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Air France’s new business-class seats are a huge step up from the carrier’s older cabins. The Pros: new seats, delicious food, spot-on service. The Cons: no in-flight Wi-Fi and it can be hard to pinpoint which aircraft the new seats are on.
Business-class options to Europe have become a lot more interesting in recent years due to product overhauls from many carriers. Among the most highly anticipated seats of the past few years were the stylish new ones Air France introduced aboard the 777-300ER back in 2014 — and thanks to a particular airfare deal, I was able to book a relatively cheap ticket and try it out for myself.
Just as there are certain cities from which you can regularly find relatively low premium fares, such as Colombo (CMB) or Cape Town (CPT), it seemed to me that there were some great deals on Air France business class if you were willing to fly to and from Bucharest (OTP) — that’s right, the Romanian capital seems to be one of those hidden gems where airfares tend to price out lower than other European destinations.
My other primary objective was to fly a couple of business-class products that I hadn’t yet had a chance to experience. At the top of my list was Air France’s new business class. The airline actually launched it back in June 2014 on flights from New York (JFK) to Paris (CDG) aboard the 777-300ER, but the rollout has been gradual. Service has expanded to several more hubs, including some flights to Los Angeles (LAX), Toronto (YYZ) and Washington Dulles (IAD), among other destinations, as well as on certain retrofitted 777-200 aircraft. The airline plans to retrofit its A330s toward the end of this year and in 2018, and possibly put the seats on its A380s starting in 2019, so be sure to check your aircraft type and the seating configuration of your specific flight before booking.
I had to be careful with my booking because the airline also flies A380s from LAX to CDG that do not yet feature the new business-class seat, so the flight I wanted was AF69, which departed at 6:35pm. I would connect in Paris aboard Air France’s Romanian SkyTeam partner, TAROM, for my flight to Bucharest.
On the return, I wanted to try one of KLM’s new business-class seats. The airline has finished retrofitting its 777s and 747s with one type of business-class seat — they’re nice and generally in a 2-2-2 configuration, with the feet angled toward one another. But the airline has installed a completely different, reverse-herringbone-style seat aboard its 787-9s, which it flies from Amsterdam (AMS) to San Francisco (SFO), among other destinations. To maximize my trip, I booked a flight from Bucharest to AMS, then I’d spend an overnight in the city and continue the following morning on the AMS–SFO flight.
My total cost came to about $2,600. Of that, $2,057 was airfare, $422 was carrier-imposed surcharges and the rest was airport taxes and fees.
My tickets all booked in the J fare class, and I haven’t yet decided where to credit the miles. These are the options I’m considering:
- With Delta, I would earn 175% award miles, 200% Medallion Qualification Miles and 35% Medallion Qualification Dollars. That breaks down to 23,646 SkyMiles, 27,024 MQMs and $720 MQDs — that’s enough MQMs for Silver Medallion status, but I’d still be way behind on my qualifying spending.
- I have a Flying Blue account with Air France/KLM since members can transfer points from American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou and Starwood Preferred Guest. With Flying Blue, I’d earn 25,096 award miles and elite miles — that’s enough for Silver elite status.
- With Alaska Airlines, a non-alliance partner of Air France/KLM, I have MVP Gold status and am on my way toward qualifying for MVP Gold 75K this year, so I think I want to concentrate my earning there. However, I’d earn only a 25% mileage bonus based on my fare class — but I’d also earn a 100% award-mile bonus because of my status. My earning there would be 15,318 elite-qualifying miles (well below the others) but 27,572 award miles.
I think I will probably go with Alaska to keep gunning for status and rack up miles that I think are much more valuable than the other possibilities, especially given the funny things going on with Delta award pricing lately.
Check-In and Lounge
Air France flies out of the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX. It was a relatively light day when I got to the airport around 3:30pm. I walked over to the SkyPriority lane at the Air France check-in counters and was checked in and sent to security within about two minutes. Unfortunately, there’s no TSA PreCheck, but at least I had access to the premium-cabin line. Security still took about 20 minutes, though.
After I made it through, I headed to the gate to check on the plane, only to find a Singapore Airlines A380 parked there — gate change! Turns out we’d be departing from a section of the old Tom Bradley Terminal way down at the end of the new one, so it would be quite a hike. Before I made the trek, I headed up a floor to the Korean Air Lounge, which Air France premium flyers have access to.
