Flight review: Air France business class on the 787-9 from New York to Paris
Air France announced last week the immediate retirement of its Airbus A380s, which in the U.S. served New York, Atlanta, Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco. On these routes — some of which are currently suspended due to the pandemic — Air France will now employ smaller aircraft, including the Boeing 777 and 787 and the Airbus A350. The 787 in particular features a much better business-class product than the A380's. We are republishing today our review of business class on the Air France 787, originally published in August 2018, to help give you an idea of what you can expect to find in place of the A380. Do however note that, due to measures to minimize the risk of contagion, the onboard and ground experience may be very different from what was experienced in this review.
During the COVID-19 crisis, our team has temporarily ceased taking review trips. However, we have resumed the publication of new flight, hotel and lounge reviews, from trips taken before the lockdown; and we are also republishing a selection of reviews from previous years.
This review has been edited from the original. It does not include a score, as it was published before TPG introduced a scoring system for flight reviews.
As a loyal Delta flyer and NYC resident, I have become a fairly frequent flyer on Delta's partner Air France. My first crossing of the pond in business class with the French airline was in summer 2018 on the way to Italy for a family trip. Using points and miles, I booked a seat in the top premium cabin aboard the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner — on which Air France does not install a first-class cabin, only business.
I'd been searching for months for a decent way to get from New York to Naples, Italy, but wasn't having much luck finding anything reasonably priced — neither in cash nor points/miles — for the date that I needed to fly. As it got closer to departure, I started getting a little bit desperate and searched for a flight that would just get me to continental Europe, knowing that I could likely find a cheap flight from a major hub to Naples on a European low-cost carrier such as Ryanair or EasyJet.
That strategy paid off — while searching for availability with FlyingBlue, the Air France - KLM loyalty program, I found a business-class ticket on one of Air France's frequencies between New York JFK and Paris CDG that was pricing at 70,000 FlyingBlue miles plus $224 in taxes and fees. It's not the best deal out there, but considering some of the other rates I was seeing for flights to Europe in late July, it was a steal. (As of May 2020, FlyingBlue business-class fares from JFK to CDG one way are as low as 57,500 points plus $209 in taxes and fees for travel in the summer.)
We transferred the points from American Express Membership Rewards at a 1:1 ratio, and paid for the taxes and fees on The Platinum Card® from American Express earning a total of 1,120 MR points (worth about $22 at our current 2020 valuations), thanks to the card's 5x bonus category on airfare purchased directly from the airline or American Express Travel.
Check-in and lounge
I arrived at 10:30pm — the departure time had been pushed back from 11:25pm to 12:25am — expecting JFK's Terminal 1 to be quiet. It was.
But when I arrived at the Air France lounge in T1, there was a large crowd gathered around the one check-in agent, waiting impatiently to be allowed in. I realized that this was in large part due to the fact that the lounge also participates in the Priority Pass program — in this case, Priority Pass members were allowed to enter the bottom floor of the lounge, while the top level was reserved for Air France premium passengers. (The JFK lounge, along with the one in Chicago, is the only one that's currently open during the COVID-19 crisis, Air France warns. Many airline lounges in the U.S. are closed.)
The upper level of this lounge felt sort of sad. There was nothing particularly wrong with it, but it wasn't especially memorable, and didn't feel all that premium. Do note that, after this visit, the upper level has been renovated.
Maybe it can all be blamed on the very late departure time and the airport being just about ready to close up shop for the night, but Air France business-class tickets aren't cheap by any stretch of the imagination, and I'd have been a little disappointed had I shelled out the amount of cash needed to purchase one of these flights, which usually go for around $8,000 one way. (In the dead of winter, you can swing it for $4,000 round trip.)
To be fair, though, there were some offerings that were not sad at all, including the bread spread — ooh la la!
And, who can complain when there's a bucket full of Laurent-Perrier Champagne at your disposal?
Air France offers what it calls "Night Service" exclusively for passengers departing JFK on its last two flights of the day (AF11, departing at 9:55pm and AF9, departing at 11:25pm — according to the pre-coronavirus schedule). This program provides passengers on these late departures with the same meal they'd receive on board, but while still on the ground, so that they can maximize sleep once on board. This is certainly a welcome feature, as transatlantic flights from NYC tend to be too brief to get any meaningful sleep, even if you're lying flat in business class.
