Destination: Paradise: Air France's 777-200 in Premium Economy From Los Angeles to Tahiti
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Following our wall-to-wall review coverage of the Hawaiian Islands, it was time to head a few thousand miles south. French Polynesia is a highly coveted locale to visit, known globally as an elite honeymoon and vacation destination for those who appreciate sunshine, sand, diving and no-filter-needed aquamarine lagoons. Oh, and legendary food trucks.
Of late, the island chain has become even easier to visit. My colleague Zach Honig arrived on United's inaugural Dreamliner flight between San Francisco (SFO) and Papeete (PPT), and I was shortly behind on Air France's Boeing 777-200 service from Los Angeles (LAX).
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 and Tahiti. The ideal way to score an award seat is through the carrier's Flying Blue program. Even if you aren't an avid Air France flyer, you can transfer points into the Flying Blue program in order to secure a ticket. Flying Blue is a transfer partner of all three of the major transferrable currencies: Citi ThankYou points, Amex Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards. Following most everyone else, Flying Blue moved from a set award chart to one with dynamic pricing, which means that you can expect award seats to roughly be priced in proportion to cash prices when looking at things like availability and peak/off-peak demand.
Due to the close-in timing of my booking, combined with the fact that I wanted to fly to Tahiti in premium economy and back in business on specific days, I opted to pay cash for the ticket. This particular flight was part of a mixed-class, round-trip itinerary. 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 (LAX) in both directions. That's a lofty rate, and it was no doubt impacted by the purchase date. I was ticketed just six weeks ahead of departure, and cabins were near capacity in both directions when I booked. 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. While I had initially attempted to book the mixed-class itinerary on Delta.com (which, historically, has handled these complexities with aplomb), it kept failing at the confirmation page. Even a call to Delta's magical Diamond line was in vain. I was informed that there can be delays between what Delta shows as available on an Air France flight, and what's actually available on an Air France flight. 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 on 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 I was a Diamond Medallion seeking to retain that top-tier status for 2019, the Medallion Qualifying Miles and Medallion Qualifying Dollars earned on this trip were of the utmost importance. Particularly on the MQD side, there can be massive differences in earnings when booking a Delta-marketed ticket versus a ticket marketed by some other SkyTeam carrier; in fact, Delta has an entire webpage dedicated to breaking down the percentages and calculations.
When booking through a partner like Air France, your MQDs are calculated as a percentage of the distance flown, with higher classes of service (like premium economy and business) earning a higher percentage. Had I booked this trip through Delta, the MQD calculation would've been 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 earns 3x Ultimate Rewards points on all travel and dining. It's a go-to card for me when it comes to booking airfare, thanks to its exceptional travel protections and first-rate customer-service agents. Those who hold the Platinum Card® from American Express can get 5x Membership Rewards points back on airfare booked directly with an airline or through Amex Travel, but the card lacks some of the protections of the CSR. Thanks to the CSR's 3x multiplier on travel, 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.
Originating at Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) to fly to LAX (from where I'd catch the leg to PPT) was pleasant and efficient, as always. As my positioning leg was on a Delta bird, I checked in at Delta's Sky Priority counter. My lone checked bag tipped the scales at 59 pounds, but as a Diamond Medallion, I wasn't hit with any excess baggage fees. This perk can save you serious amounts of cash when flying to remote destinations such as French Polynesia or the Maldives, as it allows you to pack extra drinking water and foodstuffs for your stay without fretting about weight.
The Delta team at RDU was friendly as ever. David, a check-in agent I've come to know over the years, paused a bit after seeing my baggage tag.
"PPT? Ah, Tahiti! I haven't seen that designation in a long time!"
As you might imagine, there aren't significant amounts of Tahiti traffic originating in central North Carolina, so the entire team seemed to get a smile out of those three simple letters.
I had my bag checked all the way through to Tahiti and my boarding card in hand mere minutes after arrival at Terminal 2, and despite a fairly busy afternoon, the TSA PreCheck line moved me through in approximately five minutes.
My flight into LAX was delayed, putting us into Terminal 3 at around 10pm local time. Delta has a significant number of flights that depart from LAX surrounding the midnight hour — primarily to Central American destinations such as Guatemala City (GUA) and San Jose, Costa Rica (SJO) — so its SkyClub remains open until 1am.
LAX's Terminal 3 just so happened to be home to a Shake Shack, which sounded oddly appealing at such a late hour. I partook of a SmokeShack burger, fries and a milkshake before heading upstairs to a SkyClub spread of salad, soup, fruit and brownie bites (which I merely admired, given the aforementioned indulgence).
The SkyClub staff informed me that our ride to Tahiti would be departing about 75 minutes behind schedule (now 1:55am), as our inbound aircraft from Paris (CDG) was roughly 75 minutes late getting out of France.
Had I desired a shower prior to the seven-hour, 40-minute jaunt across the Pacific, I would've taken the complimentary Delta shuttle to Terminal 2. There, Delta has a roomier, more posh SkyClub replete with several shower stalls.
