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Air France’s 777 premium economy doesn’t live up to its name and isn’t worth the higher price. Pros: solid IFE and amenities and cheap upgrades to business class. Cons: a seat that’s truly uncomfortable and no Wi-Fi.
Premium economy is becoming more and more prevalent. All three of the big US airlines have either introduced it or are planning to, while many of the big European carriers like British Airways, Iberia and Virgin Atlantic have seats in the premium economy cabin that are more or less like the ones you’d find in domestic first class.
Curious how it would be to make the hop across the Atlantic in a premium economy cabin, I worked the experience into a flight I needed to get to Frankfurt (FRA) for a work event — I settled on flying Air France’s premium economy from New York-JFK to Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG) and then taking a connection to Germany. Here’s my take on the flight.
Since we were booking these flights at the last minute — only a week before I needed to be in Germany — we didn’t get the best rate. We ended up booking with 62,500 Flying Blue Miles and had to pay $326 in taxes and fees, but the ticket was going for about $2,200 in cash, so we were still getting a good redemption with 3.5 cents per point.
We transferred the required points from American Express Membership Rewards. Taxes and fees were paid for with the The Platinum Card from American Express, which earns 5x points on airfare purchased directly from the airlines. The $326 yielded 1,630 Membership Rewards points, worth about $31, according to TPG’s valuations.
Since the flight, Air France has changed its award chart, so now award prices are based off of many factors including demand on a given flight. For example, under the new chart you theoretically can book the JFK-CDG leg for 45,500 Flying Blue Miles, but you should be able to book a flight from JFK all the way to Frankfurt (FRA) for just 42,500 miles. However, it’s likely going to be tough to find awards at those rates, considering the amount of variability the new award prices have. If you’re lucky, you’d need just 57,500 miles to fly in business, only a 12,000-mile difference from premium economy, and that gets you a fully flat bed, elevated food and service and more.
If you don’t have many Flying Blue Miles, you can transfer points from many major programs at the following rates:
- American Express Membership Rewards: 1:1
- Chase Ultimate Rewards: 1:1
- Citi ThankYou Rewards: 1:1
- Starwood Preferred Guest: 1:1 (if you transfer 20,000 Starpoints, you’ll receive a 5,000-mile bonus)
The Amex Platinum card is currently offering a 60,000-point welcome offer after you spend $5,000 in the first three months. Alternatively, you could sign up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred and earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in the first three months — enough to get a seat in Air France’s premium economy. Amex is running a 25% bonus when transferring points to Flying Blue through June 15 which can help stretch your hard-earned points even further.
I checked in online before my flight and was able to change my seat from there — I opted for a spot by the window. During the check-in process, Air France offered to upgrade me to business class for just $422! Normally, I would have taken it in a heartbeat, but I was flying in premium economy for the purpose of this review, so I had to pass. Still, Air France gets high marks for offering such reasonable prices for upgrades to biz.
Premium-economy flights come with two free checked bags, which was nice, especially considering the higher cost of the ticket. However, I canceled out my savings on bags by taking an Uber to JFK from Manhattan’s Flatiron District … which I highly discourage. Taking the subway with an AirTrain connection would’ve actually been quicker, at least during rush hour, and I could have saved about $60.
Air France flies out of JFK’s Terminal 1, an international-only terminal that’s home to carriers including Aeroflot, Korean Air and Norwegian.
While I was taking a picture of the check-in desk, an Air France employee approached me and asked if I needed help. After I respectfully declined, he insisted that I get a paper boarding pass in case I lost my phone. Although it was a bit pushy, he was nice about it, and the employee at the check-in desk pleasantly handed me my ticket.
Premium-economy passengers do have access to SkyPriority check-in, but when I arrived at the airport and had my boarding pass checked by an agent, they didn’t direct me to the SkyPriority lane, but rather a general one.
After getting through security I headed to the Air France lounge, even though my premium-economy ticket don’t come with lounge access (not uncommon for premium-economy tickets). Fortunately, my Chase Sapphire Reserve grants me access to the Priority Pass lounge group, which this Air France lounge is actually a part of. Priority Pass members can also visit the Korean Air lounge in Terminal 1. If you don’t have a Priority Pass membership, you can purchase access for $50. Note that there’s a good chance you could be turned away, though, as the space often fills up quickly and Priority Pass members are low on the totem pole in terms of access.