The entrance is beautiful, with white marble floors and counters and wood paneling framing the door. The rest of the lounge, well… not as impressive.
Just past reception is a seating area with low chairs and little tables with plugs embedded in them.
Through a little archway is the buffet. It had some cold snacks, including vegetables.
Finger sandwiches were also available…
…as well as a hot beverage station.
There was also a fridge with soda and other non-alcoholic beverages.
Around the corner was the bar area with café-style seating. Guests could help themselves to a handful of spirits and wines, including Woodbridge Chardonnay. No thank you.
The standout feature, I thought, was the wraparound balcony overlooking the main terminal, which looked like a pretty cool place to hang out and take the pulse of the travel day.
I didn’t have too long to spend there, though, since I had to get to the gate early to board and take some photos before the rest of the passengers filed into the cabin.
I did, however, have time to evaluate the Wi-Fi with Speedtest.net. Verdict: Download speeds were decent; upload speeds were abysmal.
After a quick trek through the new terminal and around a couple of turns to get to the old terminal, I came to a hall with a few gates where folks board buses to take them to remote stands. I had contacted Air France’s communications department a few days earlier to ask if I could get onboard early to take photos so as not to disturb the other passengers. Sure enough, when the crew came to the gate, I was allowed to board the bus with them to the remote stand and wait in the first-class La Première cabin — poor me! — while they had their pre-flight briefing, then I was let loose on the plane.
Touring the Aircraft
There are two versions of this aircraft. The one I was on has four cabins with a single row of four first-class seats laid out in a 1-2-1 pattern. I practically drooled as I tested them out during the briefing, jealous of TPG’s experience flying La Première from New York to Paris.
While not the most private of first-class seats, they do have 79 inches of pitch and are 30 inches wide, with 24-inch entertainment screens.
I didn’t expect to be wowed by these seats, but there was something about the finishes and the little touches, like high-quality leather headrests and graceful bedside lamps, that was just so elegant. For privacy, you can raise an electronic sliding panel and pull the curtains shut. The bedding is by Sofitel MyBed, and you get a little colorful throw in case you get a chill. The crew also puts a bottle of Evian and a gourmet chocolate bar out for a midnight snack.
No one was flying La Première on my flight, so I asked the flight attendant if they still stocked the food and beverages in case someone gets upgraded at the last minute. Her response? “No one is upgraded to La Première.” Well, excusez-moi!
I wasn’t put off by her comment, and she said it with a smile. Her point was well taken, though, since Air France aims to keep its new La Première as one of the most exclusive offerings in the skies. Trying to book it with miles is one of the hardest things to do in the points world. Best not to obsess over what you can’t have, though, and I moved on to the class I would actually be flying in, business.
On this aircraft, there are 60 lie-flat business-class seats in 15 rows laid out in a 1-2-1 reverse-herringbone configuration. The first four rows are in a front cabin directly behind first class. The remaining 11 rows are in a larger cabin behind the lavatories and galley. These seats are 21.5 inches wide and have 61 inches of pitch, though they recline to just under 78 inches in the lie-flat mode.
The premium economy cabin consists of 28 seats in a 2-4-2 configuration just behind business class.
These seats are 19 inches wide but have 38 inches of pitch.
The entertainment screens in premium economy are 12 inches wide.
Finally, the 206 economy seats are laid out in a 3-4-3 configuration, except for a few seats near the bulkhead and toward the aft of the plane where the fuselage begins to narrow.
The dimensions here are 32 inches of pitch by 17 inches wide, an especially narrow width due to Air France’s choice of 10-abreast — like an increasing number of airlines have on the 777, which began life in the 1990s as a 9-abreast in economy.
The individual in-flight entertainment screens are 10 inches wide in coach.
If I were booking an economy seat, I’d go for either row 28 or 39 because both are bulkheads and the seats have legroom for miles.
The Business-Class Seat
When the other passengers started boarding, I gathered my things, settled into my seat and started playing around with the features. One of the things I liked best about these seats — even before seeing them in real life — was how sleek and streamlined the design was.
The shells between them appear thin and lightweight, and I liked that the backsplash was textured to give the look a little more depth. The design also makes the cabin feel brighter and more open than in some other versions.
The (patriotic) blue-white-red palette is eye-catching without being garish, and the space seems to be used rather efficiently.
Each seat has a universal power plug and a USB port to charge electronic devices.
