Reported by Matteo Legnani • Airways Magazine, July 2017
While exploring the Web in search of the best combination of flight times and fares from Milan, my hometown, I realized that in its 22-year-long history, Airways had never reviewed Air France, one of the main global carriers.
At €414 (US$441), taxes included, the Economy Class fare was absolutely interesting, as the combination of aircraft used from Milan-Linate (LIN) (Airways, October 2016) to Paris (CDG) and Miami (MIA) ranged from the Airbus A318 minibus to the mighty super-Jumbo, the A380.
Air France’s reservations system enables passengers to customize their travel.
For example, by adding just €40 (US$42) (one way), I could travel on the small and intimate Economy Class cabin located in the rear upper deck of its Airbus A380 and enjoy what the French carrier dubs the ‘Duo Seats.’, which are slightly larger than those on the main deck, thanks to a 2-4-2 layout, instead of the 10-abreast one (3-4-3) found in the lower deck.
Besides this option, passengers may choose to be served a different lunch or dinner onboard, which does not only include the usual options for vegetarians, kosher, or children.
It’s a proper à la carte service, offered as an alternative to the menu included in the fare: for an extra €15 (US$16) I could choose the ‘seafood’ menu, which included marinated prawns and fish soup; for €18 (US$20) a ‘traditional’ menu, with foie gras terrine and leg of duck confit; and for €28 (US$31) a ‘Sélection LeNôtre” menu, with smoked salmon and pan-fried chicken with piquillo peppers.
Surfing a little more on the site, I found out that, by adding €309 (US$330), I could upgrade one of my two flights to Premium Economy, a service that Air France has introduced in its A380, A330, and Boeing 777 fleets since 2009.
Given the low price in Economy Class, I went for it, upgrading the daylight flight, which was not only longer than the return night trip but one during which it would be hard to sleep and easy to get frustrated by the confined spaces of an Economy Class seat.
AF90 — Paris-Miami: Premium Economy
Air France’s timetable from Milan to Miami was, to say the least, perfect: departure from LIN was scheduled at 10:40—thus avoiding a very early wake-up before a long day of travel—with arrival in MIA at 17:40, good for having a dinner out in fancy Miami Beach or having a rest once at the hotel.
Also, the 1 hour and 40-minute connecting time in Paris was ideal for getting from Terminal 2F to 2E (Hall M) without having to rush through the gigantic Charles De Gaulle Airport.
After arriving from Milan, the transfer required a long walk, immigration, security and a 10-minute bus ride.
Once I arrived in the futuristic Hall M (the one most recently added to Terminal 2), I discovered that gate M50 was at its far end, requiring another half a mile walk only partly aided by moving walkways.
When I finally got there, the boarding for flight AF90 to Miami had already started, my A380-800 (F-HPJC • MSN 043) being majestically docked at the three-boarding-bridge gate.
An impressive queue of passengers was moving slowly toward the plane, but my Premium Economy ticket allowed me Sky Priority access.
Five minutes later, I was climbing up the air bridge. The entrance to the upper deck was through door 1L, which separates the two cabins that form the Business Class on AF’s A380s.
Turning right and crossing the aft part of Business, I entered the cozy Premium Economy (‘W’), fitted with only 38 seats, and reached my middle section-aisle 85G seat.
The cabin was very pretty, with its light gray floor and blue-and-pearl upholstered seats.
The fixed shell seats, with their 38” pitch, guaranteed 20% more legroom compared to AF’s Economy Class. The space between armrests was 19” against 17.5” in ‘Y’.
A pillow, a blanket, noise-insulating headphones, and a bottle of water were provided to each passenger and, minutes after boarding, the FAs came by to distribute small amenity kits.
While exploring the confines of my seat, I found that it was equipped with a personal reading light, a couple of power outlets, USB ports on the front part of the dividing armrest, and a footrest. The movements of the seat were not electrically controlled.
Pushback occurred at 14:00, with the engine startup sequence inaudible from the upper deck.
While taxiing to runway 26R, the safety demonstration video was featured on the 12” personal video screen in front of the seat.
In my opinion, the ‘France Is in the Air’ theme and the acting models make it one of the best safety demonstration videos around.