The lounge is quite large and offers plenty of seating with a modern design. The entire space was chic as far as a lounge goes, and the seating had definitely improved since the last time I was there.
I found a solid array of food and beverages, too. I’d visited this lounge a few times before and was impressed this time to see that Air France had upgraded its bread section. No kidding, this lounge featured 11 styles of bread while I was there. However, and somewhat surprisingly, baguettes were nowhere to be found.
If you find yourself at this lounge, I’d recommend heading up to the second floor. It’s usually a lot less crowded than the ground level, and you’ll find the food’s been picked at less up there.
Apart from the bread, I found the normal selection of mid-range alcohol and light fare like salad, cold cuts, cheese and fruit.
A very nice perk of this lounge is that it offers guests complimentary Clarins spa treatments. Unfortunately, they were booked up by the time I got there, but the check-in agent said the 15-minute session included a light massage and facial treatment.
I ran over to my gate to find that the boarding process had already begun. One of my favorite parts of JFK’s Terminal 1 is that it’s a prime spot for AvGeeks. I spotted an Air China 747 and Lufthansa 747 — you’ll likely see Korean’s A380 behemoth or an more elusive Aeroflot 777.
I snagged a few pictures of the Air France 777-300ER we’d be using to hop across the Pond, registration F-GZND.
The aircraft was delivered to the airline in 2009 and it’s powered by two General Electric GE90 engines.
Premium economy on Air France gave me a leg up over economy passengers, at least when it came to boarding. I was in SkyPriority Zone 2 — meaning I got to board the plane right after those seated in first and business class.
The rest of the economy passengers were in Groups 3 through 5. I was quite happy at this moment to be seated in premium economy, since the line stretched down the terminal — definitely a place I didn’t want to be.
Cabin and Seat
Air France’s 77W is arranged into four different cabins — first, business, premium economy and economy. In the premium-economy cabin are 28 seats in a 2-4-2 layout.
Each seat is 19 inches wide and has 38 inches of pitch — that’s 2 inches wider than in economy and 6 more inches for your legs. l would have been able to stretch out even more if I’d been at a bulkhead on either side of the aircraft.
One of the things I appreciated most about premium economy on the 777 is that it has its own small cabin squeezed between business and economy. It’s nice to have your own area — and makes you feel a little special not being stuffed in with all the economy passengers.
There are actually two lavatories in the small cabin, and neither passengers from business or economy seemed to use them. I imagine this was due to the curtains that cordoned off our section throughout the majority of the flight.
Each seat had a footrest, and the bottom portion of the seat extended outward when reclined — making for a seat that was designed to support passengers from head to toe.
Now let’s get to what matters — comfort. Unfortunately, Air France got a failing grade in this department. The padding on the seat was incredibly lacking. I felt the plastic backing through what felt like a half-inch of depressed and worn-in foam.
Air France’s premium-economy seats have a somewhat unconventional design. They’re built into a hard plastic shell and don’t recline in a traditional fashion. They actually recline inward, which is nice in one sense, since the person in front of you can’t pull off a surprise recline that leads to your tray table being jabbed into your stomach. But, on the other hand, I found that when I was reclined, the seat was even more uncomfortable than when it was upright.
The seatback would actually pop in and out when I would adjust my position (like leaning one way or another). I asked a flight attendant if this was normal, and she said it was the way they were designed. I tried sitting in a few other seats and had the same results — uncomfortable all around.
It was an overnight flight, and I was barely able to sleep — usually I don’t have much of a problem when trying to snooze on a red-eye (even in economy).
When I was sitting upright, it wasn’t totally bad. It was nice to have the extra legroom and the footrest — the wide seat’s extra width made me feel like I had room to breathe, too.
I would nearly consider Air France’s premium-economy seat less comfortable than an economy seat. TPG‘s JT Genter had a similar experience with Aeroflot’s 777 premium economy product — which uses the same seat as Air France.
Food and Beverage
When I think French food, I think of the stereotypical wine, cheese and baguettes. What I received was far from that, though. I do applaud the airline’s fresh branding and hip menu design, but the quality didn’t match the chic presentation.
First, there was no welcome drink. When I did get served my first beverage, though, I went with the Champagne. It wasn’t Dom or Krug, but hey, this wasn’t Emirates first.
Dinner was served quickly after takeoff, just 35 minutes in. There were just two choices: chicken with a red-bell-pepper coulis and kale purée or Mafalda pasta with a “Mediterranean sauce.” Both came with cheese, bread, ham, grilled artichoke and melon.
