Polynesian Posh: Air France (777-200) in Business Class From Papeete to Los Angeles
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Tahiti has become more connected to the rest of the world than ever before thanks to new service from United and French Bee, both flying between San Francisco and Papeete. To boot, Air Tahiti Nui recently introduced Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners between Los Angeles and Papeete. That’s putting pressure on one of the mainstays, Air France, which has offered thrice-weekly service to French Polynesia from Los Angeles for years.
With more options in the mix, we set out to review each of them so that you’re well informed when booking your trip to paradise. My colleague Zach Honig has reviews on United and French Bee, while I’ve got Air France covered in both business class (this review) and premium economy.
Those with long travel horizons and a fair amount of flexibility can often find solid award availability for Air France's wide-body service between Los Angeles (LAX) and Tahiti (PPT). The ideal way to score an award seat is through the carrier's Flying Blue program. But due to the close-in timing of my booking, I paid cash.
All told, I paid $5,524.90 for the round-trip fare, which included Boeing 737-800 positioning flights on Delta between Raleigh-Durham (RDU) and Los Angeles in both directions. That's a lofty rate: Turns out, Nov. 1 (my departure date) was All Saints' Day, which likely led to a mass exodus to French Polynesia among those who honor French holidays.
Booking this ticket was anything but easy. It kept failing at the Delta.com confirmation page, and even a call to Delta's magical Diamond line was in vain. Evidently, I was trying to book a seat at a given price as shown by Delta, but when the transition flipped to SkyTeam partner Air France, an incongruence in the system disallowed the ticket from being booked.
I then plugged in the same itinerary at Air France's US portal, where I was able to complete the booking and credit all earnings to my Delta SkyMiles account. Of note, Air France priced the trip out at around $50 more than I saw on Delta, and I had to give careful consideration to mileage earning when deciding to book through Air France rather than Delta. As a Diamond Medallion currently seeking to retain that top-tier status for 2019, I found the Medallion Qualifying Miles and Medallion Qualifying Dollars to be of the utmost importance. Had I booked this trip through Delta, the MQD calculation is simple: It's the base fare. With a $5,275.00 base fare, I wanted to make sure I'd earn somewhere close to that when booking through Air France.
I booked the fare on my Chase Sapphire Reserve, which earned 3x Ultimate Rewards points on all travel and dining. I received 16,574 points for this purchase. That's a return of $331.48 based on TPG's 2-cents-per-point valuation on Ultimate Rewards.
Wanting to have time to explore the lounge at Fa'a'ā International Airport, I booked a 5:30am taxi from my hotel. (Thanks to Air France’s 8:25am departure time, those spending their holidays on other islands and motus, or small reef islands, within French Polynesia must trek back to Tahiti the evening prior.)
I arrived around 5:45am to two check-in lines for AF77. The economy line was at least 50 people deep even three hours prior to departure, while the SkyPriority line was completely empty.
The check-in agent processed our passports, threw a priority baggage tag on our lone checked suitcase, printed our boarding cards and then printed one voucher to access the Air Tahiti Nui Lounge.
She made a point to say that only I was welcome, not my wife, and snapped when I asked for a second voucher.
For background: I’m a Diamond Medallion with Delta (which Air France views as SkyTeam Elite Plus), and my wife is a Silver Medallion with Delta (which Air France views as SkyTeam Elite). On this leg of the journey, I was traveling in business class and my wife in economy, booked on separate reservations. (Yes, I felt incredibly guilty for the entire seven hours and 43 minutes and, yes, I'm going to make it up to her.)
Anyhow, I recalled that the Air Tahiti Nui Lounge was a Priority Pass partner. My wife was a Priority Pass holder, thanks to her Chase Sapphire Reserve card, so I figured that we’d get my wife in one way or another.
The security line was still mostly empty at this wee hour of the morning, and five minutes later, we were through and into the splendid open-air terminal at PPT. We meandered upstairs to the lounge, which was already open by 6am when we arrived.
