As good as it gets: A review of Air France La Première (777-300ER) from Paris to Beijing
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During the COVID-19 crisis, our team has temporarily ceased taking review trips and we are not publishing new flight or hotel reviews. While bringing our readers unbiased, detailed reviews of travel experiences is one of our core missions, now is not the time. We all love to travel and know you do too. So, to help keep you entertained — and maybe inspire you — we are republishing a selection of our most popular reviews from 2019 and 2020, including the one below. Hopefully, this will help you once we’re all ready to start booking trips again.
You can redeem points and miles for premium-cabin experiences in the air or extravagant hotel stays that would cost tens of thousands of dollars. Sometimes, however, there are experiences that even miles and points can’t buy.
Air France’s La Première cabin is one of them.
It’s considered one of the most exclusive commercial flying experiences in the world, from the chic cabin with just four seats to the friendly flight crew and world-class ground experience. Could La Première really live up to its long-standing reputation?
It’s nearly impossible to book La Première with points and miles, because Air France limits who can actually do it. It doesn’t release first-class award space to airline partners. It only allows certain elite members within the Flying Blue program to redeem for first class. And even when they are allowed to redeem, it’s only for Flex tickets, not saver fares. That means a one-way ticket between the U.S. and Europe would cost at least 220,000 Flying Blue miles.
I’m not a Flying Blue elite member, so I was going to have to pay cash. With the help of TPG Travel Analyst Zach Griff and Reviews Editor Nick Ellis, we worked out a round-trip itinerary that originated in Stockholm (ARN) and flew to Beijing (PEK) via Air France’s hub in Paris (CDG). The outbound segment from Paris to Beijing was booked into La Première, while the return segment was booked into KLM business class.
The round-trip itinerary cost $3,688. If I’d originated in Paris and flew round-trip to Beijing in La Première, I would have had to pay about $8,500. By originating in Stockholm and booking a return flight in business class, we were able to book the flight for nearly $5,000 less.
We paid with The Platinum Card® from American Express to earn 5x Membership Rewards points on airfare booked directly with the airline or with American Express Travel. In total, the purchase earned 18,442 Membership Rewards points, worth $369, based on TPG’s most recent valuations.
Because Air France is a SkyTeam alliance member, I credited the flight to Delta’s SkyMiles program. On both the Stockholm-to-Paris and Paris-to-Beijing legs, I earned a total of 20,864 SkyMiles, worth $250 by TPG’s most recent reckoning. Additionally, I earned 12,124 Medallion Qualification Miles. Because I’m based in London and therefore exempt from Delta’s Medallion Qualification Dollar requirement, I didn’t earn any on the flight.
The ground experience is what really sets Air France La Première apart from the competition. My itinerary originated in Stockholm, where I checked in and checked my bag all the way to Beijing.
After arriving in Paris on one of the airline’s Airbus A319s, I was greeted in the jet bridge by Zour, my personal chauffeur, who was holding up a sign with my name on it.
Zour led me down the jet bridge stairs to a waiting La Première-branded BMW 7 series sedan stocked with still and sparkling water for the less-than-five-minute ride to Air France’s La Première lounge.
The friendly greeting and subsequent whisking across the tarmac in a BMW got my ground experience off to a truly memorable start.
If you arrive at CDG as a La Première passenger on a connecting flight, you get airside car service to the rear entrance to the lounge. If you arrive on a flight from the Schengen zone, U.K. or U.S., you aren’t required to go through security. From other destinations, however, you go through security at the ground level of the lounge. An attendant there will scan your bags.
Because I arrived from Stockholm, I didn’t need to go through security. The attendant checked my boarding pass, and Zour led me up the elevator to the lounge.
The first thing I noticed — after the relaxing and also very chic color scheme — was how empty it was. Only one other person was there when I arrived, and I was alone for the majority of the six hours I spent there. Toward the end of my stay, more passengers entered. But that’s what makes La Première so special — it’s exclusive. Non-La Première passengers have to buy access, and even then only if they meet certain requirements.
Zour took me on a tour of the space, a first for me. Before she left, she said one of her colleagues would escort me to the gate when it was time to board.
She showed me the large selection of mostly French-language books and magazines and added that if there was something I wanted to read that wasn’t there, a staff member would go to the terminal to buy it and bring it to me in the lounge.