I went with the chicken, since it’s an easy way to test if an airline can do food. The chicken was a little rubbery, but the kale purée was pretty tasty. The melon and ham were unremarkable, but the dessert was a scrumptious mango mousse cake.
As far as airplane food goes, it was above average, but it didn’t stand out from many economy meals I’ve had — especially when compared to the Gulf carriers. The only thing that seemed premium about my meal was the plating — some of the items were served on porcelain and drinks were poured into real glasses.
I was able to order more drinks after the meal service and went with a red wine, the French classic Roc de Belame. When you get wine served out of a plastic bottle, don’t expect much.
Breakfast was served about an hour and a half before landing. I received a muffin, yogurt and orange juice, which seemed like a joke considering other premium-economy products serve fresh fruit and meat. It felt ironic to see the three items wrapped in plastic and foil served on a delicate porcelain platter.
Overall, the breakfast service just felt boring and lazy — it was less fancy than breakfasts I’ve received in economy on other international carriers and seemed more like what you’d receive on a domestic transcon red-eye flight from when the US airlines served a more complete meal service.
Amenities and In-Flight Entertainment
Air France’s one saving grace was the quality of its entertainment and amenities.
Upon boarding, I was presented with a tiny, albeit sleek, amenity kit that contained just a few basic items. Inside was a toothbrush, toothpaste, earplugs, socks, eye mask and sanitary covers for my seat’s headphones.
While it was not anything incredibly fancy, it was a nice touch, and the products were of decent quality. I hate to bring it back to my experience on Middle Eastern carriers, but they provided a very similar amenity kit in economy. Still, not all other international premium-economy products include amenity kits.
Each seat had large, comfortable pillows and big, thick blankets — something you may actually find on a bed and definitely a jump up from economy. Since the seat next to me was empty, I was able to grab extra, making the journey a bit more comfortable.
Hanging at each seat was a pair of noise-canceling headphones. Although they weren’t the best headphones I’ve ever used, they were comfortable, functional and the noise-canceling feature worked well. That can make a world of difference on a long flight with the 777s massive, roaring engines. This amenity is something you’d normally only find in a business-class cabin, so thumbs up to Air France for this.
Air France had a solid in-flight entertainment system. I got a large high-definition screen that was definitely bigger than those in economy and made for an enjoyable viewing experience. The touchscreen itself was relatively responsive, which was a huge sign of quality for me — I hate having to repeatedly touch a screen just to get it to raise the volume a smidge.
I also appreciated the bottles of water that were waiting at every seat. It made the journey a little more relaxing knowing I wouldn’t have to bug the crew for water throughout the flight.
The airline claimed there were over 1,200 hours of content loaded into the system. Indeed, there appeared to be a decent amount of American choices, both old and new — with TV shows like “Black-ish” and “Modern Family” alongside “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Friends.” You could find French cinema, too, and you could even mark favorite items as you leafed through the selections, saving you the pain of having to go through the whole catalog searching for something you’d seen before.
Apart from the TV and movie choices, which could easily get me through a transatlantic journey, there were a handful of games like “Battleship” and “Tetris,” and even children’s games, making this a good way to keep kids occupied.
What I appreciated most was that Air France had installed mindfulness and guided-meditation programs tailored to air travel — and there were even options for both kids and adults. And, there were suggestions for in-flight exercises and stretches which is often overlooked on flights.
Air France didn’t offer Wi-Fi on this flight, which now is pretty much a black mark in my book when low-cost carriers like Norwegian not only offer Wi-Fi but give it to their customers for free. Air France has plans to introduce Wi-Fi on the bulk of their aircraft over the next two years, but until then it’s sad to see such a well-known airline fall behind when it comes to technology.
One of the most important things when judging an airline is seat comfort, and unfortunately for Air France, it gets an F. I found the seat to be genuinely not comfortable, even though we paid a significant premium over regular economy. In the future, I’d rather save the money (or miles) and go in economy or pay just a bit extra (at least in miles) to snag a lie-flat business-class seat and all the perks that come with that.
When I hear the phrase “premium economy,” I think of a premium experience. I don’t feel like I got that on Air France. There were certainly some nice touches, like the option for a cheap upgrade to business class, noise-canceling headphones, a solid IFE system, good service, premium bedding and priority boarding. But with no priority check-in, no lounge access, no premium drinks or food and no Wi-Fi, I was left wanting more.
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