of reasons, it is the colour green – associated with the rising aviation industry topic of sustainability – that is increasingly influencing the work of the region’s primary gateway, Bordeaux-Mérignac Airport.
“Since Covid there are new items that airlines want to discuss as they take the ‘go, no-go’ decisions to launch new routes or bases,” said Cyrielle Clément, Head of Route Development at Bordeaux. “There is sustainability, which is a key point that we’re discussing with airlines now.”
Many questions are about the availability of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), said Clément. Bordeaux has a strong story on SAF, for in June 2022 it became the first commercial airport in France with over a million passengers annually to permanently offer this biofuel. The SAF offered at Bordeaux is produced by French firm TotalEnergies and is blended with Jet A-1 locally to the airport to produce a 30:70, SAF to Jet A-1 mix.
“There are big targets for airlines to purchase more SAF in future years, so they are trying to understand what volumes we can offer, what different blends are available, how quickly they can get it, and of course the price,” said Clément.
“The big challenge at the moment is that SAF is three to four times pricier than kerosene, so that’s a massive barrier to entry,” said Clément. “But we’re also trying to understand how we can help the airlines start taking SAF at the airport. There are a lot of different streams that we are thinking about, and I’m sure in the next year or so we’re going to be able to tell you a lot more about it.”
With Bordeaux pioneering the delivery of SAF on a regular basis, as part of its new five-year strategic plan taking it up to 2027, it is looking to change its commercial policies. The full plan is a work in progress, but it includes a rethink of the airport’s pricing strategy, which has been mostly unchanged for 10-15 years, said Clément. Part of the pricing strategy will be unveiled in August, the rest in the coming months.
“In this commercial policy, we are trying to reward the airlines that are the greenest, the ones that are less noisy, the ones that bring aeroplanes that are more efficient in terms of fuel,” she said. “We are in a region where sustainability is an increasingly important topic, so we need to align with that.”
When it announced the Resources 27 strategic plan in December 2022, the Supervisory Board of Bordeaux-Mérignac Airport said the aim is to create a new model based on sustainability and performance, with respect for the environment and local populations and in line with societal expectations.
“Resources 27 is focusing its efforts on ecological and energy transition, the modernisation and service quality of the airport, and the diversification of its business model, for a total investment of over €240 million (US$265 million),” said the airport.
Losing Paris Orly
The impact of sustainability-related aviation policies has been felt keenly at Bordeaux in another dimension, when in 2020 Air France stopped its shuttle service between Bordeaux and Paris Orly as one of the conditions imposed by the government for the French flag carrier’s bailout.
A new French law decreed that air routes should be ended where the same journey could be made by train in under two-and-a-half hours. This axed Bordeaux’s third-largest route: before the pandemic, 600,000 passengers had travelled between the city and Orly every year on up to 10 daily frequencies, said Clément. “This hit us very hard on top of the Covid crisis,” she noted.
Bordeaux’s link to Paris Charles de Gaulle has remained intact because about 50% of passengers on this route connect to another service, explained Clément. In 2022, this route, which is the airport’s largest, saw some 660,000 passengers on the eight-times-daily Air France shuttle.
Although this law will be reviewed in a couple of years, Clément doubts the airport will ever see the Orly service resume.
Despite this blow, Bordeaux saw its traffic surge in 2022 as travellers returned. The airport handled 5.4 million passengers last year, still substantially down on its 2019 peak of 7.7 million, with Clément forecasting between 6.2 and 6.3 million in 2023.
“In the last decade until 2019, the airport has seen a massive increase of traffic, on average 10% growth each year, which was very intense for a regional airport,” said Clément. “We are no longer on that trajectory. We’re not aiming for traffic increase at all costs.
“Our traffic forecasts for the next five years are much more measured and paced. But what we want to bring is high-contributing passengers,” said Clément. Some 72% of Bordeaux’s traffic comes from low-cost carriers, with easyJet, Ryanair and Volotea to the fore; these are critical for bringing volume, but “not always [for bringing] the customers that bring the most value to the airport.
