Pardon Their French: Air France (A380) in Economy From Paris to New York
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For many premium-class passengers, the A380 is a dream. On Airbus's behemoth double-decker, there's not only enough cabin space for hotel-room-sized private suites but a lounge, a bar and even a shower. Just about every airline that flies the jet puts its nicest cabin configuration on these planes. Air France, however, is one of the few that don't.
After a great two days at SkyTeam MegaDo 2018, a major event for aviation enthusiasts, I needed to get home to New York from Barcelona. I was absolutely thrilled to try my very first A380, and excited to try Air France again almost 10 years since my previous trip with them, a flight on the now-retired 747-400.
I was exhausted from late nights, early days and several short flights over a four-day span, and I felt myself getting a little sick. I was hoping the A380 would lighten my mood and overall health.
This flight, booked two weeks prior to the departure date, was purchased with cash. I originated in Barcelona (BCN), where MegaDo Day Two left us. Without any good award availability through AirFrance-KLM's Flying Blue, I purchased a round-trip Delta ticket, in euros, for $583. I paid using The Platinum Card® from American Express, which earned 5x points on the ticket, for a total of 2,915, worth about $55 according to TPG's most recent valuations.
The ticket included a positioning flight to Paris (CDG), on a Joon (an airline that isn't long for this world) A320 from Barcelona, with a two-hour onward connection from Paris to New York-JFK on the A380. The ticket was booked via Delta, so I got Delta flight numbers for the codeshare flights. And, since this was a paid ticket, I was eligible to earn miles. I credited these flights to my Delta SkyMiles account and earned a total of 4,168 MQMs, 232 MQDs and a lowly 1,160 redeemable miles.
Check-in was relatively painless. The night before my early-afternoon departure to Paris, I checked-in online via the Air France website.
Actually, even though I had received a Delta confirmation (and booked through Delta), note that you must still check in via the Air France website. When it came to choosing a seat prior to the flight, I did this at check-in, again via the Air France website and not the Delta one — which required having an Air France reservation number, which I retrieved with my Air France ticket number.
If you're departing on any carrier but some of the low-cost ones (like Ryanair) that use the pre-1992 Olympics Terminal 2, you'll go through glorious Terminal 1, filled with Spanish shops and restaurants. After clearing quickly security, I made my way to our A320.
And because I was originating in Spain, I never dealt with the infamous crowds at CDG ... well, at least not until I arrived at the gate.
Paris' massive Charles de Gaulle isn't very well regarded in the frequent-flyer community. Long lines, endless walking between terminals and frequent delays plague this airport. Thankfully, this time I was merely a transit passenger, and happily avoided the usual check-in and security nightmare.
After arriving from Barcelona, I needed to make it all the way to the international gates in Terminal 2E. After passing through an immigration-like control point within the terminal, I trekked through multiple alleys, concourses and corridors to Concourse L. It was quite the journey. If you're connecting in Paris, bring a bag that rolls!
With only 30 minutes to go until boarding and no time for a lounge visit, I arrived at Gate L26. And, boy, was it packed.
I did, however, make sure to get a few macarons from Ladurée.
Outside the gate windows, I saw the mammoth A380 operating Air France 10, my flight from Paris to New York. The two-deck airliner is larger than any other passenger jet, so big that during the winter traffic lull this flight is often downgauged to a smaller 777.
Air France's configuration for the jet fits 516 passengers, and it showed at the gate, where boarding had already started. I grabbed a sandwich and juice from a nearby cafe and then reluctantly went over to join the masses.
The scene was atrocious. So many people, all wrapped around the gate area in a way that barely resembled a proper line.
Though Air France's first class La Première was on the bottom level, business class took up nearly the entire upstairs cabin, and those folks boarded through separate jetways. Everyone lining up was with me in economy. Slowly but surely, we made it through the final passport and boarding-pass check at the gate and onward to our megachariot through CDG's glass jetways.
Cabin and Seat
Today's flight was on Air France's ninth A380, registration F-HPJI, a five-year-old aircraft. As an economy passenger, I boarded through the L2 door (second from the front, port side) and turned right, making my way to the aftmost cabin to Seat 46A. I'd never flown on an A380 before, and it really did feel huge inside.
Air France's A380s are currently divided into four cabin classes: La Première (nine seats in a 1-2-1 configuration), business (80 angle-flat seats in a 2-2-2 configuration), premium economy (38 seats in a 2-3-2 configuration) and economy (389 seats in a 3-4-3 configuration). For a sense of scale, most wide-body aircraft flying today have fewer than 389 seats in total, let alone in one cabin.
Aside from the few La Première seats (which you can book on points), the entire bottom level was taken up by economy, with a few more economy seats in the very rear of the upstairs cabin, just behind the seven rows of premium economy. Otherwise, the upstairs was entirely occupied by business.
