The Air France group offered a first sign this week that it’s preparing to follow other airlines in embracing emerging advanced air mobility (AAM) aircraft and services, with the announcement that its AFI KLM E&M maintenance unit is partnering with Toulouse-based vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) plane developer Ascendance Flight Technologies.
The memorandum of understanding between Ascendance and maintenance, repair, and operations specialist AFI KLM E&M is the first signal that the Air France-KLM tandem is preparing to greet and potentially integrate AAM craft and operations into its traditional airline activity. The accord focuses on Ascendance’s five-passenger Atea plane, and will begin by exploring future work between the two companies in the areas of line maintenance, component repair, specialized training of mechanics, and airworthiness management.
The move follows steps by other legacy airlines stake out positions in next-generation aircraft development and operation, and lean on them as new urban and shorter-range complements to their existing, longer-distance activities. That includes last week’s linkup between Joby and Delta to offer home-to-airport air taxi services for premium passengers, and Virgin Atlantic’s purchase of Vertical Aerospace craft. Other airlines like United became direct shareholdersa in companies like Archer before also ordering their craft.
The decision by the Air France-KLM group to initiate ties with Ascendance is fairly limited by comparison, but could well deepen and bring in other European AAM companies if it shows promise. Even at first blush, however, it sends a clear sign the Franco-Dutch group isn’t planning on being left outside looking in when air taxis and other services take wing.
“At AFI KLM E&M, we have always been on the lookout for the best innovations in aviation,” said Géry Mortreux, executive vice president of Air France Industries. “In particular, we are very interested in electric and hybrid electric propulsion technologies, which are set to be future business drivers over the next decade. I believe that this type of cooperation is in the general interest and is a further illustration of the general mobilization of our industry to decarbonize aviation – a collective effort in which AFI KLM E&M is of course fully involved.”
Attracting a major European airline and potential backer like the Air France-KLM group is also a big boost for Ascendance as it works its hybrid Atea VTOL toward future AAM operation. The craft is designed to be powered by the company’s Sterna propulsion system, which uses distributed hybrid electric motorization compatible with both tradition and/or sustainable fuels, and even hydrogen cells.
Atea is conceived to fly a maximum of 400 kilometers, boasts a quick 10-minute turnaround time, and is expected to take its first test flights next year before being featured in AAM demonstrations during the Paris Summer Olympics in 2024.
Ascendance CEO Jean-Christophe Lambert described the interest of Air France-KLM in the VTOL, via AFI KLM E&M, as a vote of confidence in the company and future of AAM activity.
“We are honored to receive this signal of interest from a major player in the field of aircraft maintenance,” Lambert said. “In parallel with our efforts to develop a new type of aircraft, it is very important for us to prepare the future of its operations today, in conjunction with the best experts in our industry. Maintenance is obviously at the center of our customers’ concerns, and this collaboration with AFI KLM E&M is a major step towards providing them reliable solutions.”