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Delicious food, excellent service and no seatmate.
Tremendously frustrating connection experience at CDG, and a terribly outdated hard product with angle-flat seats and a 2-2-2 configuration.
After a weekend of continent hopping that brought me to Europe, South America and back to Europe, I needed to get back home to New York. One option that stood out to me was an Air France itinerary that would take me from Madrid to New York via Paris. And, the Paris-New York leg would be operated by the Airbus A380, which had me excited for two reasons: It would be just my second flight onboard an A380, and I would get to experience what on paper looked like a comically bad business-class product.
As I’d come to find out, the hard product really was objectively bad, but that didn’t mean I didn’t enjoy my flight overall. Several factors combined on this flight that allowed my very low expectations to be met — and perhaps even exceeded — despite a grossly outdated business-class hard product.
This flight was booked as part of a larger trip composed of three separate tickets:
- A round-trip, economy ticket from New York-JFK to Madrid (MAD) (already flown) and then from MAD to Paris (CDG) to New York-JFK (upcoming, and review coming soon)
- A round-trip ticket between MAD and Bogota, Colombia (BOG), with one segment in biz and one in coach (already flown)
- A round-trip, business-class ticket that was MAD-CDG-JFK (this review) and then JFK-MAD (review coming soon)
Air France is one of the most important members of the SkyTeam alliance, and its frequent-flyer program, FlyingBlue is probably the best engine for searching SkyTeam availability. 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 New York-JFK and found tickets for as little as 57,500 miles each way, with taxes and fees of around $350.
The benefit of booking through Flying Blue, of course, 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 in order to acquire the Flying Blue miles necessary for booking the flight you want.
If you’re short miles in any of these accounts, you could sign up for a card like the Platinum Card® from American Express, which offers 60,000 bonus points after you make $5,000 in purchases in the first three months of membership.
Related: The 7 Best Starter Credit Cards
Originating in Europe gave us an advantage, though, as round-trip tickets that started across the Pond are often much cheaper than if you were starting in the US. In this case, it worked perfectly, and we booked a ticket with two long-haul business-class segments for about $2,200. Plus, I was able to earn SkyMiles and elite-qualifying miles with Delta, helping me tremendously in my quest to requalify for Diamond Medallion status this year.
My time on the ground with Air France was a roller coaster. Things started off as normal as could be in Madrid. My connecting flight to Paris was scheduled to depart at 10am local time, so I arrived at around 8am to find a quiet Terminal 2 at Madrid’s Barajas Airport. There were no lines in the SkyPriority check-in area, so I decided that I might as well check my bag, given that it would be tagged with a priority badge and would (hopefully) be among the first to come out of the belly of the gargantuan A380 at JFK. Plus, it’s far easier to take photos of a cabin without a suitcase in tow.
After a few minutes, I collected my boarding pass (it was just a single slip of paper with both flights printed on it), and moved through the VIP security area on my way to the Puerta del Sol lounge.
While this space was pretty basic overall, I do find that even basic lounges in Europe are a step (or more) above the basic lounge offerings in the US. I helped myself to a bottle of sparkling water and found a place to work for about a half hour before getting on my first flight. I didn’t plan to spend much time in this lounge, as the main priority of the day was to visit one of Air France’s business-class lounges at its home at Charles de Gaulle Airport.
However, that would never come to be.
Once our A321 landed at CDG, the captain came on the PA to make an announcement that there was not yet a gate for us. What I thought would be a quick delay turned into more than a half hour, meaning that I was going to not have much time in the lounge — if any at all. Finally, we were assigned a gate and pulled up next to Middle East Airlines’ A330 that would soon depart for Beirut (BEY) — a silver lining for me, as it’s an airline I hardly ever see and one that I’ve been dying to try out for a long time.
Things went even further downhill from there. We learned that our gate was a remote stand, requiring a bus ride to the main terminal. Of course, nothing moved quickly with the buses, and we waited about 15 minutes after boarding them until we finally departed. Then it was another 10-minute ride to the terminal.
At least there were great views of Air France wide-bodies along the way.
At this point, the lounge was out of the picture. I was just focused on actually making it on board my flight at all. CDG is notoriously confusing for connecting, and this experience perfectly illustrated that. My flight was departing from the M gates, which I soon found out would require another bus transfer after clearing immigration.
The first bus dropped us into a long, nondescript hallway, which I followed to yet another line — this one for the immigration process. That didn’t take too long, but it spat us out into yet another line, which was for yet another bus. This line was no joke, and no buses appeared for about five minutes, which really brought my anxiety to new levels. After what seemed like an eternity, two buses showed up practically at the same time, and I was on my way to the M gates.
We finally arrived at Concourse M after the scheduled boarding time.
I hopped off the bus and broke into a … swift walk … hoping that I’d arrive at Gate M26 and my A380 would still be there. As I made my way through the concourse, I thought briefly about how it would be a pretty pleasant place to kill time, as there was an abundance of high-end stores and plenty of places to get a bite to eat or something to drink. There was no time to loiter, though, so I kept moving.
