Flight review: Crossing the Atlantic on Air France's 777-300ER in business class, New York to Paris
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During the COVID-19 crisis, our team has temporarily ceased taking review trips. However, we are still publishing new flight, hotel and lounge reviews, from trips taken just before the lockdown, like this one. Please note that if you fly during the coronavirus pandemic, you will encounter a very different experience, both on the ground and on board, from what was experienced during this review flight.
[tpg_rating ticket-class="business" tpg-rating-score="83" ground-experience="13" cabin-seat="28" amens-ife="11" food-bev="18" service="13" pros="Great hard product, delicious food and a amicable crew." cons="So-so lounge in New York, poor Wi-Fi." /]
Over the last couple of years, I've gotten to fly Air France numerous times across the Atlantic, thanks to its expansive U.S. network, usually reasonable fares and plentiful connections to Europe and the rest of the world from its hub in Paris.
I have experienced Air France's business class aboard the Boeing 787, Airbus A350 and the now-retired A380, but until earlier this year I was missing the 777, which many regard as the airline's best business-class offering. It's a very similar product to the 787, but since the fuselage is wider, flyers have more room compared to the Dreamliner.
On a trip to Portugal before the pandemic hit Europe and the United States, I got to experience business class on the 777 for the first time on a short transatlantic flight from New York JFK to Paris CDG.
This flight was the return leg of a ticket I booked to originate in Europe in order to snag a relatively inexpensive business-class fare.
These "ex-Europe" business-class tickets are often significantly cheaper than tickets that begin in the U.S. Sure enough, we found this Air France itinerary from Lisbon, Portugal, to Toronto via Paris CDG (I reviewed biz class on board the A350 during this leg of the journey) and then from New York JFK back to Lisbon via Paris for just a hair over $2,300 for all segments. This review will cover the JFK-CDG leg that got me back to Europe.
Plus, I was able to earn SkyMiles and elite-qualifying miles and spending with Delta, helping me tremendously in my quest to requalify for Diamond Medallion status. (That has since become moot, because Delta has extended by one year the current elite status of all its Medallion members. However, qualifying miles from flights taken in 2020 will be rolled over to 2021.)
Related: Your guide to Delta elite status
If you want to use miles to book similar flights, Air France and KLM’s frequent-flyer program, FlyingBlue, is probably the best engine for searching SkyTeam availability and a great place to start your search. However, FlyingBlue doesn’t maintain an award chart, meaning you can’t count on redeeming miles at a fixed rate for flights. I did a search on the site for some nonstop flights between Paris CDG and various North American destinations including Toronto, JFK and Boston and found tickets for as little as 57,500 miles each way, with taxes and fees of around $350.
The benefit of booking through FlyingBlue is how easy it is to amass miles in the program. It’s a transfer partner with all three major transferable points currencies — American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou — so even if you don’t have enough points in one account, you can combine points from the various accounts to acquire the Flying Blue miles necessary to book the flight you want.
If you’re short on miles in your FlyingBlue account, consider applying for a card like The Platinum Card® from American Express, which offers 100,000 Membership Rewards® Points after you spend $6,000 on purchases in your first 6 months of card membership. Air France operates from Terminal 1 at John F. Kennedy International Airport. I was scheduled to depart at 6:40 p.m. on flight AF007, and I arrived at the terminal just before 4 p.m.
The check-in area wasn't busy at all. I had checked in online the night before my flight, but I wanted to check my bag to free up a hand for taking photos of the cabin once I got on board. As a business-class passenger, I could use the Sky Priority desks, and I dropped my bag and was on my way to the security line in under five minutes.
The security-screening process at JFK T1 is never fun. TSA PreCheck is supported, but everyone is filtered through the same massive line, and seemingly no matter the time of day it takes an excessive amount of time to get through the line and into the terminal.
After what seemed like an eternity, I made it through security and headed for the Air France lounge, which I hadn't visited since I reviewed the carrier's business-class product on the 787. It's still open during the pandemic, although you will find reduced amenities inside.
I was underwhelmed during that visit, though my after-midnight departure may have contributed to that. Since my last visit, the space had been given a light refresh, though nothing struck me as particularly different.
The lounge is spread across two levels. The lower can be accessed by those who have a Priority Pass membership, while the upper level is reserved for AF's premium passengers and select elite members.