The lounge was clean and had an uncluttered design with blue, white and red accents throughout. There was lots of seating: couches, plush armchairs, upright chairs for working, chaise lounges and dining seats.
Within seconds after I settled into my space, a lounge attendant offered me drinks, and I asked for a glass of Champagne. About two minutes later, she brought an unopened bottle of Bruno Paillard rosé Champagne, which retails for about $65 per bottle.
A few minutes later, she brought nuts, cheese, soppressata and a bread basket.
The speedy service was impressive, as was the food at the buffet — quiche, fancy pastries and an array of cheeses, of course, since this was France.
But my mind was blown by the water bar, a whole wall of different kinds of bottled water.
There was also sit-down meal service. After I’d wandered around the lounge, I was ready for a preflight dinner. I wanted to keep enough time between the meal and the flight so I’d still be able to eat my onboard meal — for review purposes, of course.
Because I had the lounge mostly to myself, I left my belongings on a couch and made my way to one of the tables.
Celebrated chef Alain Ducasse, whose restaurants have won three Michelin stars, selected the food in Air France’s La Première lounge.
I started with a delicious pumpkin soup with croutons. The bowl arrived with the croutons and lardons before the server poured the pumpkin soup from a pitcher. The soup was perfectly seasoned and had pieces of soft pumpkin in it — the best pumpkin soup I’ve ever had.
For my entrée, I ordered the free-range chicken breast with cèpes. The skin-on chicken was seasoned and cooked to perfection. I asked for the jus to be drizzled on top.
The lounge had a spa, though it was open for limited hours — from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., according to the website. By the time I got to the lounge, it was 4:30 p.m., so I wasn’t able to try it out, but passengers due in during spa hours are contacted in advance to book spa services. I wish the spa stayed open later for all La Première passengers rather than just those with flights leaving during peak times.
The lounge had plenty of nooks to get lost in. There was a TV room with a massive screen, which staff would turn on upon request.
The bar was a highlight of the lounge, accentuated by red backlighting.
The lounge specialized in whiskey cocktails, though there were plenty of other drinks.
There were sleeping spaces that were dimly lit and private.
You could rest in a slightly reclined sleeper or a fully flat bed.
I went to take an hourlong nap, and the lounge staff brought me a blanket and perfectly plush pillow to make the snooze more comfortable. The lounge was nearly silent — especially in the sleeping area. There was no music playing in the lounge, so it was fairly easy to sleep, despite it being in an open area.
The four showers in the lounge were available whenever the lounge was open. Some were bigger than others. If you have the choice, go for the one at the far right corner.
I didn’t shower, but each of them was freshly stocked with slippers, a bathrobe, fresh towels and shower products.
Like the rest of the lounge, the shower spaces were impeccably clean. And by the looks of it, the rainfall shower would have passed the TPG shower test.
The bathrooms in the lounge, like the rest of the space, were impeccably designed and huge.
Each of the toilets was in its own circular unit with a sink inside and plenty big enough for changing.
The sink was completely motion-activated, ideal for a germophobe. Each time I went back to the bathroom, it was restocked to look as new — the toilet roll was folded and towels replaced. Like the rest of the lounge, the attention to detail set it apart.
At first, I didn’t see any power outlets in the walls or seats, but it turned out they were discreetly built into the floor.
I didn’t see the main lounge entrance from the terminal until a few hours into my visit. The entrance was grand, with the same red color to welcome guests. Because the lounge was on the third floor one level above the main terminal, you arrived by elevator. You could come and go from the lounge as you pleased.
Throughout my time there, I was surprised and impressed with the number of employees attending to La Première passengers. During the long periods when I was the only person in the lounge, there were at least five to 10 agents working there, and seemingly each one checked to see if I needed anything.
My boarding pass showed that boarding for Flight 382 began at 10:25 p.m. Around 10:30 p.m., a lounge agent asked if I wanted to board then or wait until the gate was about to close.
My gate was across from the lounge, and the friendly lounge agent walked me over. She ushered me to the gate, past the entire queue of passengers and onto the jet bridge.