As Gate M26 came into view, I breathed a sigh of relief. People had been boarding, yes, but the crowd was still massive, and I realized that I probably could have even stopped in the lounge for a brief drink and still made it on board. Regardless, I was happy that I’d be on my way home shortly, and joined the priority boarding line, which was fairly empty at this point.
The gate was staffed by two agents but also had virtual boarding lines, which was my first experience with them. I had a lot of trouble scanning my boarding pass (perhaps because both of my flights were printed on one pass?), so one of the agents had to help me. She took me over to the desk and scanned my pass there, which worked fine. My second-ever A380 flight was finally beginning.
Cabin and Seat
The Airbus A380 is the largest commercial plane in existence, and you can certainly tell once on board. The plane just goes on forever.
Air France has 10 of these superjumbos in its fleet, and these special planes are equipped with a particularly bad business-class product. The 80 seats are arranged in a 2-2-2 configuration, and they’re angle-flat — a seat type that’s simply uncompetitive in today’s market. AF’s other long-haul planes, such as the four-class Boeing 777s and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, have a vastly superior 1-2-1 reverse-herringbone product that’s very competitive, if not one of the better products around.
Most business-class passengers were already on board when I showed up, but when I arrived at my seat, there was no one there next to me, which lifted my mood considerably. No one would ever show up, either — a major win, especially for a 2-2-2 angle-flat product with basically no privacy. I really liked that AF was playing songs by Maggie Rogers during boarding, too, especially considering my frazzled state.
The forward-facing pods that the seats were housed in reminded me more of a premium economy product than a business-class one. Oh, and the fact that they didn’t recline to be fully flat. Even though the A380s are getting up there in age, it’s ridiculous that Air France sells business-class tickets for the same price on both the woefully outdated A380 and the more modern products in its fleet.
One great thing about this outdated cabin, though, was that there’s space — lots and lots of space. Each seat was 24 inches wide, which felt palatial in today’s 21-inch width norm.
And there was plenty of storage — at window seats, at least. Due to the curvature of the fuselage of the mammoth A380, there were two wide and deep storage compartments between each window seat and the wall. When the compartments were closed, it made a nice, wide shelf for storing various items, though I made sure to put my belongings away in case we met any turbulence while I was napping.
Since this was a daytime flight, I personally didn’t mind that my seat didn’t recline to a fully flat position. However, as I mentioned earlier, it’s crazy that the airline considers this product to be equal to its other business-class products. It just isn’t. And, while I didn’t mind that my seat didn’t recline all the way, I would of course have appreciated the much more modern reverse-herringbone seats, which I found to be quite comfortable on board the 787.
While these seats would be great for a couple or anyone else traveling with a companion, they’re not great for solo travelers, as there’s virtually no privacy. Again, not an issue on my flight, since I had no seatmate, but I wouldn’t be the most enthused about the situation had I been trying to sleep on a red-eye flight with a seatmate.
The seat had both universal AC and USB power outlets. The USB wasn’t working when I tried, but the AC outlet worked just fine.
The upper deck of Air France’s A380s consists of business class, premium economy and a small economy section at the very back of the plane. There were only three lavatories designated for the 80-passenger cabin, which seemed to be on the low side. It didn’t matter for my flight, though, since we were traveling light, at least in business class. The one lav I checked out was nothing special, but was kept very clean throughout the flight and featured a selection of amenities from Clarins Paris.
Amenities and IFE
Waiting at my seat upon boarding were several amenities, including a duvet, pillow, slippers and the signature coat hanger.
Included with the slippers were both socks and ear covers for the provided over-ear headphones. I especially liked that I got both socks and slippers so that I could take my shoes off for the eightish-hour flight home and not feel so gross about it.
The headphones were permanently wired to the seat and marked as noise-canceling, but they had seen better days and were nowhere near as good as some of the headphones on the market today.
I was initially confused because there was no amenity kit at my seat, but that’s because FAs made a pass through the cabin to hand out the amenity kits, which I really liked. Both the amenity kit and inflight menus were designed with Air France’s special 85-year commemorative design, which I found to be super cool.
The contents of the amenity kit were nothing out of the ordinary, save for the navy-and-orange eye mask. I loved that there was a pen, though, even though I didn’t have to use it on this flight.
The inflight-entertainment screen itself was immovable and on the smallish and blurry side. However, since the seat didn’t recline all the way flat, I didn’t have a problem watching “Casablanca” (I’m ashamed to admit it was my first time seeing that film). I had some offline work to do, so I only watched one movie, but had I been wanting to binge-watch the latest flicks or TV shows, I would have been disappointed. Even though the selection was vast in terms of sheer numbers, there wasn’t a ton that jumped out at me.
The system was controlled by a decidedly old-school pullout remote control. It worked fine, though, and I preferred using a remote in this situation, since the screen was so far away from me.
Even though it was an older bird, this A380 had camera functions that many of its newer counterparts do not. I spent plenty of time exploring these, and even though the view was far from high-definition, it was fun to play around with for a little while.