While things didn't look much different since my prior visit in 2018, I definitely enjoyed my time spent there more. Maybe it was the fact that there was plenty of natural light streaming in from the tall glass windows, or that the buffet was much better stocked this time. The lounge is average still, but the experience was definitely a step above where it was before. It doesn't hold a candle to some of the airline's new lounges at its home airport, though.
The lounge itself is basically one large seating area broken up by food and beverage stations.
There was a salad bar and an area next to it with a few hot options, two soup options and a dedicated dessert station.
Across from the main buffet was an area set up with snacks, beverages and individual containers of ice cream.
There was also a trolley set up with several liquor options, a nice touch that lent an air of premium-ness to the space that I didn't feel the last time I visited.
I always appreciate the wide variety of beverages on offer, especially the bucket of Champagne that I helped myself to almost immediately. Now, due to the pandemic, these types of things will likely not be present for quite some time.
I found a seat and got back up to survey the food situation. I was peckish, but I knew I had a full meal waiting for me on board, so I made a Caesar salad and enjoyed that along with a glass of Champagne until it was time to board.
I arrived at Gate 8 just as the sun was going down, and the scene was similar to just about every flight I've taken from T1: chaotic. An Austrian Airlines flight to Vienna was boarding directly adjacent to ours, and there were many people milling about trying to find the correct areas in which to wait.
When I got to the gate area, boarding had already begun with those needing extra time being allowed on to the plane. Shortly thereafter, premium passengers were next, and I was on my way to Paris, aboard a 777-300ER that bore a mark of distinction. The French registration F-GSQA identified as the first stretched Triple Seven operated by Air France — a 2004-vintage bird, still relatively young for a big long-haul airliner.
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This Boeing 777 was fitted with the Cirrus Zodiac reverse-herringbone seats that are found on the airline's long-haul Boeing airplanes, the 777 and the 787.
This is one of three distinct business-class products that Air France has on its long-haul fleet. Its Airbus A330s have a newer product, but it's a sub-optimal 2-2-2 offering, and its new A350s have 1-2-1 reverse herringbone seat, but it's similar to what you'd find up front in United's or TAP Air Portugal's newest or retrofitted aircraft. The Airbus A380 had a fourth distinct business-class seat, but the superjumbo has been retired from Air France's fleet as a direct result of the pandemic.
Air France's 777-300ERs feature three seating configurations. This was the one with first class and 58 business-class seats spread across two cabins, with the smaller minicabin in front and the larger cabin behind it.
Business class sits directly behind the exclusive, four-seat La Premiere first-class cabin. This product wowed TPG global news editor Emily McNutt when she flew it in late 2019, and went on to win the TPG Award for best international first-class product.
I chose seat 5L, a window in the forward minicabin. Unlike the A350 seats, every seat in a similar position on this aircraft is more or less the same, meaning there's no need to pay attention to even/odd row numbers if you are looking for more privacy.
If you're traveling solo (or you just love looking out the window), I'd advise picking a seat on either side of the aircraft, the "A" and "L" seats, while if you're traveling with a companion I'd grab a pair of seats in the center, the ones marked "E" and "F".
Each seat measures 21.5 inches wide and extends to a fully flat bed that measures 79 inches, or about 6 feet, 7 inches. In bed mode, I had no trouble sleeping, even despite the early evening departure.
USB and AC power outlets are available at each seat near the literature pocket, ensuring you'll arrive at your destination with devices fully charged.
There's a generous cubby that contained the airline-provided over-ear headphones and that I found especially useful for storing my personal belongings without the fear of them falling beneath the seat overnight.
One distinct advantage these seats have over those found in the A350 is that the footwell isn't a small box, but rather it's contained on only one side by the seat itself and extends to the fuselage on the other, so your feet are free to wiggle about during the night or while you're relaxing.
Overall, I think this is my favorite Air France business-class cabin. The decor is understated but chic, and it feels like a taste of France. The seats are wide, comfortable and in my opinion conducive to sleeping. Even though they're not as new as the ones you'll find on the A350, I still think it's my preferred AF business product.
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Waiting for me at my seat were the typical Air France goodies that I've come to expect after several flights with the airline, including a pillow, duvet, a coat hanger and a pair of slippers.
Like with past flights, the cabin crew distributed amenity kits after business-class passengers were boarded and mostly settled. I received a blue suede airline-branded kit, the same kind that I received on my A350 flight. With many airlines having partnered with luxury brands to provide amenity kits, I continue to think that Air France has missed an opportunity to collaborate with one of the many brands that France is known worldwide for.