First class had its own jet bridge, though the door was left open and some non-first-class passengers were boarding through the first-class entrance. My escort was incredibly apologetic about the inconvenience, which was far from the end of the world.
The lounge agent walked me all the way to my seat as the smiling cabin crew welcomed me. Once on board, she checked her mobile device and confirmed that my bag had been loaded on the aircraft and would arrive with me in Beijing — another unforgettable touch.
Cabin and Seat
“Exclusive” is the best word to describe Air France’s La Première cabin. As soon as I walked on board, I was struck by the posh private space inside the cabin.
The cabin features four seats across a single row in a 1-2-1 configuration, making it among the smallest commercial cabins aloft. It guarantees a special, intimate flight — especially if you have the entire cabin to yourself, like I did.
Each of the four seats offers 79 inches of pitch, about 6 feet, 7 inches in the lie-flat position.
Each seat is 24 inches wide, which felt wide enough for me, though not as wide as the seat in Cathay Pacific first class.
In its upright position, the seat has that crucial adjustable headrest.
Each of the seats in the cabin offers a lot of privacy. However, if you want the utmost privacy, pick one of the window seats, A or L, as they’re entirely on their own. I picked 1A and found the positioning and privacy to be second to none.
Instead of a door, each seat has a floor-to-ceiling curtain to block out the aisle traffic. The beige curtains keep the elegant feeling in the cabin.
Between the two middle seats, there is no curtain divider. Instead, there’s a privacy partition, though it doesn’t run to the ceiling.
On each of the seats, there’s a privacy divider controlled by a dial on the armrest closest to the aisle. The divider is used if you want to keep the curtain open, and provides some privacy if you want to keep the rest of your seat area exposed.
My flight was operated by F-GSQF, a 15-year-old Boeing 777-300ER. Considering its age, the interior of the La Première cabin was spotless. There were no scuff marks on the carpet and no scratches on the seat.
The only sign of wear that I noticed was small. Next to the seat was a small compartment, which contained the headphones, as well as a power outlet and USB port. Inside that compartment were pieces of masking tape holding two panels together.
Next to each seat — against the wall for window passengers, between the two middle seats — was a large, wide storage compartment.
Directly next to each seat was a lamp, which could be dimmed and featured the airline’s famous hippocampe ailé, or winged seahorse, logo on the shade. There was also a smaller reading lamp over the seat.
In the seat compartment, which held the headphones and power outlets, I found space to store my personal AirPod container, a book and my wallet. I liked that it was lined with a smooth material rather than hard plastic.
The touchscreen remote control for the inflight-entertainment system was also in that small space.
Outside the compartment and easily accessible were the seat controls, with several preset options. You could customize each element of the seat, from lumbar to the legrest. You could also control the seat position via the remote control.
Directly next to the storage compartment was the tray table, which was a huge 25 inches by 24 inches. It could be opened and then popped out of storage. It maneuvered back and forth, which made it easy to get in and out of the seat during meal service.
Farther down the line of bin space that bordered the cabin wall was a second storage space, a deep bin large enough to hold a backpack or small purse. There was a second power outlet inside the bin, perfect if someone were seated in the seat opposite.
The footrest opposite each seat also doubled as a sort of “miniseat.” It came with a seatbelt, meaning it could be used by a companion so you could dine together on the expansive tray table.
Below that was a storage container big enough to fit a backpack or large purse. It was outfitted in a red material and lit inside.
The drawer held a pair of slippers and blanket, though there was still plenty of room to store personal belongings.
Underneath the large storage compartment at each seat and above the two middle seats were racks with various magazines in both English and French.
In addition to all of the storage near the seat — small compartment, large compartment and under-seat compartment — there were overhead bins. So if you’re storing a carry-on bag, there’s space for that and anything else you want to keep close by. With only four seats in the cabin, there’s no way the overhead bin space could fill up — even with a fully booked La Première cabin.
The La Première four-seat cabin has two lavatories. On a full flight, that’s one for every two passengers.
As the only passenger on this flight, I had my choice. These weren’t huge lavatories, though, and there were no showers to be found like you would on Emirates’ or Etihad’s Airbus A380s. Instead, I found the basics: toilet, sink and some inflight amenities.
There was a small galley at the front of the La Première cabin. Throughout my flight, I never heard the clinking of dishes or loud conversations.
