Tray Magnifique! A Review of Air France’s New Business-Class Seat on the A330 From Paris to Houston
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Air France wants to change the face of one of its long-haul products in the best way possible. The carrier is in the process of overhauling its entire fleet of 15 Airbus A330-200 aircraft by retrofitting them with new business, premium economy and economy cabins.
But, instead of fitting these older aircraft with a state-of-the-art product, the carrier chose to go with a subpar 2-2-2 business-class cabin. Unlike many of its competitors, the carrier declined to offer all-aisle access, instead maximizing the possible revenue by stuffing the cabin with lots of seats.
Even though the cabin has a 2-2-2 arrangement, it’s still worlds better than the previous version of the A330, which was dark, drab and badly in need of a refresh.
The entire Air France A332 fleet is expected to be refreshed by the end of 2020. For now, however, this new product is flying between Paris (CDG) and Houston (IAH) for the 2018-2019 winter season (until March 30, 2019). Then, for the 2019 summer season, the new product will fly to Seattle (SEA), Chicago (ORD) and Dallas (DFW) until Oct. 26, 2019. The aircraft will also fly to Delhi (DEL), Bengaluru (BLR), Cotonou (COO), Lagos (LOS) and Niamey (NIM) for the summer season, as well as Ouagadougou (OUA) and Accra (ACC) for both winter and summer seasons.
But just how does the new product stack up? Is it better than the previous product? Is it good enough to prioritize over flying with another carrier with a stop? Thanks to a solid redemption, I hopped on one of the first flights to the US with the new cabin to test it out.
The Flying Blue program, which Air France uses alongside KLM, offers intriguing redemption options. Although the program did away with its awards chart in June 2018 and significantly devalued its program, there are still great opportunities to use points.
On this route between Paris and Houston, one-way flights in business class on the new A330 typically hover around the $7,000 mark. I was able to find one day with award availability and jumped at the opportunity. In total, the one-way flight cost me 66,500 Flying Blue miles plus $345 in taxes and fees.
Based on TPG’s most recent valuations, those 66,500 Flying Blue miles were worth $798. Considering the flight usually costs about $7,000, I got a great value out of using my miles for this ticket.
What makes Flying Blue miles more valuable is that they can be transferred from a number of programs. American Express Membership Rewards points, Chase Ultimate Rewards points and Citi Thank You points transfer to Flying Blue instantly at a 1:1 ratio. So, by signing up for a single credit card, such as The Platinum Card® from American Express, the75,000 Membership Rewards Points after you spend $5,000 on purchases within the first 6 months could nearly get you to this redemption.
I arrived at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport bright and early for my 10:10am departure. I had arrived through a side entrance and looked up at the board to see where the check-in for this US-bound departure was. Upon arriving at the designated area, there were very few people, and no lines to answer the brief security questioning and to check bags.
Because there was no queue for check-in or checking a bag, I wasn’t as frustrated when I found the SkyPriority check-in area. It was located centrally within the check-in area, but there was no signage for the area on the side of the terminal.
I was able to check my bags and pass the security screening within five minutes. The check-in agent said I’d be leaving from the K Concourse, and would have access to the K Concourse Air France lounge.
Upon passing through security at the terminal, I made my way to the K Concourse lounge. Having done my research, I knew that Air France had just opened a new lounge in the L Concourse last year, featuring updated furnishings and offerings. However, I was stuck in the somewhat dated K Concourse lounge.
The lounge was on the far left end of the K Concourse, and I had to go down a set of elevators to access it. Once I was on the -1 level, I stopped to take a picture of the entrance. At that moment, I heard a loud, “Madame, non! Non photographie!” Put off by he unfriendly welcome, I scanned my boarding pass and tried to find a spot to sit in the lounge.
The key word is “tried” — the lounge was incredibly crowded. Aside from one or two tables here or there, it was very tight on space.
The play area for kids included two Playstation 4 gaming booths, which were next to the showers and restrooms.
I was excited to try out the Air France Clarins treatment, as the lounge offered free spa treatments and relaxation areas. But fate had other ideas for my trip.
“It’s open every day except Wednesday,” the front-desk agent told me.
Lucky me: I was flying on a Wednesday. Bummed, I walked back into the lounge and looked for a new space to claim as my own.
But even fewer seats were available after my spa misadventure. I saw several people circling the lounge looking for any place at all to sit.
As far as food, my breakfast in the lounge was pretty dismal. I’d suggest you save the stomach space for when you’re on board. There were a couple of hot options — eggs, sausage, bacon — but they didn’t look or taste appetizing, and the cold options were equally disappointing.
