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Air France’s Duo seats at the back of the Boeing 777’s coach section are a good way to travel with a companion. Pros: great for couples, cheap airfare, relatively decent legroom. Cons: clunky and dated entertainment system, dirty cabin, no Wi-Fi.
Airfare to Europe on a mainline carrier can be significantly lower if you’re willing to be creative with your routing. That’s what I did in July, when searching for a flight that would get my wife, Regan, and me to Croatia for a week’s vacation this Labor Day.
I also wanted to earn Delta SkyMiles. I had racked up around 70,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles since January, and this flight would surely vault me past the 75,000-MQM level I needed to maintain Platinum Medallion status with Delta for another year. So I limited my search to Delta and its partners in the SkyTeam alliance. Google Flights and Delta.com showed economy-class prices consistently around $1,100 per person for one-stop flights from New York to Zagreb via Paris or Amsterdam.
I knew I could do better. (And forget redeeming SkyMiles: Delta wanted an outrageous 210,000 of them for the same routing in coach. You read that right.)
The fare dropped by no less than 40% if I were willing to add an extra stop in Boston on the way to Europe. A routing from New York LaGuardia (LGA) to Zagreb (ZAG) via Boston (BOS) and Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG) with a one-stop return via Amsterdam (AMS) would set us back $661.71 per person, a bargain for Europe in summer on a mainline carrier. The LGA-BOS hop was on a Delta regional jet, Boston to CDG on an Air France Boeing 777, and the final leg to Zagreb on an Air France Airbus A319, all coded as DL flights.
On the return, we would fly KLM on KL-coded flights, including a curious hybrid: Zagreb to Amsterdam on a Croatia Airlines jet. Croatia Airlines is a full member of Star Alliance, SkyTeam’s rival, but it codeshares with KLM between its hub and Amsterdam. Because of this weird combination, I earned no miles for that particular flight.
Overall, the itinerary got me 8,224 Medallion Qualifying Miles — what I needed to make Delta Platinum and then some — and $445 in Medallion Qualifying Dollars, but only 4,007 redeemable SkyMiles, since I was flying on a discounted economy ticket.
When I brought up the seat-selection screen during the booking process, the Delta site showed the Air France seat map and told me that selecting an outer seat at the very back of coach — where couples could sit together in a block of two instead of three seats — would cost me extra. At $32 per seat, it was a total of $64 for the two of us to have our little island in the sky.
Lest one forget that airlines have become quite shameless — or maybe just very skilled — at extracting from their customers what they call “ancillary revenue,” the screen with the seat-purchase transaction had a URL containing the word “upsell.”
I paid the airfare and seat fees with my Chase Sapphire Reserve, racking up 4,162 Chase Ultimate Rewards points, worth $83 at TPG’s current valuations. Travel purchases with the CSR earn 3x UR points.
Electronic boarding passes were not available for this routing, so we checked in online and got printed passes later from an agent at LGA, when we checked our luggage all the way through to Zagreb. (The baggage tracker in the Delta app worked only until Boston.)
As economy-class passengers, we would not have been able to get into a lounge in Boston, but as a Delta Platinum Medallion, I could, including access for my wife as my guest. The Air France lounge in BOS, one level down from Gate E6, didn’t exactly woo us — large but lit almost only by fluorescents, and quite crowded. It could, however, have been even worse, considering how many airlines, plus the Priority Pass and DragonPass network, used it: Alitalia, Azores Airlines, El Al, Hainan Airlines and Icelandair. (I also would have been able to get in with a guest as a member of Priority Pass, which I am through the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the Citi Prestige cards.)
Meatballs and roasted veggies from the hot buffet were nothing exceptional, but since we did not expect great food from Air France’s coach class — this was not going to be its famed La Première first class — we loaded up.
Limited options for charging devices were a bit of a problem, but there was a truly outstanding selection of French and international newspapers and magazines, like in other AF lounges.
The lack of views on the tarmac from most of the lounge was a negative, and the women’s restroom needed attention from the cleaners. The men’s was clean, but had only two stalls for a relatively large lounge. For the barely 30 minutes we spent there, though, the lounge was all right, and even made an attempt at Air France chic with posters on the walls from the airline’s current ad campaign, including one that saluted the pride of the French fleet, “His Highness,” the Airbus A380.
Waiting at our gate was a Boeing 777-300ER, Air France’s long-haul workhorse, which the airline flies in several different seat configurations. Our plane, a 2004-vintage bird registered F-GSQD, featured business, premium economy and economy, with a total of 381 seats. That’s the oldest configuration of Air France’s stretched-model 777s, with biz seats that don’t go flat and that are configured in a dated 2-3-2 layout. Our 777, we would soon find out, was overdue for an interior refurbish.
Boarding announcements weren’t loud or clear enough, leading to confusion. A large number of passengers appeared to be inexperienced flyers, and the staff didn’t help them sort out the process. We boarded with SkyPriority passengers, after those needing special assistance and business class, but were held up by a gate agent because, in her explanation, we came from a connecting flight, necessitating extra passport checks. When we finally made it on board, we found the tight 3-4-3 layout in economy that’s now sadly commonplace on 777s. Air France’s alliance partner Delta is keeping its 777s in a roomier 3-3-3 layout.
