Air France 10
Paris (CDG) – New York (JFK)
Sunday, April 12
Aircraft: Boeing 777-200
Seat: 8B (Business Class)
Initially, I was scheduled to fly from Paris directly to Los Angeles on their afternoon 777-200ER leaving at 1:50PM and arriving at 4:30PM (with a corresponding earlier connecting flight from Madrid), one of two nonstops Air France typically runs between the cities each day. However, in January I checked my itinerary online to discover that my flight had been cancelled, and I’d been reassigned to the morning flight on the A380; however, they hadn’t rebooked me on my Madrid to Paris leg and the itinerary was a misconnect.
I didn’t particularly want to leave Madrid at the crack of dawn to make a 10:30AM CDG departure, especially on such a short getaway, so I called Air France/KLM/Delta’s Atlanta sales office to review my options.
After looking online at seat maps, I’d discovered that AF 10 between Paris and New York was scheduled to be on one of the newly outfitted 777-200 planes with reverse herringbone-style business class. Although it wasn’t the most convenient routing, it would allow me to take a later flight from Madrid, try out Air France’s much-beloved new product, and then test out Delta’s new transcon business class product, DeltaOne, between JFK and LAX.
However, sometime in late February I got a notification that my seat assignment had changed, and I soon discovered why: Air France had pushed back its refurbishment schedule by a couple of months, and so while it had at one time announced that AF 10 and AF 11 would have the new business class, the rollout had been pushed back by several months.
So not only was I not in Air France’s new business class, but I was in a cabin in serious need of refurbishment. Brother, it showed. I’ve flown Air France’s “old” business class product between LAX and CDG before on the A380, and found it perfectly comfortable and in decent shape. On the older aircraft, however, the seats felt like they were on their last legs.
In any event, still feeling ill, as we boarded I flagged down one of the flight attendants and explained to her in French that my stomach wasn’t feeling great, and asked her if I could have some ginger ale. She took my seat number and came by within 4 minutes with a glass of ginger ale, some paracetamol, and some Maalox, all of which were enormously helpful.
Boarding was a bit of a zoo. Due to some irregular operations on prior flights and the cancellation of an earlier United nonstop between CDG and Washington, the flight was quite full and nearly everyone’s seats were reassigned. Indeed, my chosen seat, 7B, was confirmed to me by Air France two days prior to departure, but at check-in had mysteriously changed to 6L. I tweeted @AirFrance, who acknowledged the seat had been reassigned and instead assigned me 8B, which was more or less the same.
As I approached my seat, I saw a confused pair of middle-aged Spanish friends who gestured at my seat and said, “this was supposed to be mine, but they put me over there,” and pointed to a seat in the middle of the row.
He asked me to switch, but already on the verge of throwing up and feeling in miserable shape, I was not about to sit in the middle. I felt bad, but this was Air France’s fault, not mine. They bumped me for someone else (my seat, 7B, ended up being occupied by a snooty French businessmen with the world’s worst hair, a combination of obvious hair plugs and a terrible dye job), and Air France bumped this guy for me because I tweeted and asked for an aisle. And as I looked around, we saw any number of actual couples (not golf buddies, as these guys appeared to be) separated by involuntary seat reassignments.
You guys, I’m probably an a-hole. Definitely. But: I will go to the trenches to avoid a middle seat.
(In the end, the guy sitting next to me got his silent but deadly revenge by releasing some truly noxious odors every 20 minutes or so. Well played, señor!)
In the end everyone settled into their seats with a shrug as the flight attendants came by and distributed amenity kits. My flight attendant came by with a tray of navy blue-colored and cream-colored amenity kits, though they weren’t gender specific. I chose a navy blue kit, which was very cute and featured leather detailing.
The amenity kit included Colgate toothpaste, a full size toothbrush, a comb, shoe-horn, lip balm, Colgate mouthwash, Clarins hand cream and a soft cotton and terry cloth eye mask, which is a major step up from the typical uncomfortable nylon business class eye mask.
Further amenities, including more hand cream, facial wash, shaving kits and pens, were located in the business class lavatories.
Separately, there was a clothing bag containing socks and comfortable terry-cloth slippers at the foot of each seat.
Shortly thereafter, the business class purser, who was delightful and spoke French-accented English with lilting British accent (apparently, he lived in the UK for nearly 20 years), came by with a tray of juice, champagne or water. I selected the juice, which seemed to be an orange-guava mix. In any event, it, along with the ginger ale I got at boarding, helped to settle my stomach further.