I ended up with a bowl of applesauce — a highlight, in my opinion — bacon, eggs and a chocolate croissant. I wished I’d saved my appetite for the flight.
Even during from 7 am to 9am, when I was in the lounge, the full bar was on display. Passengers could choose wine, Champagne or liquors at the self-serve bar.
Although my experience in the K Concourse lounge wasn’t the greatest, it wasn’t the worst lounge experience I’ve had — especially considering some of the Priority Pass lounges I’ve visited. But, I wish I could’ve gone to the L Concourse lounge. Oh, and keep your spa open all week, Air France. Why close it just on Wednesdays?
There are two words that make any frequent traveler shiver: remote board. And when you’re traveling from an airline’s home base, you don’t expect to hear them. Nor do you expect it to be a 40-minute process. Alas, that was the situation for me on Air France Flight 636 to Houston.
The boarding process started as it was expected to, at 9:05am for a 10:10am departure. I boarded in Zone 1, the SkyPriority group for passengers traveling in business class.
After going down the ramp, down a curved set of stairs and out into the cold of a Parisian winter morning, we arrived on the asphalt to find a waiting bus, on which we waited… and waited… and waited some more for it to fill up. About 15 minutes after initially boarding the bus, off we went. The start-and-go nature of the ride across the tarmac, with wheeled bags shifting across the floor, was enough to make anyone frustrated.
And then we arrived to our glowing, recently refreshed bird. But we weren’t allowed off right away. We arrived around 9:30am, but the doors didn’t open. As the bus sat parked, doors closed and engine off, the temperature on the bus started to rise. Passengers grew uncomfortable and irritated as the delay continued. It wasn’t until 9:45am that we were allowed off the steaming bus and onto the awaiting A330.
Cabin and Seat
What does the new Air France A330 business-class cabin have going for it? It definitely looks fresh. The light colors of its interior — from the off-white headrests to the gray upholstery and white leather seat shells — make the cabin bright.
But what doesn’t the new Air France A330 business-class cabin have going for it? Well, like its predecessor, it’s still arranged in a less-than-ideal 2-2-2 configuration.
The new cabin features 36 lie-flat seats in the configuration, which requires window passengers to climb over their neighbors to reach the aisle.
The 36 seats are split across two small cabins. At the front of the aircraft were four rows for a total of 24 seats. And in the rear mini cabin were an additional two rows, that housed 12 seats.
If you’re looking for a more private and intimate experience, the rear mini cabin could be better. On my flight, the front cabin was slightly more than half full. In the rear, each passenger had his or her own row.
My seat, 3A, was a window seat on the port side. The cabin’s seats were 78.7 inches long (about 6 feet, 5 inches) and 22.4 inches wide.
If you’re looking for privacy, a 2-2-2 cabin never comes to mind. But I found these new Equinox 2D seats by Stelia Aerospace to be on the private side for something that wasn’t a suite or in an all-aisle-access cabin.
The back of each of the seats — featuring the massive inflight-entertainment screen — were slightly tilted. I could still see what my neighbor was watching and even the glare of passengers behind me, but it was a better setup than when the seats are straight on, like with Azerbaijan Airlines’ 787.
Additionally, between each of the sets of seats was a divider that I found to provide ample privacy from both a neighbor and those walking down the aisle. When my seat was in its lie-flat position and the divider was closed, I couldn’t see anyone in the aisle.
One other major perk was that it had ample storage, lacking in many 2-2-2 cabins. Directly next to my head was a small cubby perfect for storing headphones, water and small items. It was also where the power outlet was.
Across from the seat and right under the IFE screen was a small stowage area, where I put my phone, AirPod case and lip balm. (Pro tip: Never fly without your ChapStick.)
Additionally, below the IFE screen was the footwell, and, underneath that, a small space for shoes. I found the storage space to be exceptional, given the rather dense cabin configuration.
Speaking of the footwell: Well, it was rather on the tight side. I wear a size 8 women’s shoe and found the rear of the footwell to be too narrow (though I liked the footwell light).
Despite the tight footwell, I found the bed itself to be comfortable. It was 6 feet, 5 inches in its lie-flat position, and I didn’t find privacy to be an issue.
I could pull up the outermost armrest for a more closed feeling, or push it down to maximize the space.
The opposite armrest housed the massive tray table. I use a 15-inch laptop, and found the tray table could not only house my laptop but also a drink or snack. I could slide the tray table in or out as far as I needed.
Perhaps the biggest drawback of the new cabin was the bathroom. There was only one. A single lavatory for 36 passengers on a full flight. Whenever I went to the loo, there was at least one other passenger waiting.