“We’re going to try to rebalance the portfolio of airlines a little bit,” she explained. “We want to bring more operators. We want to bring back some of the legacy carriers that suffered a lot from the crisis but are getting back to speed again. Basically, we want a much more diversified portfolio. We don’t have one major operator, but still, we have three big ones [Air France, Ryanair and easyJet] and if something happens with one of them, then we’re at risk.”
At the time of writing, with the addition of a Lufthansa service to Munich and a Transavia France connection to Dakar in Senegal, Bordeaux had 94 destinations served by 27 airlines. This is still down on the 163 routes in its network in 2019, but the recovery trajectory is encouraging, said Clément.
In terms of acquiring more service from network carriers, it is working on the likes of Air France-KLM, British Airways, Iberia and Lufthansa. “For Air France-KLM we have reached kind of the good level of frequencies that we want and a good quality of service programme,” said Clément.
There is a British Airways (BA) service to London Gatwick, and easyJet links with this airport too, but Clément would like to attract a Heathrow connection from BA.
“We’ve made a lot of progress this year with the Lufthansa Group,” said Clément. “We are thrilled about that because Lufthansa itself increased frequencies on Frankfurt from seven weekly to 10 [from the summer schedule], and there is the new Munich route.”
Another Lufthansa Group carrier, Brussels Airlines, has “massively increased frequencies to Brussels going from four-weekly to a double-daily product”, said Clément. “The missing link for the Lufthansa Group would be Austrian. We don’t have a direct route to Vienna. It’s one of the most requested routes out of Bordeaux so we’re hoping to convince Austrian, or another carrier.”
Looking east, Clément noted that the airport is facing a challenge on increasing services to Turkey as traffic rights between the countries are currently being restricted. Turkish Airlines is only flying four weekly frequencies compared to seven in 2019. Bordeaux is looking for other carriers to fill the gap.
The market is ripe for a direct service from Bordeaux to the Gulf, said Clément, but the lack of traffic rights between France and Dubai prevents Emirates from adding the French city to its network for now.
France and Qatar signed an open skies agreement last year so a service from Qatar Airways is a possibility. “Qatar reopened Lyon and they opened Toulouse, and they could potentially open Bordeaux as well,” said Clément.
Bordeaux is talking with Qatar, Emirates and Etihad about new service. “We are trying to understand which carrier would be in the best position, when, and with what kind of aircraft, and for what kind of ‘beyond’ destinations as well, because we are fully aware these carriers don’t count solely on point-to-point traffic.
“In terms of recovery for the western part of Europe, we’re very pleased with what we’ve accomplished,” said Clément. “But for Eastern Europe, and Scandinavia, we still have some work to do.”
Cities such as Warsaw, Bucharest, and Budapest were served in 2019 but have not returned to Bordeaux’s network yet.
On the transatlantic sector, Bordeaux is served by Corsair which flies a winter route to the Caribbean Island of Guadeloupe, the French overseas department. Canada’s Air Transat also serves the city from Montreal during the summer, and Clément is hopeful this will transition to a year-round service.
There is a market for a direct US service, probably New York in the first place, followed by San Francisco and Los Angeles, said Clément. “We know that for these routes to happen a widebody aircraft will be too much to start with. The best aircraft to fly this route would be the Airbus A321LR,” she said.
However, with this long-range narrowbody only entering service from 2024 with US carriers, there will be competition from many airports to receive it. “The airlines keep telling me that it’s further delayed. But it is the perfect aircraft to fly these kinds of secondary routes and connect regional cities.
“We need to be patient, but at the same time understanding how we can be prioritised because a route like Bordeaux–New York is one of the most requested,” she said.
Clément’s first aviation experience was as an analyst and product manager at easyJet before moving to a consultancy role at Accenture and then to a pricing manager position at Air France. She joined Bordeaux in 2020.
“It’s interesting to be on the other side of the table of the negotiations now,” she noted. “I think it’s a real asset that I’ve been at an airline before, because I understand the key differences in the business models between a low-cost carrier and a legacy carrier. I understand that their goal is not the same and what they’re looking for in an airport is not the same.”