At 14:15, we started our long takeoff run, perfectly recorded by the camera mounted at the top of the tail.
It was so windy that morning in Paris that, during the initial climb, the gigantic aircraft was shaking as if it was a tiny single-engine aircraft.
The route for the 9 hours and 20-minute flight would take us over Normandy and north of Brest, and follow a rather southerly transatlantic corridor, overflying nothing but water until the shores of Florida.
A few minutes into the flight, I started to feel uncomfortable because of the cold air conditioning.
If you love the cold, the A380 is heaven, but, if you can barely endure it, like me, it’s not so pleasant.
The cabin is so wide that, to assure proper air recirculation, the A380 has eight rows of fans installed alongside the fuselage.
The seats near the windows are the ones that are not under the cold air flow.
Luckily, I found one such free seat in front of me (actually the sole free seat in the whole cabin) and, after asking the Flight Attendant, I swiftly moved to 84A.
Cabin service sprang into action 20 minutes after departure with the distribution of the menu cards printed in French, English, and Spanish, followed by an aperitif (I opted for Devaux champagne, which came in a plastic glass), accompanied by a small bag of pizza-flavored crackers. Lunch was served 50 minutes later.
Apart from the overall dimensions and personal space, another plus of AF’s Premium Economy seat is the dining table positioned in the seat in front of you.
Once opened, it unfolds twice, becoming approximately one third larger than the usual ones.
Premium Economy passengers are treated to a menu different from the Economy Class one.
On my flight, the starter was a delicious foie gras terrine accompanied by dried grapes and wild mushrooms (a truly Business Class-level offering in terms of taste and presentation).
For the main course, the choice was chicken with ginger cream sauce, carrots, and mashed potatoes, or couscous with vegetables and a spicy sauce.
I chose the latter, which proved tasty and tender, but very poorly presented.
The meal was completed by a slice of camembert, a clementine, and a chocolate lava cake. The wine, a 2014 cabernet sauvignon, came in a small plastic bottle but with a proper glass (the cutlery and the plates were plastic).
Coffee was accompanied by a packet of Valrhona French chocolate containing three different crus, and two packets of terrible soap-tasting powdered milk.
I asked the Flight Attendant for some real milk and, 30 seconds later, she came back with it, lending a personalized touch to the service.
Meal over, I lay back in my comfortable seat, pulled up the footrest and delved into AF’s outstanding Inflight Entertainment System (IFE), a marvel in which you can navigate through moving maps and cameras, with over 1,000 hours of video content, including movies and TV series available in 12 languages, and a music section with about 300 CDs, 13 live concerts, six hours of video-clips, and nine radio channels. Plus, of course, games and programs for children.
The sound quality offered by the headphones was excellent. While cruising at 38,000ft, I enjoyed Woody Allen’s latest release, Cafe Society, and then caught up with some sleep.
During the flight, the FAs never passed through the cabin with water or juices, but a small self-service bar (including Champagne) was available in the galley at the rear of the upper deck, just in front of one of the two curved stairs that connect the two decks (the other is at the opposite side of the aircraft).
An hour and a half before arriving in Miami, the FAs served a snack consisting of a hot ‘pizza toast’, fresh cheese (similar to yogurt), and a small bowl of fruit, along with soft drinks, coffee, and tea. Modest in terms of both quantity and quality, to say the truth.
The top of descent occurred eight hours and 30 minutes after takeoff, preceding a spectacular approach at dusk over the Everglades to runway 09, where we touched down very firmly at 17:25 local time, 15 minutes ahead of schedule.
AF99 — Miami-Paris: Business Class
Four days later, I was back at Miami International Airport.
After returning my car, I got lost inside the airport’s circuitous system of corridors, so I arrived at the Air France check-in hall in Terminal J less than 90 minutes before the scheduled 20:40 departure time of AF99 to CDG.
It was so late that only five passengers were left in the Economy Class line.
When my turn arrived, the agent asked me whether I wanted to be upgraded to Business Class.
Surprised, I said yes and, a few minutes later, I was on my way to the lounge, my boarding pass in hand and my Business Class seat assigned: 73A.
In Miami, Air France uses Skyteam partner Delta Air Lines’ lounge.