Cabin and Seat
Our seats were 50K and L, at the end of the third out of three coach-class sections and just three rows from the very last, close to the aft galley and lavatories.
They were far from bad seats, though. With decent 32-inch legroom and adjustable headrests with head-support side flaps that actually stayed in place, they compared favorably to most competitors’ except in width. The cozy Duo arrangement, as Air France calls it, was definitely worth the extra money for us.
On the seats we found the usual accoutrements: pillow, blanket, a cellophane pouch with headphones, moist towelette and eye mask.
Several seats around us ended up not being taken. Off to a good start, we thought … until we looked in the seatback pouches and on the floor. Crumbs littered the area around the seat supports. It looked like they had been lodged in the cracks for months.
In my seatback pouch, I found a piece of leftover sandwich. Granted, the sandwich was the fault of the company Air France contracts to clean its planes in Boston, but months of accumulated crumbs were not.
The sound quality of the intercom wasn’t great either. When the captain introduced himself and gave details on the flight during boarding, I missed most of what he said.
With a 7:10pm departure, boarding was completed at 7:03, we pushed back from the gate at 7:16 and took off at 7:40 after a long taxi and takeoff queue.
You can’t run an airline these days without commissioning a cutesy safety video, and Air France was no exception: The video that played while we taxied advised passengers, among other things, to avoid smoking or vaping in the lavs because “c’est plus chic.”
The safety belt’s buckle still sported the old Air France logo. It’ll be another thing to change when this 777 next goes in the shop for an overhaul and the installation of a new interior.
Cute video or not, the swiveling seatback monitor was an absolute pain to operate. The touchscreen required very hard, often repeated, presses. The wired remote did not work until I selected the moving map using the touchscreen. That froze the system and provoked a reboot, which made the handset work.
The actual content was satisfying, with a wide selection of movies, heavy on the European titles, and TV shows, leaning American instead. Too bad for the clunky navigation. The music selection introduced me to a genre totally made up by Air France: “hard rock metal.”
It turned out to be a lot of metal of all kinds, from classics of the genre like Iron Maiden or Megadeth to alt-metal and French metal bands, plus bizarre additions like Snow Patrol, a band light years away from either hard rock or heavy metal.
The lack of Wi-Fi on this plane might have been a problem on a longer flight — a 777-300ER can stay in the air two and a half times the six hours between Boston and Paris — but on this relatively quick evening flight, it was not a huge deal. The thick Air France magazine was as fluffy as one might expect from an airline, but it did contain a few gems, like a short item on courses Air France offers for nervous flyers who want to relieve le stress aéronautique (we tried it, and it worked.)
Food and Beverage
Two flight attendants looked after our section of coach, one older and clearly more experienced than the other, who could have easily passed for a teenager, with a listless demeanor to match.
They began service 50 minutes after takeoff, with a dinner preceded by the distribution of menus that offered a choice between chicken and a vegetarian pasta.
My chicken was bland and salty, but the quinoa salad, a little soggy but enlivened by a bright acidic dressing and a hint of garlic, was a small pleasure. A piece of Black Diamond extra-sharp cheddar was fortunately not cold — trust the French to know how to handle cheese properly, even in coach — and not bad at all, but this was definitely not the haute cuisine you might find in Air France’s La Première.
“What about the pasta?” I asked my wife, who had ordered the other entree. She took out one earbud, said “Eh, meh,” and promptly returned to watching “Call Me by Your Name.” We both loathe coconut, so we ignored the dessert. (I did get to poach her quinoa salad.)
With a long day ahead of us and little prospect of sleep except a couple of hours in the lounge at CDG, we decided to drink sparkling water and forgo alcohol, which would have been free.
At 9:45pm, the lights went out and stayed off for the following three hours as we crossed the ocean. The thin but warm blanket proved to be essential, as the cabin was cold compared to the standard of European airlines, which generally keep air conditioners at a warmer setting than their US counterparts. The flight attendants did not walk through the cabin offering water or juice to fight dehydration; thirsty passengers had to make their way to the galley.
Breakfast was served over Ireland, with one hour to go. It consisted of a muffin and yogurt. I just had a (passable) cup of coffee and an orange juice. My wife pronounced the muffin “fine.”
The views out the starboard windows as we approached CDG proved to be the most exciting thing about the entire flight, with the Eiffel Tower appearing in the haze to the south as we landed eastbound.
We landed uneventfully at 7:58am local time.
Like a good AvGeek, I keep track of my Atlantic crossings; this was No. 67, and except for the disgusting half-sandwich incident and crumbs on the floor, it didn’t really feel different from any other standard-issue jump across the pond in coach.
That’s what my wife thought too.
“Pretty basic,” she said, as our adolescent-looking flight attendant came to pick up the breakfast trays. “There’s nothing that stands out.” And that is not a bad thing when you’re flying to Europe and back on a mainline carrier for less than $700.
Featured image by Fabrizio Gandolfo/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
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