Air France doesn't have a dedicated lounge at LAX's Tom Bradley International Terminal. Though my ticket would have granted me access to Air France's partner lounge (operated by Qantas), that lounge closed at 11:30pm. Given that intel, I hung out at Terminal 3 a bit longer before catching a shuttle to TBIT, where our Boeing 777-200 was being serviced at Gate 154.
Despite starting an hour later than was scheduled, the boarding process was relatively calm. The crew set out five banners, indicating zones 1 through 5, and asked passengers in both English and French to line up behind their respective banners. Business-class passengers saw Zone 1 on their boarding card, while mine read Zone 2 along with the rest of premium economy.
It seemed that passengers who connected into LAX were all asked to come up to the check-in counter. I was included in that, and was told passport verification was necessary despite me already having completed this step at RDU (my boarding card even read "DOCS OK").
I soon learned that this step was essentially a preboarding exercise. When Zone 2 was called, I wasn't required to produce my passport or my boarding pass. I simply walked up to a visual scanning machine, had my photo taken and was ushered through to my boarding bridge, where I stepped onto our 16-year-old Boeing 777-200, designated F-GSPY.
Cabin and Seat
This particular Boeing 777-200 tended to fly long-haul routes between CDG and LAX, JFK, Beijing (PEK) and Taipei (TPE), but its route history showed Papeete (PPT) entering the rotation of late. It could hold 280 passengers: 40 in business in a 1-2-1 arrangement, 24 in premium economy in a 2-4-2 configuration and 216 in coach in a cramped 3-4-3 layout.
Every seat from front to back was equipped with a seatback inflight entertainment screen (or, in the case of my bulkhead seat, a screen that emerged from the armrest) as well as a personal power port.
Interestingly, premium economy was the smallest of the three cabins, with seats positioned in rows 19 through 21. Hard wall dividers standing floor to ceiling gave PE passengers a feeling of being in their own little cocoon, and the seats certainly looked more posh than the economy seats in rows 23 through 48.
I flew Air France's premium economy a few years back on a daytime trip from Europe to the United States, and much of what I recall from that flight was true for this one. Which is to say, Air France's PE product is feeling a bit tired.
The first thing you should know about this product is that it was a fixed shell layout, which meant two things. One, you couldn't recline back into anyone, which was great for those in rows 20 and 21 (e.g. not the bulkhead). Two, you couldn't recline. Not in the pure sense of the word, anyway. My seat, 19H, was on the bulkhead row of the premium economy cabin. It was an aisle seat on the starboard side of the middle section, and I appreciated being to stretch out into the aisle now and again and the ability to get up at will without disturbing others.
What I didn't appreciate, however, was the slide-forward seat design. Given that the seat was housed in a fixed shell, depressing the button that typically reclines a seat merely allowed you to slide forward. Yes, the back of the seat did move lower, but it didn't really move back. Sliding forward to trick the brain into thinking a recline has happened doesn't really work on a nearly eight-hour haul.
There was a secondary button as well, which flipped a footrest out. I was excited about this at first, but soon came to resent it. The footrest was so close to being useful. If it were a dual-flip design, where the rest would pop out as it currently did but then flip another section down so it actually became long enough to put one's foot on it while sleeping, it would have been ace. Instead, it was a halfhearted attempt that still let your feet dangle. (Mind you, I'm not tall. Folks closing in on TPG's height (6 feet, 7 inches) would be even more frustrated by how close, yet so far, this solution is.)
With both the seatback and the footrest fully, erm, engaged, you were left in a position that I can only compare to a playground slide. Imagine trying to sturdy yourself on a slide, which is engineered for gravity to push you down it. Now, imagine trying to sleep on said slide.
That's what I, and 23 others surrounding me, dealt with for seven hours and 40 minutes. The slide-forward design was uncomfortable at best and tremendously frustrating at worse, serving no real purpose but to make the passenger feel as if they were about to topple clean into the floor of the 777.
You'll notice that I haven't yet remarked on the added width (19 inches over 17 inches in economy) or extra legroom that came with the PE product. That's because neither really matter on a red-eye, at least not to the degree that true recline does. You see, Air France's premium economy seat was quite practical — enjoyable, even — during a daytime flight. On those flights, you're apt to pull out your laptop and get a bit of work done, or just stretch out an enjoy a movie after a long week with a client. When it's not time to sleep, you're less inclined to test the recline.
On my flight, however, the No. 1 priority for our entire cabin was to get as much shut-eye as possible before landing just after sunrise in one of the most striking places on Earth. This seat design did little to facilitate that.
During the moments I wasn't trying to sleep, I did appreciate the extra legroom and extra width. In no way do these seats feel cramped, and I had no issues typing on a 13-inch laptop with a drink and a snack on my tray table. There was a dedicated over-shoulder reading light, a flexible wing headrest that also moved vertically and a pair of noise-canceling headphones that did the trick for watching one of the many (many!) free inflight movies. The headphones weren’t of the same quality level as Bose or Sony, but I went in with fairly low expectations given the spartan design and was duly impressed with how they performed.
