General Manager, US
As the first female General Manager for Air France in the U.S. market, and the first joint General Manager for the now-combined Air France-KLM, Christine Ourmières is making history at a critical time for the two carriers as they extend their trans-Atlantic alliance with Delta Airlines. With Air France’s re-launch of its First Class product, Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan met with Ourmières to discuss the carrier’s premium product as well as her climb to the top in a male-dominated industry.
ET: What was behind the re-launch of first class?
Christine Ourmières: First class is part of our history. For example, in 1946 we recruited stewards from five-star hotels such as George V. In the ‘50s and ‘60s we were working with top restaurant chefs to develop our menus. Now we have developed “Servair Culinary Studio” to take in-flight dining to new heights. We have Jacques Le Divellec; Joël Robuchon, who has 25 Michelin stars, serving as President, as well as Guy Martin, who is known for his two Michelin-star Le Gran Véfour. Overall we have a very strong commitment.
We have a history with Concorde, so we wanted first class to be very exclusive and to embody excellence. We only offer first class, La Première in the U.S. to New York-JFK, Los Angeles, Houston and Washington D.C., and depending on the type of plane we have four, eight or nine seats. We didn’t want to offer a product in places that couldn’t support it, because once you start using first class for upgrades it is hard to invest in the product. For example, there are only nine first class seats out of 580 on our Airbus A380. Having that small cabin makes the product more exclusive. Our La Première wine cellar is lead by Olivier Poussier, who was named world’s best wine steward in 2000. Some examples of what he has selected include Saint Julien, Château Gruaud Larose, 2ème Grand Cru classé, Santenay 1er cru, La Maldière, JC Boisset and Vintage 2006. Luxury is about the details, so we have introduced a specially-designed tasting glass. If you look at the tablecloths, they are edged with openwork and set with matching serviettes. Dinner plates are now large like you would get in a restaurant. We really looked at every aspect of the service.
ET: Have you elevated La Première on the ground?
Christine Ourmières: Whichever terminal your flight is departing from at our Charles de Gaulle hub, we have created a special check-in at Terminal 2. You are met in front of the terminal by a porter who takes care of your baggage and escorts you to the private check-in area where you can sit and are offered a drink. You are then escorted through a private security channel. We have also created a special lounge just for first class passengers, including an Alain Ducasse menu a la carte and 10 different mineral waters. The head bartender of the Plaza Athénée has compiled a cocktail list especially for Air France. There is a spa including beauty treatments. When it is time to board, you have the option of getting on to your plane through the terminal or to be driven by car to your plane–you choose how you want everything.
ET: Have you opened any new lounges in the U.S.?
Christine Ourmières: In Washington D.C. we just opened a new lounge with a private area for first class passengers as well. Because of security in the U.S. it is sometimes not possible to provide special escorts, but wherever and whenever we can, we meet passengers as they are departing or arriving.
ET: Are there any additional elements to the new La Première offering?
Christine Ourmières: The staff in first class volunteers, and that is important because it means they really want to serve in first class. They also go through extra service training in collaboration with the Plaza Athénée hotel. This means that those serving first class not only want to be there but are getting special training as well. Most of the feedback we get is very positive.
ET: It seems that the theme is French luxury.
Christine Ourmières: We are lucky with our heritage, with brands such as Louis Vuitton and other famous designers—France has an image of luxury.
ET: With the recession of the past two years, many airlines have been cutting back and trying to save expenses.
Christine Ourmières: It’s always a challenge. Despite the crisis, we decided to invest in our premium products for both KLM and Air France. Travel can be a commodity, so if you don’t differentiate yourself, you are going to have a tough time.
ET: Lufthansa, Swiss and British Airways have all introduced private jet products or partnerships. Will we see anything similar from Air France?
Christine Ourmières: We studied it in the past but right now we aren’t planning on doing anything in that space.
ET: Besides the new first class, any other news?
Christine Ourmières: Many of your readers control large travel budgets. We have now fully integrated our sales force with Delta as of April 1, so there is one sales team representing Air France, Delta and KLM in the U.S. From a corporate travel perspective, it means there is one account manager who can now offer even more solutions. Integrating sales forces is very complex, but I believe we already had the right template there and so far the feedback from customers has been positive.
ET: And you have now completed your first year as the first female General Manager in the U.S. for Air France.
Christine Ourmières: It’s a bit scary from time to time because it is significant, but in terms of being a change or different, we are all different. My background is different from my predecessor and his experience is different than mine, so every person is different. It is, however, nice to show that women can get to top executive positions in the airline industry.
ET: Why do you think there are relatively few women in top positions within the airline business?
Christine Ourmières: It’s definitely a male-dominated business, partly because it is a very technically-oriented industry. I have a tech background so I am not afraid to ask the questions and get involved in the discussion. With that said, any executive who is at or near the top of their company is making sacrifices with their personal life. I don’t think there is really such a thing as balance, so for women it is sometimes more difficult with families, or to move around the world to take advantage of promotions. I am fortunate because I have a very understanding family and husband, but you have to live with the fact you spend lots of time not being home.