There was only one lounge at PPT: the Air Tahiti Nui Lounge. Because of that, it had arrangements with every major carrier out of PPT: Air France, Air New Zealand, United, Aircalin and Qantas. When I spotted logos for Dragon Pass and Priority Pass, I knew my wife would have no issues getting in.
But it wasn't even necessary: When my wife offered her Priority Pass card, the lounge attendant politely declined it and stated that it would be no issue for her to come in as my guest. (Three cheers for humanity, decency and kindness!)
When we entered at 6am, only two other guests were inside. The lounge wasn’t gigantic, but it’s far more spacious, airy and modern than many other Priority Pass lounges I’ve visited at major international hubs. There was ample seating, power ports, greenery and departure monitors.
I loved how much natural light flowed in, and also appreciated the epic planespotting afforded by the many windows. I arrived early enough to witness the arrival of AF76, the inbound flight from Los Angeles to Papeete, which would be serviced and turned around as AF77 just a few hours later.
Also parked within view were two Air Tahiti Nui jets. Closer to the lounge was a quad-engine Airbus A340, which TPG himself recently flew to Tahiti en route to Bora Bora. Behind it, however, was something far more alluring: the airline’s all-new Dreamliner, which just went into service in late 2018 on its LAX-PPT route.
Once I was done gawking, I headed over to the impressive breakfast spread. Numerous coffee and tea options, chilled water, juice, beer and milk were available.
I resisted the urge to chow down on breakfast, knowing that I’d be served a full meal onboard, but the croissants, pastries, macaroons and donuts were everywhere (because France), and I even spotted small samplings of poisson cru (because Polynesia). The usual suspects were also here: fruits, cereals and small sandwiches.
The bathroom area was spacious and private, with plenty of stalls to accommodate.
While connectivity as a whole struggles in remote regions of the South Pacific, I experienced the speediest Wi-Fi in a week here at this lounge.
Cabin and Seat
Due to PPT’s lack of jet bridges, I boarded Air France’s Boeing 777-200 via stairs. This particular aircraft had been in service for some 16 years, and the F-GSPY designation proved to be a familiar sight: I flew this exact same aircraft a week prior from Los Angeles into Tahiti, albeit in the premium economy cabin and overnight rather than during the day.
The business-class cabin was split in two, with the first seven rows divided from the final three by a door, galley and lavatory.
Air France configured this aircraft in a 1-2-1 reverse herringbone arrangement, and my seat was the last on the port side of the plane. Directly behind me was a hard divider separating business class from premium economy.
In fact, it’s a divider I know well, as my premium economy seat on the way to Tahiti was just one row behind in the bulkhead of that cabin.
I would up exceptionally happy with my seat selection, 12A. There was oodles of privacy, my neighbor in Seat 12E faced inward rather than toward me, and the lavatory was close but not too close.
The seat itself was great: spacious, well designed and private. Padding and comfort were both excellent, and even though the aircraft was midway through its teens, the business-class seat had held up quite well. The rotate-out tray table design was marvelous, and I found it far easier than the conventional armrest table.
Another perk to 12A was the additional storage above the headphone nook. Given that 12A backed into a wall, you could place knick-knacks up top without fear of them tumbling backward into the passenger behind you.
The storage nook was also home to the Air France headphones, and the door even had a mirror on it.
There was a standard US power outlet and USB charging port.
The upper storage area that butted up against the window was large enough to hold my laptop while my meal-laden tray table.
I only used the seat in fully lie-flat mode for a quick nap, but I found it plenty spacious to stretch out (I'm 5 feet, 8 inches) and fell asleep easily.
Unlike the lavatories reserved for premium economy and economy passengers, the business-class lavatory was stocked with disposable razors and shaving cream, mouthwash and swishing cups and bottles of perfume. An“odor-eliminating spray” was also on hand.
The lavatory itself was roomy enough, but somehow felt a bit smaller than the ones I’d used a week prior in the economy section. It was decidedly smaller than the lavatory at the very front of the plane.
The IFE system was exceptional. The 16-inch, flip-out panel was bright enough to view even with my window shade open, and while a spiffy remote was included, the screen itself supported touch input.
