In 1933, Air France brought together the five main French air transporters. In just a few years, it entered the international stage as a major airline.
Encouraged by the Minister for Air Transport, Pierre Cot, the major French airlines joined forces. Air Orient, Air Union, Lignes Farman, CIDNA and, later, Aéropostale joined by merger and acquisition to become a single national airline, founded on 30 August 1933. Its headquarters was established at 2, rue Marbeuf in Paris, in Air Orient's premises. Now all it needed was a name.
At a press conference, Louis Allègre, the Director-General of the new airline, asked the journalists present to help him find the perfect name, one that would 'resonate internationally and that everyone can understand'. Georges Raffalovitch of the Journal suggested 'Air France', which was agreed on unanimously.
There was also the question of the new airline's logo. Air France took Air Orient's logo, a winged horse with a dragon's tail. While the debate over aeroplanes or seaplanes raged on, everyone agreed that the mythical creature, equally at ease in the sky or on the waves, was the perfect fit. It would be enthusiastically adopted by crews, who nicknamed it 'the Prawn'.
The new airline was officially declared open by Pierre Cot on 7 October 1933 at Le Bourget, the country's main airport. France finally had a national airline, which now had to work to find unity.
It had a name, a logo, and a chairman: Ernest Roume, former Air Orient chairman. But it also had a great variety of aircraft, methods, and crews. Air France had to become a consistent, efficient and safe unit.
Over a few years, the airline reduced its fleet from 259 to 90 mainly French aircraft. Air France built its network around three hubs: Marignane (Marseilles) for the Mediterranean and the East, Toulouse for South America, and, in particular, Le Bourget, for connections to major European cities.
Le Bourget, Air France's cradle
The site of unforgettable exploits, such as Charles Lindbergh's arrival after his New York-Paris flight in 1927, Le Bourget became the new airline's launch base, from which a vast network to Europe and beyond was built. After all, the world was now accessible: Algiers in 8 hours 30 minutes, Dakar in 28 hours, Hanoi in a week.
Paris-London, the key route
But it was Paris-London, the key European business link that was Air France's most important route. It accounted for around one third of Air France passengers, and the airline assigned increasingly powerful aircraft to this route, such as the Bloch 220 (300 km/h cruising speed) in 1938. The two cities were just an hour and a quarter apart.
The French airline based itself around this route. In 1938, it transported 39% of passengers travelling between the two capitals.
The third-largest network in the world
On the eve of the Second World War, Air France had established itself as a major airline. Its network had undergone considerable development. In 1938, with 85 destinations, it had the third-largest network in the world.
In that year, Air France transported over 100,000 passengers, twice as many as in 1933, and in much more comfortable conditions. The aircraft were quieter, quicker and flew higher.
Air france during the war
But with France entering the global conflict, Air France was thrown into turmoil. After the armistice of 1940, its business activities dwindled away.
Alongside an 'Occupied Air France', there was also a 'Free Air France', under the authority of General de Gaulle: the Lignes Aériennes Militaires, managed from Damascus by Lionel de Marmier in 1943.
In North Africa, Air France continues a reduced operation and the Aeromaritime ceases to operate. They were reunited in 1944 as part of the Réseau des Lignes Aériennes Françaises, which returned to the name Air France in 1946. The national airline took off once again.