The Delta Sky Club is located one level above check-in and past security. It has a nice view of the apron through large windows, but not a terrace, just like other Delta lounges across its network.
The lounge has a modern and appealing look, with a well-lit ambiance, the décor divided into four areas: one featuring ivory, sleek-designed armchairs, one resembling a living room with more classical sofas, a working area with PCs and printers, and a not-so-impressive self-service bar with cold and hot dishes and drinks.
Champagne was available for a charge, so I opted for a glass of white wine. However, the Wi-Fi in the lounge was free.
Boarding was called 45 minutes before the scheduled time of departure (STD).
The reason for this early call was the long walking distance to gate J17, no less than half a mile away from the lounge.
Again, I was able to avoid the long Economy Class boarding line and reached the upper deck in a few seconds.
Seat 73A was in the last row of the Business Class cabin, just before Premium Economy.
One would have expected to find a top interior on such an iconic and distinctive airplane as the A380. But this was not the case for Air France.
At the beginning of 2014, the French carrier decided to install its newest hard-product on its Boeing 777 fleet, boasting a ‘cocoon’ design and a herringbone arrangement with a 1-2-1 abreast layout.
This product will also be extended to the A330s, but not to the A380s, which will keep the original shell seats.
While the seat’s 55” of pitch, the 24” width, and the 180° recline guarantee comfort, the 2-2-2 layout limits aisle access for passengers with window seats (particularly during night flights, when seats are converted into beds), and the design of the seats provides limited privacy to those traveling alone.
In my case, 73B remained empty, so I had unrestricted access to the aisle throughout the flight and could fully enjoy AF’s great service, food, and wine, which was the same as introduced on the 777s.
As soon as I had settled in, one of the FAs came by with dinner and breakfast menus and offered a choice of welcome drinks.
While finally sipping a glass of chilled Laurent-Perrier champagne, I inspected the amenity kit containing the usual items plus a Clarins hydrating cream, lip balm, mouthwash, and a comb.
The seat was furnished with a large pillow, a soft azure duvet, and a pretty bag containing slippers.
The Captain announced a very fast seven hour 50 minute trip to CDG and away we went, lifting off from runway 09 at 20:55.
Hot towels were distributed 15 minutes after departure, at the beginning of what I could only describe as a true culinary experience, from appetizers to liquors, perfectly orchestrated by the cabin crew.
In the span of one hour and 30 minutes, I was served a delicious pheasant terrine with figs; scallops with mango and seaweed salad; a perfectly pan-seared tenderloin with port wine sauce, scalloped potatoes and ratatouille; and a selection of French cheeses.
A Coteaux-du-Languedoc Blanc accompanied the first part of the dinner, while, for the meat and the cheese, I selected a Château La Cardonne 2010 red Bordeaux.
Personally, I found the dessert service to be the most emotional moment of the night: the FAs arrived with a cart, as they used to in the golden age of flying, to show all the offerings.
I tasted three different small pastries (Opera cake, plum clafouti, and raspberry cookie), two sorbets (mango and raspberry) and the fruit salad, containing eight different types of fruit artistically positioned in the plate.
Only such a noble liquor as an Armagnac could appropriately end this feast.
Once the table was cleaned, it was time to sleep.
The electrically controlled seat took 30 seconds to convert into a flatbed, except for the lower part of the legs (under the knee), which was not perfectly horizontal.
A glitch that the 777s’ new ‘cocoon seats’ have for sure overcome.
However, that detail didn’t prevent me from getting at least four hours of excellent sleep.
Breakfast was served one hour ahead of landing, with coffee, tea, and juices accompanying a selection of pastries, croissants, yogurt, butter, preserves, and assorted fruit.
The lack of a hot breakfast might appear a bit diminutive to an American passenger, though.
Onboard service terminated with a round of hot towels half an hour before landing on runway 26R at CDG at 10:55 local.
For sure, AF’s Premium Economy is excellent in terms of cabin décor, seats, and personal space. It also has a very good value-for-money ratio.
In Business Class, it is evident that the A380 offer might appear outdated when compared to that found on the 777s and A330s, but the quality of the food and wines, the beauty of the mis en place, and the exceptional cabin crew service make flying Business with AF a special experience, reflecting France’s joie-de vivre.