The shades could completely black out the cabin. They were controlled by a touch switch and featured two separate layers: a sheer one to let some light in and a second shade that let you customize how much light to let in.
There was an aura of elegance from the moment I stepped into the cabin until I stepped out at my destination. There are flashier first-class cabins out there, but it’s the exclusive and perfectly toned features of the seat and cabin that made La Première so special.
Amenities and IFE
Because there were only four seats in the La Première cabin on the 777, there were four entertainment screens, which were mounted on the wall.
The screens were 24 inches, and the display itself was crisp. The IFE system offered a host of features: live cameras underneath the aircraft, an interactive flight-path tool and a slew of TV shows and movies. The only downside to the system was that you were required to watch a two-minute advertisement before watching your selection. And you had to watch it every time.
There were about 265 movies available in several languages, including new releases and several classics. There were also about 245 TV shows, though that number included music videos and TED Talks.
I could use both the touchscreen and a touchscreen remote control for the IFE. Because the screen was so far from the seat, though, I relied on the remote.
After I settled into my seat, it was time to pull out the slippers from the small drawer under the footrest.
When I boarded, I was given pajamas and an amenity kit made in lovely light brown imitation leather. It had a magnetic fastener instead of a zipper.
The kit itself was lovely, and I’ll definitely use it again. Inside were the basics: a comfortable eyeshade, hairbrush, earplugs, a pen, covers for the headphone set and a set of Carita skin products. Carita’s a French brand that supplies the luxury beauty products for La Première. Mine came wrapped in paper and included soothing eye cream, moisturizing mask, hand lotion and face moisturizer.
The pajamas were fashionable and comfortable. I loved the gray, felt envelope they came in, which was — like most everything else on board — branded with the hippocampe logo.
I immediately loved the pajamas’ moss green color and incredibly soft material. After meal service, I changed into them and slept soundly without getting too hot.
My restful sleep likely had a lot to do with the absolutely phenomenal bedding Air France offers its La Première passengers, which starts when you go to change into your pajamas. By the time I returned to my seat, Mary, my fight attendant, had turned down the bed with the mattress pad and bedding — talk about fast, attentive service!
Not only did the pristine white bedding look chic and fresh, but it was also embellished, once again, with the hippocampe. The bedding was the best I’d ever experienced on a plane. The mattress pad was even more comfortable than five-star hotel beds I’ve slept on. The duvet was warm, but not too hot, and I slept for a couple of hours before waking up and lounging in the space to watch movies. When you combined the bedding with the bedside lamp, huge screen and privacy (thanks to the curtains), the La Première experience was fantastic.
Air France supplied each La Première passenger with a set of Denon over-the-ear headphones. They were plugged into the compartment by the seat, where there was also another headphone jack so you could use your own set. The sound quality was fantastic, and they were completely noise-canceling — better than Bose products I’ve used on other aircraft.
Inside the lavatory during the flight, there were two more Carita products: an energizing cleanser for face, eyes and lips and a hydration mist. There were also cotton pads, as well as cloth, not paper, towels.
There were dental kits in the lavatory instead of the amenity kit. The lavatory wasn’t big by any means, but it was well-kept and brightened up with rose petals.
This particular 777-300ER was not equipped with Wi-Fi. In 2018, Air France said that it planned to have its entire fleet equipped with Wi-Fi by 2020.
One would hope. On a long-haul flight in first class, passengers should be able to stay connected with what’s happening on the ground.
Food and Beverage
Judging by my dining experience in the La Première lounge, I was in for a treat with the onboard dining experience. When I first boarded the aircraft and met Mary, she asked if I wanted anything to drink. I could have anything I wanted, so again, in the name of La Première, I had a glass of Champagne.
It was served from the bottle at my seat, and I was offered a refill before takeoff. Air France usually serves 2006 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne on its flights, though I was served a 2007, which retails for about $140 per bottle. The Champagne was served on a silver tray with nuts and a bottle of Evian water.
About five minutes after the plane reached 10,000 feet (around 11:50 p.m.), I was offered a scented hot towel and placed my order for dinner. Mary set my table.
Even set for dinner, the tray table seemed huge.