There’s a little reading light next to your head. On the aisle side, the armrest lowers for takeoff and landing, giving you more space, but can be raised for meals or working so you have something to lean on.
Across from the seat is the stool that serves as a footrest and the foot of the bed. I was impressed by how much room there was since one of the major complaints about other business-class seats is how little the foot cubbies are.
Underneath was a little space to stow your shoes, but there’s not much other storage to speak of. One of the service elements I loved that was how each business-class seat had a numbered hanger that you could drape a coat or sweater over and hand to the flight attendant to hang for you during the flight.
I also really liked the seat-side cupboard in bright red, which was a perfect little accent. It held the Bose noise-cancelling headphones and a vanity mirror for freshening up, as well as a strap-pocket thing where you could put a magazine or a tablet. I stowed my phone and camera in there when I wasn’t using them.
The seat didn’t have anywhere I could put my laptop for takeoff and landing, though there was plenty of room on the armrest by the window to set it during the flight. There’s a little space next to the magazines down by your leg and by the power ports, but I didn’t want to leave it there. There’s also a little cupholder here, where you’ll find a bottle of water.
The seat is controlled by three buttons. One shifts the seat backward and forward while raising or reclining the seat-back. The second is the main recline button that takes you all the way down into lie-flat mode. The third is the button that gets you back into the upright position. So instead of being able to move the individual parts of the seat — seat back, bottom cushion, leg rest — in myriad positions, it sort of goes through a pre-set range of motion. For shorter people, there’s also no leg rest: The seat extends and flattens so that the cushion you sit on extends to the footrest to form the base of the bed.
I was either working, eating or sleeping for the majority of the flight, so I was usually in the upright or reclined position. I was also pretty comfortable in a semi-reclined position while watching a movie.
In addition to the personal clothes hanger, when I got to my seat, I found the duvet and pillow waiting for me. The duvet was very soft and lightweight, and was just enough to cover me completely and pull partially over my head.
The feather down pillow was also a nice touch and super-comfortable to sleep on since it helps maintain a nice, constant temperature. The one thing I’d say was missing was something to cover the seat as well while you’re sleeping.
The seat did feel kind of narrow compared with similar seats, such as those on Cathay Pacific or American. As I mentioned, there was plenty of room for my feet in the foot well, but the top end of the seat felt more constrained. It wasn’t quite wide enough for turning over without bumping the sides. However, putting the aisle-side armrest down helped make it feel a lot more spacious. I left mine down for most of the flight to have a few extra inches of room.
The high-definition in-flight entertainment touch screens in business class are 16 inches wide. They lock into the seat back for takeoff and landing but can swivel out for better viewing at other times.
The system is controlled by a handheld remote that’s also a touch screen.
You can actually do different things on the remote and the IFE screen at the same time, like watch the flight path on one and a movie on the other.
The other cool feature is that the whole menu, including meals as well as beverage lists, was available via the IFE system, so I could see what the options were before the flight attendants came through with the menus, though I couldn’t order through it.
The one thing missing was Wi-Fi. The good news is that Air France/KLM announced it would add Gogo 2Ku Wi-Fi to more than 100 long-haul international aircraft, including 68 B777s and 15 A330s, by the end of 2017.
Shortly after takeoff, the flight attendants came through to hand out the colorful amenity kits, which included a toothbrush and toothpaste, mouthwash, a comb, a shoehorn, an eye mask and earplugs, Clarins HydraQuench Cream-Gel and lip balm.
A bag containing slippers, socks and covers for the headphones was also waiting on the seat, and you could use the bag to hold your own shoes while wearing the slippers.
There were Clarins products in the lavatories, too.
Food and Beverage
After boarding was complete but before taxiing began, the flight attendants came through offering orange juice and Champagne. Then, after takeoff and handing out the amenity kits and menus, the flight attendants took orders for aperitifs and asked people if they’d made their main-course selection from the menu.
Air France recently launched a partnership with superstar chef Daniel Boulud to create a few onboard dishes for flights departing from the US to Paris. I wanted to try the special dish he’d created for the airline, so I had already asked the flight attendant to put one aside for me so they wouldn’t run out by the time they got to me in the second-to-last row of business class.
About 40 minutes into the flight, food service started with a drink and an amuse-bouche that I’d describe as similar to a spoonful of shrimp, guacamole and grapefruit. It was light and delicious. Then the main meal service got underway. Contrary to what I’d thought, the flight attendants actually started at the back of the cabin, so I was the second row to receive my food, which was fantastic.