The plane was not equipped with Wi-Fi, which meant that all work had to be done offline, but if you don’t need to work, I view the lack of Wi-Fi as a positive, as it lets you disconnect for several hours and really enjoy the flight without stressing about what’s going on on the ground.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
The food on my last flight with Air France impressed me, both in terms of presentation and the quality of the meals themselves, so my expectations were quite high for this flight, especially given that the catering was coming from AF’s base in Paris.
Food and beverage service began shortly after I took my seat. An FA appeared as I was getting settled in to offer me a glass of Champagne, water or orange juice. I selected the bubbles and water.
Menus were distributed along with the amenity kits by FAs, and since I didn’t get to stop in the lounge for a bite to eat, I was pretty hungry, so I perused the options eagerly. Catering was curated by Anne-Sophie Pic, the only French female chef with a restaurant to receive three Michelin stars (according to the airline), and the dishes that were specifically recommended by her were presented as such on the menu. Thanks to my deep dive into the menu, I realized that AF was offering not one but three Champagne options. Before we pushed back from the gate, I asked for a glass of the Laurent-Perrier Brut Cuvée, which I consumed enthusiastically.
The lunch service officially kicked off with another round of drinks. This time, I went for a Diet Coke with lemon. This came back along with the amuse-bouche, which was a beet mousse with blue cheese. I don’t typically like beets, but there was plenty of cheese to make it taste pretty great.
After the first dishes were cleared, I was served the appetizer, which consisted of sautéed shrimp and mango tartare served with couscous, greens, grapefruit and vegetables as well as a green salad served with toasted pine nuts. While I usually don’t love cold shrimp on airplanes, I found these to be delicious, and I especially loved the mango tartare.
The appetizer was served on the same tray as the the cheese course, so the tray remained on the table and the FA removed the appetizer dishes and replaced them with the main course. I had a choice of:
- Tender beef served in jus with a variety of carrots
- Poultry flavored with smoked black tea with pea royale soup with ginger and lemon
- Poached pollock with curry and coconut sauce served with Camargue rice
- Penne with goat-cheese cream and lemon
After a lot of mental gymnastics and back and forth with the FA, I decided on the beef — and I’m glad I did. It was almost unbelievably tender, and I loved that it was a very generous portion of both meat and veggies.
For dessert, I could choose among an apricot tartlet, a selection of sorbets and a fresh fruit salad. I wanted a taste of a French pastry but I also wanted a little bit of sorbet, so I asked if I could have both. The FA happily agreed and served me both, along with a mint tea. Both desserts were a little on the frozen side, but tasted delicious after I let them thaw out for a few minutes.
About 90 minutes before landing, we were served the second meal of the flight, which was classified as a “light snack.” Very fitting on the New York route, the snack consisted of focaccia with pastrami, a mini bagel with lox and a tomato-and-mozzarella skewer. This dish was also served with a dessert — this time around, it was a combination of financier cake, fruit compote and a chocolate brownie with a berry panna cotta. The main event of this meal service wasn’t a highlight, but the dessert — specifically the panna cotta — were a home run.
There was a little bar set up on the upper deck for business-class passengers, though it wasn’t anything particularly special — though, to be fair, they did have a bottle of the Laurent-Perrier out for passengers. Toward the very end of the flight, I remembered that Air France has a “lounge” on the upper deck, but by the time I remembered, I no longer had time to visit it.
The service I received on this daytime flight from Paris was probably the best I’ve experienced to date with Air France. The flight attendants were so relaxed but also professional. They were on top of things from the beginning of the flight, and were patient with me and offered their opinions when I was agonizing over my lunch choice (First World problems, I know). There was even a bit of fun banter involved on this flight — the first FA I interacted with initially addressed me in French, to which I responded with blank stares as I struggled to mutter even a simple “oui.” Once he realized that I was, in fact, American, we both laughed and I thanked him for thinking I was European.
Business class on Air France’s fleet of A380s is by no means competitive in today’s landscape. It’s actually a little bit ridiculous that the airline sells business-class seats on these airplanes for the same price as the ones you’d find on its much more modern 777s (with four classes) and 787s. However, on this flight, what was on paper didn’t line up with my experience. Thanks to the fact that it was an afternoon flight where I didn’t need to sleep (though I did nap pretty easily for a little while), the lack of a seatmate, the strong soft product and the A380 itself, I actually had a great flight. It far exceeded my (admittedly very low) expectations.
That’s not an excuse for Air France dragging its feet with the refurbishment of these superjumbos, and not everyone will get the same experience as I did. I know I’d be very upset if I’d paid multiple thousands of dollars or shelled out tens of thousands of miles to book a seat on this aircraft — especially on a red-eye flight — to find that the seat didn’t even recline all the way flat. Despite me lucking out and having a pleasant flight, the A380 unfortunately still is the aircraft to avoid with Air France — you’ll be much better off opting for one of the airline’s less mighty, but more up-to-date twin engines.
All photos by the author.
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