I explored the seat a bit and this is as good a moment as any to tell you that it is in serious need of replacement, but more by age than by design. The panel was coming off of the footwell in front of my seat, and my neighbor’s seatback was held together with packing tape. The 777-200 seatback video screens seem terribly small. While I think it’s obvious the new Air France business class seat is a dramatic improvement, it’s worth me pointing out that the “old” business class seats on the A380 are, though largely the same design, substantially nicer. Partly that’s because the seatback screens are quite larger, partly it’s because the seats are newer and haven’t had as much time to age, and partly because the A380 itself feels very airy and spacious. In the meantime, the 777-200 business cabin felt, at times, claustrophobic.
However, it’s also worth me pointing out that, despite the numerous flaws of the 777-200 seat, mainly due to age, I think that everybody’s “oh my dear!” vapors over Air France’s angled-flat seat are way overblown. I do tend to feel that unless you’re the princess in “The Princess and the Pea,” your ability to sleep on Air France’s angled-lie-flat is not going to be materially impaired if you can sleep on a 180-degree lie flat in a 2×2 configuration. Though I never felt like I was “sliding off the seat” once, it’s helpful that there is a footrest you can pop out when the bed is fully extended. The seat is modestly angled, at most.
But, look, bottom line, it’s an aged and out of date seat, and is in the process of being swapped out. The 777s are being retrofitted first because they’re clearly more in dire need. At the end of day, though, I slept just fine when I wanted to, and for a day flight, the recline was more than acceptable. The physical condition of the seats was not.
The safety video came on, which was adorable and seemed to put everyone in a good mood. Air France has adopted a new company-wide motto/song/design/motif, “France Is In The Air,” and it really is quite a jaunty and fashion-forward exercise in branding. (I can attest they even play “France Is In The Air” as their telephone hold music.)
About 20 minutes after takeoff, the flight attendants distributed menus and then about 30 minutes later came by and offered aperitifs and amuses-bouche.
Though I was still on shaky ground, hangover-wise, I requested a glass of champagne, which was Henriot, and excellent (though I took more modest sips than I otherwise might, to keep my recovery on an upward path). The amuse-bouche was shrimp in a whipped guacamole and grapefruit sauce that was terrific, accompanied by a package of tomato-olive cheese crackers.
About an hour and a half into the flight, another flight attendant set my dinner table and brought the tray containing the appetizers. During this time, the original flight attendant who I’d requested medicine from at boarding checked in on me to make sure that I was doing okay, and I assured her I was feeling better.
The tray included bread, green salad with a fresh herbal dressing, butter, a tomato-and-cheese brochette on a zucchini fricassee, and a hunk of duck foie gras with fig chutney. The foie gras was incredible, but also incredibly rich, and I could only eat a shaving at a time. I don’t think I got through more than a tenth of the serving portion (and I wonder if anybody who ate the whole thing lived to tell their cardiologist about it later), but it was lovely especially paired with the Henriot. I was impressed that the cutlery was Christofle, a high-end French silverware brand you would not typically associate with airline utensils.
The purser came by to request my dinner selection and I quizzed him about what might be a lighter option (since the heavy veal entrée sounded like it might kick me back over the line into queasiness). He showed me all of the platings and suggested the shrimp, which looked excellent, but I thought I should stay away from seafood for reasons noted above, so I went with the chicken. He also offered me a cheese plate.
I wasn’t especially hungry so only had a few bites of the chicken. The chicken was good, though a little tough (though in all fairness, I don’t think I’ve ever had chicken on an airplane I’ve raved about). Given my general high marks for Air France’s catering, though, I do think the chicken was a bit of a miss.
I skipped dessert, but quite enjoyed the cheese plate.
Following the meal, I read for a bit and then tried to sleep away the last vestiges of my hangover. After napping for a couple of hours, I got up to stretch my legs and felt a bit peckish and in the mood for something sweet, so I poked into the little snack stations they have set up by the lavatories. On previous trips, on the A380, the snack stations had been stocked extensively, but on this particular flight the stations were a bit on the minimalist side, although there was always available Henriot champagne on ice and a bottle of still and sparkling water. I spied a few cans of soda and some various juices, and one tiny wrapped chocolate, but not much in the way of food. I asked a flight attendant in the galley for something sweet, however, and she gave me a few packages of cookies.