Once I did get in, I found it rather on the large side. Plus, it was a loo with a view.
Unfortunately, the cabin didn’t have personal air vents. A couple of times, I found the cabin too hot, and would have loved to have been able to control my own vent.
This was a new cabin, and it showed. There was no visible wear and tear around the seat. The tray table operated like new. The seat didn’t make any strange noises as it repositioned. This was all in stark contrast to the actual age of the aircraft: F-GZCF was a nearly 17-year-old aircraft, having been delivered to Air France in June 2002, according to PlaneSpotters.net.
The aircraft was likely retrofitted in January. According to FlightRadar24, F-GZCF didn’t fly between Dec. 3, 2018, and Feb. 1, 2019. On Dec. 3, it flew from Paris to Bordeaux (BOD), and on Feb. 1, it returned to CDG from BOD. On Feb. 3, it operated Air France Flight 584 from CDG to Accra (ACC).
While the 2-2-2 configuration was less than ideal, and the one-lavatory situation was an issue, I found the cabin to be comfortable overall. I was able to get good sleep in the seat, and the ample storage was a huge benefit.
Amenities and IFE
A full seat is a happy seat upon boarding. And in the new A330 business-class seats, passengers got just that. Each seat was stocked with a hanger and seat number — a convenient and seamless process for flight attendants to hang up winter jackets. Additionally, each seat had both a plastic-wrapped light-blue blanket and beige-and-white striped pillow.
Each seat also came with a set of slippers, pair of socks and a fabric drawstring bag in which to put shoes. The slippers and socks were standard for a business-class offering, and the bag was great for storing shoes during the long-haul flight.
Shortly after boarding, flight attendants distributed a special amenity kit, designed for the airline’s 85th anniversary. The contents of the kit were standard: dental kit, brush, eye mask and earplugs, pen and lotions. The bold coloring of the amenity kit itself was a good contrast to the white-beige interior of the cabin.
As previously mentioned, the outlet for the seat was conveniently located in the small storage directly next to my head. Aside from being easily accessible, it was pretty standard, with both a power outlet and USB port.
The inflight-entertainment screen was one of the largest and crispest I’d seen in the skies. At 18.5 inches, it was plenty large. It could be be controlled either via touchscreen, which I found to be wonderfully responsive, or by remote control.
I could choose from 347 movies and 386 episodes of TV shows, and there were French and American options for both. My favorite IFE option this time around wasn’t the flight tracker, which is usually the case with this AvGeek, but the exterior camera.
The handheld remote for the inflight entertainment was in the small storage next to the seat. It was responsive and easy to use. My favorite part of it was that it displayed the route and time to destination prominently at the top. I ended up using it like a bedside clock. When I woke up midflight from a nap, I loved being able to roll over and see how much time was left in the air.
Also in that small storage area was a place for the headphones. They were good enough for the IFE content, but not the most noise-canceling product that I’ve had on a flight.
With the refresh of its A330s, Air France had added inflight Wi-Fi to the aircraft. There were three tiers: free messaging, enough data to browse the internet and read and send emails (3 to 18 euros, or $3.50 to $20, or 6,000 Flying Blue miles), or high-speed internet with streaming and downloading capabilities (30 euros, or $35, or 10,000 miles)
I got the web-surfing midtier package for the full flight, or $20. It started off on the slower side (1.05 Mbps and 2.27 Mbps for download and upload), but sometimes surpassed the speeds I have in my apartment — 31.8 Mbps and 1.62 Mbps for download and upload, respectively.
With the A330 business-cabin refresh, Air France kept a small, self-service inflight bar. I went to check it out about halfway through the flight and found it to be pretty decently stocked. There was one Heineken and a few open wines. The main galley was right next to the bar area, so flight attendants were usually close by. As far as snacks, I saw the same nut mix I had at my seat and a caramel-candies mix, which I found to be a nice, sweet treat to curl up and watch “Crazy Rich Asians” with.
As I mentioned already, one of the biggest drawbacks of the cabin refresh was the lavatory situation. Aside from that, however, it was very large, as compared to other business-class lavatories I’ve experienced.
It was also stocked with Clarins fragrances — the same brand Air France uses in its amenity kits and lounge spas.
What made the one-lav situation worse was that, about halfway through the flight, the sink broke. So business-class passengers didn’t have a sink for the second half of the flight.
The crew did their best to make up for the technical difficulty by writing a note and offering towelettes.
Food and Beverage
I had high hopes for the food on this flight, and I wasn’t disappointed. Overall, I found the food to be très magnifique.