As I saw in premium economy, there was no shortage of content here. Hundreds upon hundreds of new-release movies, TV shows and albums from around the world were included, all free of charge.
There was the usual moving map with information on the flight’s progress, but my favorite was the cockpit view, though I wished live cameras were installed rather than renders.
There was a standard 3.5mm headphone jack just beneath the control pad in case you wanted to use your own headphones. The included cans used a proprietary three-prong adapter.
On my seat during boarding was a pillow of the same size that I was given in premium economy a week earlier. New accoutrements included a slightly upgraded blanket, a set of slippers, a small bottle of Evian still water and a coat hanger tagged with my seat number.
After all passengers were on board, attendants distributed the business-class amenity kit in pink or purple. It was soft and included a toothbrush, toothpaste, eye mask, an Air France-themed screen cleaner, tissues, ear plugs, an Air France-branded ink pen, a bantam pack of hand sanitizer, Clarins Paris skin moisturizer and Clarins Paris lip balm.
The same noise-canceling headphones I found in premium economy were included in business class, and once again I was impressed with how well they did indeed quiet things.
This particular Boeing 777-200 did not have onboard Wi-Fi. Given that this route departed at 8:25am local time (10:25am in California and 1:25pm. in New York), I missed an entire workday.
Food and Beverage
While still on the ground, business-class passengers were offered juice, Champagne or water as a predeparture beverage, served in Air France-branded glassware.
About 20 minutes after takeoff from Tahiti, flight attendants began making the rounds with a multilingual menu printed on thick stock paper. The front of the menu had a special insignia to commemorate 85 years of flying.
Flight attendants then came down the aisle asking if passengers would like to kick their journey off with a glass of Champagne. I politely declined, but I did indulge in the offered box of cashews and cranberries.
An express menu was available for those who wished to maximize working time. It consisted of an appetizer, cheese plate and dessert.
I opted for a full meal, selecting the baked swordfish fillet with sweet-potato puree and chayote gratin. The main entree was preceded by a salmon and swordfish tartare topped with asparagus and mascarpone.
I kept things light for dessert, opting for a simple fruit plate.
In the galley separating the first seven rows of business class from the final three, attendants loaded up a self-service bar. Still and sparkling water, a variety of juices, several wines and a even a bottle of Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve were up for grabs.
You could argue that Air France’s crew used this as an excuse to not run up and down the aisles asking if folks needed more water between meal services, but I appreciated it as an excuse to get up frequently to stretch my legs while keeping aisle traffic to a minimum for those who were trying to sleep. Fewer clanging carts equals more peaceful rest.
An hour into the flight, attendants made their way through the business cabin to take lunch orders. This was the first time I’d seen iPads used to take orders, and passengers in my section had their orders confirmed in record time.
Ninety minutes after takeoff, attendants came through with tablecloths and appetizers, the main course, another drink service and dessert. All told, the main meal service lasted around 75 minutes.
Service was outstanding from end to end. Attendants wore Tahitian-inspired garb and brought along an upbeat attitude. I most definitely didn’t go thirsty.
I did, however, get to see what a flabbergasted Air France flight attendant looks like. If you want to re-enact it on your next Air France flight, try declining the bread basket. It’s hilarious.
The cabin crew was delightful, pleasant and helpful, exactly as it should be with a premium-class experience. Every bite of my appetizer and entree was scrumptious. The baked swordfish was hot and flaky, and the sweet potato puree was an excellent touch.
The kiwi, mango, watermelon and pineapple slices in my dessert were all fresh, juicy and delicious, an ideal end to a fabulous meal, and one that reminded me of the fruits I’d enjoyed each morning for breakfast while in French Polynesia.
Air France’s Boeing 777-200 is an absolute pleasure to ride in up front, with a roomy, comfortable seat, top-notch IFE and a memorable dining experience. Cabin service is also above average, with the entire crew operating in a pleasant, graceful manner.
The only thing this business class seat truly lacks is a privacy door, found on fresher business-class options such as the Delta One Suite, but the reverse herringbone layout does a fine job of keeping you in your own little world.
All images by the author unless otherwise indicated.