The locally obscure French colonial carrier, Air Austral, has sprung a big surprise on Qantas and Virgin Blue.

It has signed a memorandum of understanding to buy two giant Airbus A380s and use them the way the designers always said was possible, and fit each of them with 840 seats in an all economy class configuration.

Although a formal order or delivery date hasn’t been announced, it sounds like the party animal special to Paris might be coming to Sydney as soon as 2013. And more crucially for Qantas and Virgin Blue’s V Australia subsidiary, also coming to the Australia-South Africa market. V Australia has approval to fly to Johannesburg from late this year, making it the second Qantas dominated route that it will gate crash after it enters the Los Angeles market at the end of next month.

Mais pourquoi? Because Air Austral is something of a sleeping giant, determined to turn the perpetually relaxed town of St Denis on La Reunion, on the edge of a grand volcanic island in the Indian Ocean, into what outsiders might see as the most implausible passenger hub on earth with the possible exception of the Wilkins Ice Runway in Australian Antarctica.

Air Austral will start to flex its wings, so to speak, this April, with Boeing 777-300ER services from Noumea to Sydney and then St Denis, with non-stop connections to Paris. And to Toulouse, which is pretty boring, and Marsailles, which is sensationally good fun and much better value than Paris any day or night, and Lyons, where you can eat yourself to death in splendid decadence or be in the high Alps in less than an hour.

(I know these things. I worked in France off and on as a ‘youngster’. Sigh.)

Air Austral, which currently offers a Club Austral business class, a Confort class premium economy, and a Loisirs economy class, also flies from St Denis to Johannesburg, the Seychelles and Mauritius. Note that loisirs means leisure, not loosers.

The privately owned airline gets most of its loisirs so far from the administrative classes taking holidays back home. But the front end cabins are underwritten by bureaucrats earning Paris salaries and allowances on the other side of the world, and Air Austral knows that this nice little earner will just get littler as the vestiges of colonial privilege shrink away. More loisirs are an attractive answer, including from Australia.

Divided by 840 seats, the fixed operating costs of the A380, even the initial versions now flying with Singapore Airlines, Qantas and Emirates, give Air Austral an unbeatably inexpensive trip cost per passenger, and the opportunity to continuously offer lower but profitable fares that non-users of the giant Airbus cannot match. Even if they fill only half the seats.

The Air Austral ambush will no doubt be studied carefully at Jetstar and Emirates, both of whom have speculated idly or otherwise, on the competitive consequences of high density A380s on routes between Australia and the rest of the world.

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