Most airline operators of the Airbus double-decker seat economy passengers on the bottom deck, with business and first class upstairs. They do this to take advantage of the A380's unprecedented amount of space: Onboard bars and lounges, private cabins and even first-class-only showers are among the perks of flying in a premium cabin on these aircraft. Air France is a notable exception on this front. Not only is La Première and business class nicer on the company's smaller 777-300ERs, but there isn't even an onboard business-class bar — which I understand sounds very snobbish to complain about, but is noteworthy if you're considering splurging on a business- or first-class ticket.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. After all, I was in regular ol' coach for this trip, so none of that mattered anyway. Back to my actual flight ... I arrived at Seat 46A, a window seat, nestled nicely behind the gigantic A380 wing.
Economy seats were 17.5 inches wide, and had 32 inches of pitch, roughly the industry norm for this aircraft type, and a half-inch wider than the airline's 777 arrangement. There was a snazzy red Air France pillow, along with a lightweight blanket, eye mask, headset and sanitizer wipe waiting for me at the seat (see the amenities section for details).
The cabin showed its age, as did the seat. Still, it was decently comfortable and I appreciated the added design elements of the patterned seat.
The headrest, complete with an eye-catching white and red cover, moved vertically and horizontally to better accommodate one's head. Legroom, on the other hand, felt a little less than advertised, since the middle-seat passenger spread out a bit during the flight. Whatever, I figured — he's in the middle and this isn't any fault of the airline. I liked that there was also a footrest, but my backpack was too large to use it.
Meanwhile, the seat recline was decent enough. Just like on my KLM flight a few days earlier, there was a nifty cup holder on the underside of the tray table that could be pulled out.
The one major issue I found with the seat was the awkward, several-inches-wide gap between the armrest and the wall, which existed on all lower-level economy seats.
What could be advantageous for storing extra bags (or getting creative and making a pillow tower) turned out to be a nuisance, particularly if you like to lean against the window to rest. For example, If the armrest were wider, window-seat passengers would have something unique and more like premium economy. Instead, since the armrest was no bigger, you couldn’t really use the space and you also couldn’t lean again the window to sleep. Almost ironically, I actually found myself feeling more claustrophobic in this arrangement.
And this awkward space isn't unique to Air France, either. Because of the two full passenger levels, the cabin walls curve in ways unlike other aircraft. But some other airlines have figured out how to use it to their advantage. On the upper deck, several A380 operators have added storage units against the wall to mitigate the awkward design, reminiscent of upstairs cabins on the 747.
If you're a window flyer like me and like leaning up against the window, be sure to do your research to see if the airline has compensated for the gap, and try to sit upstairs. Otherwise, you might want to seek out a different aircraft. With that said, the curvature of the fuselage that causes this also creates a larger-than-normal gap between the multiple window panes, which, admittedly, makes for excellent photo opportunities.
While that proved annoying, I still was able to appreciate being on an A380. Of course, I checked out the glorious staircase in the back of the plane. (There were two: one in the front and one in the back).
The bathroom that I went to upstairs was pretty standard.
Lastly, I noticed there was some version of mood lighting on the aircraft, but it wasn't used much through the flight. Perhaps the timing and direction of the flight was the culprit.
Like most intercontinental flights on full-service carriers, each seat came stocked with a pillow and plastic-wrapped blanket. While definitely pleasing aesthetically, the pillow felt a tiny bit smaller than most. I'd brought a neck pillow with me, however, which solved any issue there.
An eye mask, headset and sanitizer wipe came wrapped in a separate plastic bag. The eye mask and sanitizer wipe worked like a charm, and the headset was decent — thankfully, since, unless you had a double-pronged adapter, you had to use them to hear anything played through the inflight entertainment.
Now to the IFE.
Air France's A380 fleet isn't particularly old. The oldest in the fleet was delivered in 2009, and the newest in 2014. Still, the IFE hadn't aged well.
Each seat had a personal screen and remote control, plus a USB power port.
The remote connected via a cord to the seatback in front, and it fit snugly in my hand. I used the remote to navigate the IFE screen when the touchscreen stopped responding, and vice versa.
There was a keyboard on the reverse side of the remote.
I recognize that it's a bit silly to complain about the IFE on a transatlantic flight (since at least the plane has personalized entertainment), but for such a competitive market, you might be surprised to find this system in use in economy across the majority of Air France's long-haul fleet. There's actually a good amount of content, sure, and while I could get over the non-HD screens and slightly clunky remote, it was the interface itself — and its inconsistent responsiveness — that made it so frustrating.
I would describe the Air France IFE system as functional but incoherent, it just wasn't quite sure what it was. For example, the IFE was touchscreen but it wasn’t all that responsive, and sometimes when you wanted to select via the remote, you found yourself pressing and holding the buttons as if you were directing a computer cursor, which was awkward.
As I mentioned, there are quite a lot of films, TV shows, music (including concerts), maps, games, and — an AvGeek treat — exterior cameras. The film collection, from "Casablanca" and "Incredibles 2" to "Inception," stocked an impressive array of languages as well, including Russian, Hindi, Arabic and Chinese.
The same could be said of the TV shows, from "Game of Thrones," "Brooklyn 99" and "Riverdale" to "Sherlock" and "New Girl," although not in HD like some other airlines.
