France’s aerospace industry is in rude health – so how do airlines and manufacturers on the ground keep hitting the heights?
If you’re in the market for something that flies, there are few things that France can’t supply. With $51.6bn in exports in 2017, France is the world’s second-largest aerospace exporter (after the US). Though plenty of other products are manufactured in France, aerospace is an often overlooked driver behind the country’s industrial might.
The work of French giants such as Airbus and Dassault is well documented but there is also a legion of smaller aerospace firms, many of which are based in and around Toulouse in the south of the country. These lesser-known companies design, build and supply aircraft, satellites, engines, avionics and every component imaginable to civil and military programmes around the world. France also does much of the heavy lifting in European space exploration, with a €2.4bn annual budget for its own agency, a central role in the European Space Agency and, in French Guiana, a prime location for launching satellites.
The government has long protected the industry and prioritised investment in it – but there are challenges ahead. France will come under increasing pressure in the coming years from rising powers such as China. Stagnation is also an issue, particularly as several of the more venerable aerospace companies function as a kind of old boys’ club: some firms have recently struggled to field fresh ideas.
Nevertheless, France remains a formidable force in the industry. So fasten your seat belt, stow your tray-table and join us for a flying visit of the industry’s most interesting places and people.
Thanks to an enormous network, Air France maintains a strong brand despite issues in recent years. Strikes in 2018 cost millions and led to the ceo’s resignation, while Joon, a low-cost subsidiary aimed at millennials, is being shelved less than two years in. Hopes are that fresh management can straighten things out: last year Canadian Benjamin Smith was made head of the af-klm group and Anne Rigail became Air France’s first ever female ceo – and one of the few women to lead an airline.
Revenue: €15.8bn (2017)
One of several smaller airlines serving France’s overseas citizens, Air Saint-Pierre is vital for the 6,000 residents of self-governing archipelago Saint-Pierre & Miquelon, south of Newfoundland. It plies the skies between its home base and Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Québec and, as of 2018, offers the adventurous a weekly summer flight between Saint-Pierre and Paris. Other regional players of note include Ewa Air – based in Mayotte, a French territory in the Indian Ocean – and Air Guyane Express in French Guiana.
Fleet: 2 (1 atr, 1 Reims-Cessna f-406)
Aerospace Valley might not be an actual place – but its clout is certainly real. Bringing together a who’s who of French aerospace, it works as a cluster to promote and develop the industry. Its 854 members include the likes of Airbus and Dassault as well as dozens of smaller companies specialising in highly niche products and services, such as pyrotechnic-device production and metal fabrication. Throw in a handful of universities, research centers and laboratories and it’s easy to see why France is such an aeronautics powerhouse. Most of its members and activities are based around the cities of Toulouse and Bordeaux; the cluster represents around 120,000 employees. It also works on an EU level, promoting partnerships and collaboration with governments and aerospace companies across the bloc.
With 130,000 employees globally and a revenue of €67bn in 2017, Airbus is an aeronautics titan that builds commercial aircraft, defence equipment, satellites and more. Known for its planes, it’s also developing satellite technology and space-debris removal. But, with increasing global competition, it is under pressure to invest in r&d and global partnerships.
Founded 90 years ago, Dassault Aviation builds military aircraft and business jets. Although relatively small – less than 12,000 employees and €3.2bn in revenue – its aircraft are legendary: the Mirage fighter is synonymous with the French airforce. But its reputation has been dented by a corruption case in India and cancelled business-jet line.
This Franco-Italian firm makes just two turboprop planes – the atr42 and atr72 – but, by delivering them to high standards, it has established itself as a leader in the market for affordable and efficient small aircraft. Based in Toulouse, its 1,300 employees have produced more than 1,500 aircraft.
Paris-based Safran offers a nose-to-tail solution for commercial aircraft, building everything from inflight entertainment to exit slides. Employing more than 58,000 people, it holds an important place in French aerospace, touching most aspects of the industry.
With 65,000 employees and operations in 56 countries, Thales, which was founded in 1893, is a behemoth. Though it’s known for avionics and other aircraft electrical systems, it also builds everything from ships to broadcast equipment.
Established at an incubator in Grenoble and supported by Airbus’s BizLab accelerator, Safetyn has developed a multisensory alert system for pilots that uses alarms of increasing severity. The system is designed to improve a pilot’s situational awareness and allow for timely reactions in emergency situations, reducing heavy workloads.
Blagnac-based Uwinloc has devised technology for tags that broadcast their precise location in 3D, showing, for instance, the whereabouts of a small component in an enormous pile of crates in a large warehouse. This is often how the aerospace ecosystem functions in France: with highly specialised companies driving efficiencies for larger manufacturers.
Initially developed in Vietnam and then accelerated and incorporated in France, VRnam uses virtual-reality technology to train pilots. The first aircraft to be given the simulator treatment is Airbus’s a320; more planes are set to come on board in future. It’s a good example of how France helps foreign start-ups to develop new technology – and then brings them into the fold.
Located in Kourou, French Guiana, this institution is the primary European spaceport. That’s partly because it’s close to the equator – less energy is required to put a spacecraft into orbit than at other latitudes – and partly due to its status as a French territory, which makes it part of the EU.
Mainland France has the most advanced space industry in Europe, comprising the well-funded space agency cnes and hundreds of companies designing and manufacturing equipment. When it comes to business activity in Guiana, this is the main event: space accounts for 79 per cent of exports and employs one in six private-sector workers. New launch sites have been proposed in Scotland and Italy but, for now, French Guiana remains unchallenged.
Jean-Yves Le Gall has been head of the Centre National d’Études Spatiales (cnes), France’s space agency, since 2013. He is also chair of the Council of the European Space Agency – the third-largest after Nasa and China’s cnsa – head of the International Astronautical Federation and a member of the Legion of Honour.
MONOCLE: How important is space exploration to France?
JEAN-YVES LE GALL: Space exploration is extremely important because we have a brilliant scientific community that is specialised in the field. We have specialists for Mars, the Moon and oceanography. We work on the European gps, on a project called Copernicus, which studies the environment, and other research programmes. France is number one in Europe: we have the highest budget [about €2.5bn] and we’re at the centre of influence in the European Commission.
M: Which current CNES projects are you most enthusiastic about?
JYLG: What we’re doing on Mars is very interesting. The observation and study of the Earth’s climate is also fundamental – and the militarisation of satellites is leading to some very interesting innovations. These I think are the three most emblematic projects for the cnes.
M: How do you view the role of the CNES in the future?
JYLG: France is very well positioned in terms of innovation; the satellites we’re making are especially innovative. We play an important role in the battle against climate change, in particular with the One Planet Summit of President Macron, which we’re in the process of launching.