A little bit after that, I decided to watch some TV, but found the IFE system a bit on the problematic side, with selections occasionally freezing onto a green screen before sending me back to the home screen. I didn’t find the IFE on the 777-200 nearly as intuitive as I found it on the A380, and ultimately settled on watching an old movie where I could only half pay attention, so I turned on When Harry Met Sally. I burst out laughing (as I always do) during the “I’ll have what she’s having” scene, and I’m sure my seatmate didn’t appreciate it. I wasn’t appreciating his methane emissions, so we were just about even.
About an hour before landing, the flight attendants came by with a light snack tray, which was absolutely the perfect amount of food. The acidity of the champagne was getting to me, so I ordered a Heineken instead, which hit the spot. I also ordered a Coke Zero to help refresh me a bit.
The cream of cauliflower actually had a few caviar (or roe, more likely) eggs on top, and was delicious. I’m not sure if the actual presented tray lined up with what was on the menu, but I got a triangle of a finger sandwich (which, in hindsight, may have been the boursin cheese and cucumber roulade) and a savory muffin, which may have been the “chicken loaf” (which is worth a renaming in any event).
The real star of the snack tray, and in fact the whole flight, and maybe the whole year, were the cream puffs. F’ing incredible. I mean, yeah, my appetite was just coming back, but these things were out of this world. The French are known for their pastries, and Air France really blew this one out of the park.
As we flew over the Northeast and made our preparations for landing, I freshened up a bit in the lavatories and ended up in a lovely conversation with one of the flight attendants in a hybrid of (my slightly rusty) French and English. The original flight attendant found me at this point and wanted to double-check that I was feeling better. We had a pleasant little conversation and I went back to my seat and prepared for arrival at JFK.
Air France 777 “Old” Business Class Bottom Line
I think if there’s ever a case of a flight having a terrible hard product but a wonderful soft product, it would be this one. I was disappointed by the condition of the 777-200 business class hard product, and by the worn and rough-around-the-edges seats. Obviously, I would have preferred to have flown the new 777-200 business product, and I hope to one day soon, as it looks cutting edge, comfortable and beautiful. So if you’re just flying a plane for a 180-degree lie flat seat, either take another carrier across the pond or make sure you’re on a newly-outfitted 777 that’s already in service.
The service, however, was magnificent through and through. I felt very personally looked after and cared for, and each and every one of the flight attendants and crew I interacted with was warm, friendly, quick with a smile and eager to put passengers in a good mood. I went from being very miserable and very
ill hungover at the commencement of the flight to swooning over a cream puff and laughing with a flight attendant in the galley by the end.
Now, I know people who’ve said their mileage has varied with Air France service, and I do wonder if, as KLM is to the Dutch, Air France is to the French. As for me, I’m a Francophile and I “get” France. I understand that speaking a bit of French, or even attempting to, is a bit of flattery and courtesy that will get you endless goodwill in return. The French are very rigid about addressing folks as monsieur and madame and peppering speech with bonjour, merci, and je vous en prie (a more formal way than de rien of saying “you’re welcome”), and if you buy into that sort of genial formality, it’s all very delightful. I can’t vouch for the passengers who only spoke in English on the plane, but I didn’t sense any difference in service with them, at all.
The French are also all about fashion and style and beauty, in some cases over substance. The style is reflected through Air France’s branding material and in the general sense of living life to its fullest with the catering service. Champagne! Foie gras! Even little bits of caviar in the cauliflower soup! The French take great pride in their food and in their wine, and Air France reflects that (they even serve endless champagne in economy class, the only airline in the world to do so). My food was, for the most part, excellent, and I thought the wine selections were a step above other carriers in business class.
But back to style over substance. There’s no denying the substance of the old business class on the Air France 777 needs a lot of work. I will say this is less applicable on the A380, where the business class cabin, though dated, still has some luster. But if you’re able to fly to Europe on a new 777 or even on an A380, I’d not hesitate to fly Air France for the experience of it all, which is full of charm.
I would not fly Air France’s old 777 on a Europe-bound redeye where sleep is paramount; however, on a westbound daytime flight I think the hard product is slightly less critical, so it’s a tossup of whether you prefer your product, ahem, hard or soft.