That being said, the kit was well-stocked with toothpaste, a toothbrush, an eye mask, ear plugs and moisturizers from Clarins. There were extras I appreciated, too, like the shoehorn and microfiber cloth.
The IFE system is one area where the 777 notably lags behind the newer A350 product. While it worked fine and was stocked with plenty of content, the 16-inch screen felt a lot smaller and less sharp than the brand-new 18-inch monitor on the A350.
I was able to choose between hundreds of movies and TV shows, most of which featured multiple episodes.
The system also has a remote control with a smaller touchscreen on it, allowing you to browse other functions while watching movies on the primary screen. After my movie ended, I played around with the various map functions for a few minutes before I turned in for the night.
As it was a short overnight flight, I wanted to maximize the time I spent sleeping, so I purchased the one-hour Wi-Fi package, which cost me 8 euros (about $9). Air France also offered a full-flight "surf" option for 18 euros (about $20) and a full-flight "stream" option for 30 euros (about $34), in addition to a free messaging option.
Unfortunately, the Wi-Fi I purchased was almost useless, and I couldn't even connect to complete a speed test. I was glad I didn't pay for a full-flight package. However, I was able to connect to the free messaging service before we landed, which allowed me to catch up on some messages I'd missed overnight.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="18" tpg-rating-max="20" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" meals="2" champagne="Laurent-Perrier Brut" dine-on-demand="No" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Cabin service started soon after I was on board and settled in. Flight attendants came around with warm towels to start, and I assumed a pre-departure beverage would be offered shortly thereafter. However, it was a considerable wait before the drinks started flowing, which I found a little odd.
I finished my glass of Champagne just before takeoff, and then the full meal service began a prompt 30 minutes after we were airborne.
Flight attendants came around first asking for drink and main-course orders. I ordered a glass of Bordeaux and a glass of water, which were served just a few minutes later with the main dinner tray, which was already set with the starter course.
There were no choices for the appetizer: everyone received a piece of Maine lobster with a fennel salad served alongside it. I found it to be fresh and delicious, and reminded me that spring was just around the corner.
For the main course, there were four choices:
- Pot-au-feu style braised beef
- Cod filet in a Chablis sauce with mixed vegetables
- Warm poultry pâté and foie gras
- Orecchiette pasta with creamy butternut squash and zucchini
I chose the beef, and found it to be very tender and not at all overcooked, which is a common occurrence with airplane beef.
The meal was served with a green salad, a selection of cheese and a piece of bread. Throughout the meal, flight attendants passed by to offer additional rolls, which I appreciated since I had quite a lot of cheese to eat!
Dessert came in the form of three mini cakes: strawberry, chocolate tart and lemon sponge. The portion was perfect for me, and left the perfect sweet taste in my mouth before I fell asleep.
The whole dinner service was complete just 45 minutes after the first drinks orders were taken, which I thought was great since maximizing the amount of sleep I could get was paramount.
An hour before landing, I woke up to breakfast being served. Still groggy, I opened my menu to the breakfast page, which listed four options:
- Breakfast pastries, bread, granola, choice of jams, honey
- Scrambled eggs with chicken and chives
- Fresh fruit salad
I asked the flight attendant if I could have a combination of the breads, granola, yogurt and fruit salad, which I intended to combine into a parfait. She happily obliged and I had a wonderful, fresh breakfast that started the day in Europe off on the right foot. The pastries tasted fresh as well, and I loved alternating between peach and strawberry jam.
This meal compared favorably with the meal I had on the daytime A350 flight. It was timed well, and the food was delicious and satisfying. But, this is another data point telling me that the food experience with Air France is not very consistent.
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At the beginning of this flight, I thought that the service would be questionable, given the long wait time for the pre-departure beverage and a seemingly apathetic attitude towards the service elements. But as soon as the plane was airborne, the crew was very efficient and responsive to requests. I asked two times for full water bottles, and they were brought to me quickly and with a smile.
Also, at breakfast when I asked — still half-asleep — to combine different elements of each breakfast option, it was not a problem at all for the crew. I've had very good experiences with Air France crews lately, and this flight was no exception.
I love crossing the Atlantic with Air France. On this flight, I got to experience what is arguably the airline's best seat, had delicious food, was plenty entertained and served by a friendly crew.
Of course, we don't know quite yet what business class is going to look like after the pandemic subsides in a meaningful way and people return to the skies in significant numbers, but when we emerge into the world again I hope I have the chance to fly up front with Air France and have an experience like this one.
All photos by the author.