Reported by Enrique Perrella.
Flying the average country’s flag carrier can easily become an annoying routine. These, often devote its efforts in offering a standardized service with the always-necessary regional touches that will contrast them with the competition.
Air France (AF) is an airline that’s been around for eight decades. As its name suggests, it is a carrier that not only has a colossal fleet historically composed of the world’s best airliners – all the way from the Concorde to the Airbus A380 today – but also wears the name of a country that evokes elegance, tradition, uniqueness and… to say the least, French appeal.
This appeal has perhaps been key for an airline that represents one of the world’s most loved cultures. Air France has conquered the world by using its unique French touch, though staying on top of the competition has been a challenge that may be hard to accomplish in the future.
To experience the airline’s current product, an opportunity presented to fly its Airbus A330-200 on the interesting Paris (CDG) – Caracas (CCS) route in the Affaires (Business) Class.
Although the airline recently announced its new Affaires and La Premiere seats, due to be installed in its Boeing 777-200 and -300ER aircraft (starting June 2014 until 2016), the Airbus A330/A340 fleet will bear the current configuration for a few more years down the road, making this an excellent opportunity to evaluate the traveler’s experience on board Air France’s Airbus pillars.
Air France’s Achilles tendon: Charles-de-Gaulle Airport
One of the world’s most despised airports is Paris CDG – the airline’s main hub. Horrific connecting stories, bad personnel service, and many other unpleasant facts are the typical, rendering CDG to be one of the most avoided air terminals in the globe.
However, my CDG experience was uneventful – an on-time arrival from an intra-Europe city allowed for plenty of time to walk from terminal 2F to the new and far terminal L.
The assigned gate for flight AF368 was L36 – the only non-A380 equipped gate in the terminal. Boarding commenced ten minutes after I arrived, therefore I had no time to visit the airline’s lounge and enjoy its amenities.
The boarding process was impeccably performed through two jet-ways connecting the L1 and L2 doors. Upon reaching the aircraft, I was greeted by a senior lady Flight Attendant (FA) who then indicated where my seat (4K) was situated.
The elegant Affaires colors in this Airbus A330-200 gave a nice look and feel to the front cabin. My seat – located in the last row of the front Affaires cabin – was fitted with the usual pillow, plastic-wrapped blanket, and a hang for a coat, all nicely presented. Our FA for the day welcomed us on board and handed the airline’s amenity kit – a modest selection of items inside a rather simple beige-colored bag.
As our crew prepared for departure, the customary welcome drinks arrived, composed of red orange juice, water, and the most exquisite Lenoble Brut Cuvée champagne. True to its tradition, the iconic beverage was served at perfect temperature, standing on top of other world-class airlines that miss the mark on champagne handling.
In less than 20 minutes, all passengers were onboard and both aircraft doors were closed. Our A330 was pushed back from the gate four minutes ahead of schedule, at 10.31.
As the airliner rolled through CDG’s long taxiways, the Captain welcomed us on board and announced a 9-hour 40-minute flight to Caracas, with no expected turbulence and an ahead-of-schedule arrival. In fact, we reached the runway just 6 minutes after pushing back from the gate and our A330 became airborne at exactly 10.37.
Le ciel passionnément – In-flight service
For today’s flight the main service consisted of a Lunch and before-arrival Snack.
Shy of 20 minutes after takeoff, our FA distributed La Carte – very well designed with the airline’s 80-year anniversary branding. The first page showed a Bienvenue à Board letter introducing the airline’s Régis Marcon, Chef de cuisine triple étoilé Michelin. To say I was impressed is an understatement. Marcon is one of the world’s best chefs and, with three Michelin stars, I was definitely curious about the airline’s catering on this long-haul service to Caracas.
After quickly browsing the nice booklet, our FA arrived with the beverages cart and an amuse-bouche, composed of marinated Saint-Jacques scallops. To complement, a fantastic selection of Apéricrêpes (cocktail crêpe snacks filled with Comte cheese) and MiniGaufres (crunchy waffles spiced with paprika) accompanied my selection of a glass of Saint-Estèphe Château Les Ormes de Pez 2008 red wine.
Soon later, the FAs began serving the appetizer, composed of a smoked salmon, vegetable bâtonets with wild Madagascar lime oil, slow-cooked duck foie gras terrine, and baby spinach. On a side, we were served a greens salad with a balsamic vinaigrette. The quality of the salmon and the foie gras were quite superb.
After our appetizer was cleared, the main course (entrée) cart arrived with the options of a Château pan-seared tenderloin of beef; poached scallops; a vegetable risotto; and Régis Marcon’s signature braised lamb shoulder with figs.
Unfortunately, not being a fan of lamb forced me to skip the chef’s creation, having to go for the traditional Château pan-seared tenderloin of beef which came with a green peppercorn sauce, polenta with Parmesan cheese, sautéed Romanesco cabbage, carrots and zucchini.
The FA grabbed a pre-served tray and placed it on my tabletop. At first, I was underwhelmed by the poor presentation of the dish, which consisted of a sole piece of beef ‘adorned’ with a garnish of vegetables and a sauce in an aluminum container.
Then my dislikes for the looks of the dish were confirmed, as the vegetables were flavorless with a microwave-like texture and the savory peppered sauce overwhelmed the beef’s pan-seared flavor. Thankfully, though, the tenderloin was cooked to perfection and, with a little salt, ended up being a good piece of beef.
A passenger traveling next to me asked for the vegetable risotto, which initially was no longer available even though we were seated in the front Affaires section of the airplane.
The nice FA went to the back to swap one of the crew’s meals and brought the risotto to my travel neighbor. Even though it was a nice gesture, the risotto’s texture was that of a mushy purée, which as far as restaurant standards are concerned, is unacceptable.
After the main course, the famous dessert and cheese course cart arrived. I asked the FA to give me a sample of both, something I didn’t regret afterward. The quality of all components was of the highest levels, elevating the ranking of this modest meal service by a few points.
Once finished with the meal, I explored my surroundings and visited the Business Class bar which was already fitted with several snacks, drinks, and chocolates. Later on, I returned to my seat and reclined it to a less-than-flat position. Thankfully I managed to sleep for the next 6 hours until I was awakened by the scent of the next meal.
Before arrival meal service
With little over an hour left to go, I was presented with yet another tray with a ravioli dish and a coconut-based dessert. I chose to have a Diet Coke with ice this time as my beverage.
The ravioli were presented in a rather poor way, unevenly heated and slightly unseasoned. I didn’t care much for it so I ended up eating half of the plate. The bread, which came with the plate, was superb – thankfully!
This meal concluded a catering service which left a lot to desire. Clearly, the three-star Michelin Chef isn’t paying much attention to what’s being delivered onboard the airline’s long-haul flights.
Arrival into Caracas
Our Airbus A330 began its relaxed descent into CCS about 35 minutes before scheduled arrival time. The FAs began prepping the cabin and minutes later, we touched down on the airport’s Runway 10, landing 10 minutes ahead of schedule.
Once off the plane, immigration and baggage claim were quick and efficient, ending a flight which could have been much better if the food had been up to the French’s standards.