The screen was a bit too dim for a daylight flight, and I was forced to lower the shade to reduce glare.
Plagued with functionality limitations, the moving map was a disappointment. There were a few choices for map views, including world explorer (which didn’t show your airplane’s location!), total route, day and night and a couple others. Limited, but better than nothing, for sure. You could also cycle through the different maps. I liked this the best.
Strangely, the flight time listed on this map was roughly 11 hours, more than three hours longer than the actual expected time.
Lastly, I was surprised to see that the larger displays attached to the bulkhead were off nearly the entire flight — no map, flight info or anything except on takeoff, where they had the tail camera on display.
The real consolation for the lackluster system was the exterior cameras. As the IFE didn't shut down for taxi, takeoff or landing, I was able to watch our superjumbo in all of its engineering glory from three distinct points of view: the tail, the nose and the belly. And despite my issues with the IFE's UX, I actually found the camera map intuitive.
With the sun setting, I spent my time between shows and books staring out the the window and at the real-time view from our A380's nearly 80-foot-high tail, taking deep breaths as I worked through the clunky interface.
Food and Beverage
Despite the weak IFE, the food on my Air France flight was quite good, and probably the strongest aspect of the flight. For our late-afternoon/early-evening flight, we had a snack service, one full meal and a smaller meal prior to landing. Timing of the meal services was spot on, and the flight attendants were courteous, kind and professional. They spoke English, German and Spanish as well as French (at least on this flight), and they even announced it prior to pushback from the gate.
After a 15-minute-or-so taxi from our gate to the runway, our giant A380 gently rotated out of runway 08L, turned around and climbed slowly but steadily to the west. A few minutes after takeoff, I caught a stunning view of Paris.
Some 15 minutes after takeoff, cabin crew came around with menus, something that I haven't seen on most transatlantic flights in economy. Options were in English and French, with complimentary wines, Champagne and beer. We weren't served dinner until two hours later, but I appreciated getting to see my choices in advance.
About an hour into the flight, flight attendants arrived at my row for drink orders. I was feeling a bit under the weather, so I stuck to a soda. It came with a snack, tasty cheese crackers. I watched a movie as I snacked.
Roughly two and a half hours into the flight, dinner was served. I tried the chicken in mustard sauce with a lentil salad, a roll, brie, pear slices and a coconut-pineapple cake. I drank ginger ale.
The entree was good (better than it looked), but quite creamy, in true French form. The dressing on the lentil salad was a bit too heavy for my taste, but otherwise, the bread, cake, cheese and fruit were tasty. I'm fond of French food, but if you're not one for heavy cream, you might've had a tough time on this flight. I particularly enjoyed the addition of those pears. With all of the engineered meals on long-haul flights, just a little bit of fruit goes a long way!
Dishes were collected about 30 minutes later, followed by coffee, tea or digestifs. I declined the brandy and proceeded on with my movie, with a gaze out the window every so often.
Later in the flight, with just a little over an hour to go, we were served another light meal with one last drink service. This one consisted of yogurt, a roll, orange juice and a pack of two cookies.
This hit the spot. The yogurt was good, as was the roll. The cookies, meanwhile, were a bit too buttery for me but still objectively tasty. Soon, as the sun dipped below the horizon, we descended into a very bumpy NYC airspace.
The food was clearly something of a focus for Air France, and the airline did it well. My one qualm with the service (perhaps besides not offering less-buttery things on this flight, which I wouldn't hold out hope for on an airline named after France) — and this holds true for many airlines offering long-haul economy — is that flight attendants didn't come by more frequently with water. Yes, I know I could've used the call button, and I did have a reusable water bottle that I had brought on board, but it should be standard practice to come through the aisles at least once every two hours with water, especially for the folks on the window who don't want to have to bother their seatmates to get water or snacks from the galleys.
If you're a nervous flyer, try the A380, because on most flights you really don’t even notice you're airborne. But if you're a window-seat passenger like me, I'd seriously consider trying to fly on the upper deck. In fact, I would avoid Air France's A380 altogether, in favor of its 787s, A330s and 777s, and save your A380 flying for a different airline. It's not that I'd completely avoid Air France — the food, service and IFE content was good, but the aging interior and somewhat uncomfortable seating turned me off, at least until it refurbishes these aircraft interiors.
Air France also uses Terminal 1 at JFK, which, until it's demolished and rebuilt in the next decade, is simply too small to handle a jet of this size. There aren't many gates to begin with, and during peak times (like when my flight arrived 20 minutes early), you may end up waiting up to an hour for the gate to open up. We had to wait for a different Air France A380 to depart before we could pull in. And to make matters worse, practically all arriving flights into the terminal must be towed to the gate, requiring even more time before deplaning.
With the lack of gate space, airport congestion and needing to be towed to the gate, I would actively avoid Terminal 1 for this exact reason if possible. Plus, if inflight entertainment is a priority for you, try Air France's partner, KLM, out of Terminal 4 instead.