I generally don't prefer bulkhead seats, but I'll make an exception here. Given the ample overhead storage space, I feel confident that anyone sitting on Row 19 will find space for their bag(s), and not having anyone directly in front of you just felt nice with this layout. That said, the fixed shell design meant that rows 20 and 21 didn't have to worry with anyone reclining back, so from that perspective it's hard to pick a bad PE seat here.
I was a bit confused when I first reached my seat, as the only amenities in view were a well-worn blanket, a pillow and a bantam bottle of water. When the flight attendant came by shortly after takeoff, I asked if she had access to an eye mask. It was then she informed me that the crew would be coming by shortly with an amenity kit that included one.
Sure enough, they soon arrived with a lightweight amenity bag, replete with drawstring, that included an eye mask, socks, earplugs, headphone ear covers, toothbrush and toothpaste. While it paled in comparison to kits found in business-class cabins the world over, it beat the big fat nothing received by folks in the economy cabin.
I'll also admit that the included eye mask was the most comfortable, best-fitting eye mask I've ever received in an amenity kit. It sealed out an impressive amount of light and fit just right.
The IFE system was top-notch. My screen was responsive to touch inputs, and there must have been 200 films to watch. That's on top of a robust music library, a dedicated kids section, games and more.
It's a good thing, too, as there was no Wi-Fi to speak of. My heart oftentimes skips a beat when I board a long flight that's disconnected from the world below, as it enables a refreshing break and time to focus, read or meditate. But for business travelers who may book a flight specifically to use it as an office while commuting from one country to another, it can be a hassle.
The included headphones were decent in terms of noise-canceling and overall sound quality, and while they wouldn't win any awards for comfort, they sufficed for the brief time I had them on prior to hitting the hay.
The lavatory assigned the PE cabin was far roomier than the one on board the 737-800 I'd seen on my positioning flight, and felt spacious enough for anyone to use comfortably. One thing that wasn't as pleasing was the fact that PE customers were asked to use lavatories in the economy cabin. So though you were paying a premium price for your seat, you were still left waiting in a 10-plus-deep line after meal service to use the restroom.
Food and Beverage
Two meals were provided on this flight for the premium economy and economy cabins. One occurred shortly after takeoff, featuring a cup of yogurt, orange juice, a Kit-Kat, applesauce, cheese and a piece of bread. (This would become a theme.)
The second came about 75 minutes prior to landing and was much more substantial. Passengers were given the choice between bread pudding or eggs, and I opted for the latter.
The hot portion included eggs, a sausage link, spinach and hash browns. That was joined by a fruit salad, a cup of yogurt and a cold turkey dish with cheese and a tomato. Oh, and another piece of bread. About 10 minutes after the pre-arrival meal was served, the crew made another trip down the aisle not to offer anyone a drink refill, but to ask if anyone would like more bread. Because France.
Both meals were satisfactory, but it was the hot eggs portion that most impressed me. For airline breakfast, it was quite scrumptious. My wife, who joined me on this flight, also remarked at the excellence of the hash browns.
"Those were good," she said. "I left the eggs and sausage."
Evidently, I was a bit more hungry and a bit less picky than my better half.
One thing that surprised me about the meals in premium economy? They were the exact same meals as offered in economy. I realize the supply-chain hassles in catering yet another type of meal for 24 measly seats, but c'mon. On most days, there's a $500-to-$1,000 price difference between economy and premium economy on this Los Angeles-to-Papeete leg, and paying that for no improvement whatsoever in the food department is pretty brutal. If Air France were going to err one way or the other, I'd much prefer they cater an extra 24 business-class meals for PE passengers. Based on the prices I'm seeing for the cabin, the margin would more than cover it.
The highlight of the flight, by far, was the service. The crew member assigned to my aisle was one of the most jovial and attentive I've ever seen in any cabin. It was a pleasure to interact with her, and other passengers nearby voiced those same kudos at the conclusion of the flight. I also witnessed three of the crew members in the galley laughing as they prepped their next service run. Not in a "I'm not paying attention to the passengers" kind of way, but the "I genuinely love my job" kind of way.
It's likely that part of that cheer was due to our destination. There's nothing quite like landing in Tahiti. As soon as you step outside, you know you're one of the luckiest people in the world.
I appreciated how small, private and exclusive Air France's premium economy cabin felt, and the 2-4-2 configuration is great for couples and families alike. It remained quiet throughout, which helped me to doze off and on for four or five hours.
Beyond the private feel, however, there's little to applaud. The sliding seat design is awkward and uncomfortable, and it's a real bummer to be served an economy meal and asked to use an economy lavatory when you're paying dearly for an elevated level of service.
I'd fly Air France's PE product again under two conditions: It has to be a daytime flight where I won't be tempted to recline, and the price increase over economy has to be marginal. There's no doubt that a wider seat with more legroom is a godsend on a seven-plus-hour flight, but I'm not convinced the complete package is worth $100 more per hour.