After passengers were finally allowed on board just before 10am after the dreadful remote board. About 10 minutes later, the crew came around with predeparture Champagne, orange juice and water. The Champagne was lovely and served in an Air France-branded glass.
Shortly after takeoff, crew distributed the menu for the flight along with a hot towel. With the announcement of this new business-class cabin, the carrier also announced in January that it had partnered with chef Anne-Sophie Pic (whose Maison Pic has earned three Michelin stars) to design its business-class menu, which rotates throughout the year.
About 30 minutes after takeoff, the first lunch course was served, a salmon tartare with horseradish cream and Parmesan crumble. I found the appetizer to be tasty, with the Parmesan crumble adding a nice balance of texture and taste.
The appetizer was served alongside a choice of beverage and a boxed mix of nuts, corn and pumpkin seeds. I had a glass of water and Champagne. The Champagne, a Laurent Perrier brut, was a perfect, crisp apértif.
Shortly after collecting the salmon plates, crew distributed foie gras with a coffee-and-passionfruit jelly, along with a beluga lentil salad, mixed greens and bread and cheese. I found the presentation of the meal to be especially nice, with a napkin bound with a leather strap.
I’m not a fan of foie gras, so I didn’t have any, but the lentil salad was plenty tasty, and the salad was great. Too often, airplane salads feature wilted leaves and tasteless toppings. This was not that. Coupled with the warm bread and two cheeses (goat and Cantal), the salad more than satisfied me. But the main course was still to come.
Prior to the appetizer, crew came around the cabin to take entree orders on an iPad. By the time they got to me, they were out of my first choice: poultry and poulette sauce with tonka bean and creamy polenta with mushrooms. The apologetic flight attendant promised to come to me first for the prearrival meal to ensure I got my first choice.
So for lunch, I ordered the zander, or perch pike, which was served with a coconut-and-cilantro curry sauce, stewed green vegetables and parsley rice. It looked bland but tasted great. It was a thicker cut of fish, but not too heavy or fishy. The other lunch options were: beef cheek, coffee pot-au-feu and an onion consommé; or cream-cheese-and-basil ravioli.
For my meal, I shifted away from the Champagne to a white wine. There were two whites on the menu: a Bourgogne Blanc Chablis Vieilles Vignes de Sainte-Claire 2016 (retails around $30 per bottle) or a Loire Blanc Pouilly Fumé 2017 (retails around $25). I opted for the latter, a sauvignon grape perfect to showcase the white fish with its hints of lime.
To cap off meal service, flight attendants came around the cabin with a dessert cart. Choices included a selection of sorbets or a chocolate praline cake. Per the flight attendant’s glowing recommendation — and my love for chocolate — I opted for the cake.
I didn’t regret my choice. The dessert was the perfect end to the meal. The crisp crunch of the praline base was the perfect complement to the creamy mousse-like cake. And the final course was served with a bite of pure chocolate.
About an hour and a half before landing at Houston, the flight crew came around again to take orders for the light snack meal. As promised hours earlier, the same flight attendant came to me first with her iPad to take my order.
Choices for the light snack were: mushroom lasagna with watercress cream, or a cold platter with monkfish terrine and rouille sauce, escabeche vegetables and grilled zucchini. I got the mushroom lasagna, which was delicious, highlighted by a thick layer of cheese on top. (Again, it tasted better than it looked.)
The light snack was served with a delicious berry panna cotta, as well as three small dessert bites: a plain financier, fruit compote and chocolate cake.
Overall, I found the meal service to be exceptional. Though I would have preferred an additional option for the gourmet appetizer rather than just the foie gras, I was plenty full and satisfied with the other offerings.
Sometimes, service with Air France is a mixed bag. You just don’t know what you’re going to get — though you can reasonably depend on them to be efficient, at least. In my case, however, I got a warm and welcoming crew. They were keen on sharing recommendations, apologetic when my first meal choice wasn’t available and generally friendly. Even when I was taking pictures, unlike in the lounge, there were no dirty looks or instructions to stop. In this case, service was one of the better parts of the flight.
Air France’s new A330 provides a comfortable product in a less-than-ideal configuration. Though my seat was in a 2-2-2 configuration and had only one lav, it was possible to get a decent amount of privacy, and it provided me with great conditions to get quality sleep. Plus, the storage space and meal service were better than average.
Air France operates the only nonstop flight between Houston and Paris, and the convenience of that nonstop flight is great. And if you’re able to score a good redemption like I did, you’ll likely find yourself enjoying the the flight. It’ll be better yet if you’re traveling with someone you know and don’t have to worry about climbing over their feet midflight.
All photos by Emily McNutt / The Points Guy.
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