The appetizer consisted of pheasant terrine with figs, pan-seared scallops with mango and seaweed salad, and a seasonal salad with sun-dried tomatoes served with a choice of baguette or olive-rosemary bread. I’m not usually a fan of scallops, but these were delicious, and the seaweed salad was too. The mango was actually spherified mango juice, which was a fun little touch. I had a nice, refreshing white wine from Languedoc with it.
The wines onboard are selected by a panel that includes sommelier Paolo Basso and wine-guide authors Thierry Desseauve and Michel Bettane. The Champagne served on my flight was a Laurent-Perrier non-vintage cuvée. The white wine was Château l’Hospitalet 2015 Gerard Bertrand from the Languedoc. The two reds were Dauvergne et Ranvier 2014 from the Rhône and a Bordeaux called Château La Cardonne 2010 from the Médoc.
Main course choices included:
- Pan-seared beef tenderloins with port wine sauce, scalloped potatoes and ratatouille.
- Sautéed hake fish with sauce américaine, braised fennel and flat beans.
- Vegetable risotto with butternut squash sauce, eggplant and shimeji mushrooms.
- Special dish by Daniel Boulud: braised lamb with spring root vegetables — baby turnips, potatoes and carrots — and edamame.
I chose the Boulud option, and it tasted like a delicious light stew — it went great with the red from the Rhône.
The flight attendants also served the cheese course, which included two options, on the main dinner tray. Though it lacked the ceremony of being its own course wheeled out on a trolley, to be honest I thought this was a good idea. It cut the time of another yet another course on a flight where people hope to eat quickly and get to sleep. The dessert course included mango sorbet, fresh fruit and a selection of petits fours: plum clafoutis, opera cake and a raspberry cookie. Needless to say, I had everything.
Passengers could also opt for refreshments anytime, including a warm shrimp and spinach quiche, fresh fruit and petits fours.
After dinner, I promptly fell asleep for about five hours and woke up as breakfast service started. The flight attendants didn’t wake passengers up, and they weren’t loud — they simply served passengers who were already awake and wanted breakfast. Then as more people woke up, they served them at that point, which I thought was a nice, relaxed way of doing things.
Like dinner, breakfast service was consolidated, which I also appreciated. Sometimes you get a breakfast service that takes 90 minutes because they come through with beverages, then cold options, then the hot ones, then more beverages and before you know it, you’re landing. On this flight, though, passengers simply made their selections and got everything at once. I could order, eat and get back to work.
The meal included a selection of orange juice, coffee, tea and hot chocolate. There was fresh fruit, yogurt and a selection of pastries including croissants, raisin buns and baguettes served with strawberry preserves. Airplane omelettes are never as good as I want them to be, so I went for the blueberry crepes with vanilla sauce. They turned out to be crepes filled with blueberry cream — sort of like blintzes — and were served with vanilla sauce on the side. They were delicious but rich.
The main course options included:
- Blueberry crepes with vanilla sauce.
- A scallion omelette with hash brown potatoes and bacon.
- Smoked ham, turkey and provolone.
After breakfast, we had about an hour left in the flight. All the lavs were full when I wanted to change, but the flight attendants let me use the one up in La Première, which was a bit more spacious.
It took a while, but Air France has truly upped its game and gotten itself back to the industry standard for premier international carriers by installing the reverse-herringbone business-class seats on its planes. Although I do wish the seats had more storage space, the streamlined design is excellent. I thought the in-flight entertainment system was great, and I got a good rest on the lie-flat bed, thanks the comfy pillow and duvet.
I have to say the thing that truly stood out was the service. The crew clearly took pride in their work and in the new business-class cabin, and were excited to see how much the passengers were enjoying it as well. Everyone I dealt with was charming, friendly and efficient. Glasses never went empty or unfilled, trays were removed as soon as I was finished with a dish and everyone made sure to stop by before we landed to see how I had enjoyed the flight.
And it wasn’t because I had boarded early and they knew I was a writer. Time and again, I saw flight attendants interacting with other passengers — taking a minute to walk them through the menu or the entertainment system, getting them a spare amenity kit or helping them make up the bed — that just spoke to a high level of service.
All in all, this might just be my new favorite way to get to Europe in business class.
Have you ever flown in business class aboard Air France’s 777-300ER? Tell us about your experience, below.
All photos by the author.
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