Just after midnight, the appetizer of langoustines, Ossetra caviar, fruit and gentian drops was served with a mother-of-pearl spoon. The dish was delightful and booming with flavor.
To pair with my meal, I asked for white wine. Mary brought both whites on board so I could see which I preferred: a 2014 Chanson Pêre & Fils Chablis Grand Cru Bougros, which retails for about $40, and a 2015 Domaine Barmês-Buecher Riesling Grand Cru Hengst, also about $40. I had the Chablis, which had nice mineral and floral notes. I loved the slanted glassware.
About 10 minutes later, Mary came around with a cream of chestnut and celeriac soup with a choice of bread from a bread basket rather than a personal basket. The soup was delicious.
I’m not a fan of foie gras, so I skipped that starter.
About 10 minutes after the soup course, my main dish came: quenelles of pike-and-scallop stuffing in a lemon-parsley sauce with risotto-style root vegetables. The stuffing was incredibly flavorful without being too fishy. I found the consistency strange at first, but paired with the rich sauce and root vegetables, it all fit together nicely.
The other choice for a main was a Mondeuse-style venison confit with celeriac-and-chestnut purée.
About 15 minutes after my dinner, I had a cheese plate. The plate featured a Camembert, Fourme d’Ambert and Comté. The cheeses came with a prune, apricot, walnuts and bread.
When Mary asked if I wanted to switch to red wine for the cheese, I couldn’t say no. Again, she brought both red wines to try: a 2014 Chanson Père & Fils Nuits-Saint-Georges, which retails for about $36 per bottle, and a 2014 Château Phélan-Ségur Saint-Estèphe, about $50 per bottle. I chose the Saint-Estèphe cabernet, which was a lovely balanced blend perfect for the cheese sampling.
After my meal, I was offered coffee or tea. I had peppermint tea, which was served with a box from La Maison du Chocolat and other sweets. It was the perfect way to end the meal.
The four-course meal plus tea was completed within one hour — a remarkable feat. The service was attentive and speedy, as one might hope for the only passenger in the cabin. Not only was the service and pacing fantastic, the flavors and textures were all exquisite.
While I was having my tea, Mary asked if I wanted to be woken for breakfast before landing in Beijing, and I said yes. Sure enough, about 90 minutes before landing, Mary came by to set my table for breakfast.
For breakfast, I got the apple pastille with crème anglaise. It was served with fresh fruit, bread, yogurt and fresh-squeezed orange juice.
I also got an espresso, which was delightful.
Overall, the food and service on board La Première puts all others to shame. Everything from start to finish was well thought out — from the glassware’s chic slanted design to the plates displaying Air France’s iconic hippocampe logo. Plus, the food was absolutely delicious from the first bite to the last sip of my espresso.
I’ve flown a lot, but the service on board La Première was unlike anything I’ve ever heard about or experienced. From Paris to Beijing, the service was absolutely top-notch. It’s clear that Air France and its employees take pride in La Première and ensure passengers have exceptional, unforgettable experiences.
When I boarded the aircraft, Mary was one of the first to introduce herself, saying she’d be taking care of me for the flight. Afterward, nearly every cabin crew member came by to say hello — even the Mandarin-speaking cabin crew. Just before departure, the captain came by to welcome me to her aircraft, and inform me how long the flying time would be: 10 hours, 15 minutes. It was a surreal experience to feel so welcome on a plane.
Even when I arrived in Beijing, there was yet another escort with my name on a board to take me through Chinese immigration and collect my baggage from the carousel. She waited with me for 45 minutes until my ride turned up. The care and professionalism was unparalleled.
The trend in commercial aviation is toward business-class-only offerings on long-haul flights. In many cases, today’s business class is the first class of yesteryear. So in an era when extravagant business-class products are quickly replacing the first-class cabins, Air France’s La Première remains a truly first-class experience that you’ll have to pay for to experience.
From beginning to end, my La Première experience was the epitome of what first class should be. The ground experience was unparalleled, the service was the most friendly and attentive I’ve ever experienced in the skies — by a mile — and the food selection on the ground and in the air was perfection.
If you want to splurge on first class, La Première is the way to go. You won’t be disappointed with the sheer French chic and exclusivity of the experience. C’est magnifique!
Featured photo by Emily McNutt/The Points Guy.
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