I didn't partake in Night Service this time, as I wanted to see how Air France did its airline food while in the air. I did, however, see another passenger in the lounge take advantage of this — it was a full sit-down affair. I stuck to a glass of Laurent-Perrier and a few mini water bottles while I waited to make my way to the gate.
I already discovered this when I was waiting in line at security, but there were several international flights operated by Turkish Airlines, Korean Air, Norwegian and others departing at similar times, so the terminal and gate areas were crowded and noisy.
I arrived at the gate just a few minutes before boarding was scheduled to begin to discover that it had been pushed back again to after midnight, all but guaranteeing an even later departure.
Once the boarding process began, it was fairly orderly — quite a surprise for me given the chaos in the terminal around me. Maybe everyone was too exhausted to be pushy at this point. Unfortunately, I wouldn't catch a glimpse of our then-one-year-old Dreamliner (registration F-HRBA) until we landed in Paris. Even then, I couldn't get a view of the whole aircraft, a shame because Air France's livery looks fantastic on the Dreamliner, in my humble opinion.
Cabin and seat
Air France's 787-9's feature three classes of service: business, premium economy and economy. The business-class cabin stretches from rows 1-8 and consists of a total of 30 lie-flat seats in a 1-2-1 reverse-herringbone configuration.
Each seat measures 21 inches wide, offers 42 inches of pitch and reclines to a fully flat position. Seats on either side of the aircraft are obviously ideal for solo travelers, since there's an aisle between those seats and the center section.
The middle seats are better for those traveling with a companion, but also provide a decent amount of privacy thanks to a divider that can be raised between the two seats.
I made my way to seat 7A, a window seat in the second-to-last row of business class. I really liked the design of the seats themselves, though the cabin felt a little plain to me. The navy blue seats and red accents contrasted well with the abundant use of white in the cabin. I especially liked the padded white leather covering that enveloped the seat.
Storage was fairly limited. It consisted primarily of a cubby to the left of the seat which could be used to store smaller personal items. I actually found the elastic netting on the inside of the cubby door to be very practical — I stored my passport and wallet in there and could sleep easily knowing they wouldn't budge.
I didn't take my laptop out on this flight, but if I had, there really wasn't a place to store it, beside the small counter next to the seat, though even that probably wasn't the best place to store a computer given the gap between the counter and the fuselage wall.
Overall, I really liked the modern reverse-herringbone arrangement, though these seats definitely felt like they were lacking in the privacy department, since the right side of the shell barely extended past the headrest. I felt very exposed, especially as I was reclined all the way and trying to sleep.
Speaking of being reclined all the way, the "bed" itself was very comfortable, and I really liked that the armrest on the right side could be lowered to be flush with the bed, providing some welcome width. I found it to be wide enough for me, but you'll find an even wider one in AF's 777s equipped with the reverse-herringbone configuration, thanks to the greater cabin width of the Triple Seven.
Footwells in business class often pose problems, as they tend to be very tight on space and can derail a good night's sleep. Not here, though. The footwell was downright wide, and open on one side, so my feet had plenty of room to wiggle about throughout the night.
Due to the design of these seats, the IFE screens have to be released from their locked position and then they swivel into a viewable position. The screen itself was fine, but its housing was sort of inelegant. I thought that I'd certainly be scolded for having the screen unlocked during taxi and takeoff, but no flight attendants said anything to me.
Food and beverage
Cabin service started with a choice of orange juice or water — no alcohol was offered on the ground in New York. The meal service started promptly after we reached cruising altitude, which I appreciated since I was desperate to sleep at this point. First, a flight attendant came and asked what I'd like to drink and gave me my dinner menu. I asked for a glass of Champagne — on board Air France served Deutz Brut Classic, which retails for about $50 on the ground.
After a few minutes of browsing the menu, the flight attendant returned with a snack of cashews and dried cranberries as well as to take my dinner order. I could pick from the following choices:
- Pan-seared tournedos with garlic butter, flat bean with butter and mushroom risotto
- Chicken in a foie gras sauce, potato gratin with parmesan and green asparagus
- Ravioli filled with porcini mushrooms
I wavered between the chicken and the ravioli but settled on the ravioli — I was going to Italy, after all. Once I gave the flight attendant my order, she returned a few moments later with a tray that had the appetizer course (pan-seared scallops on top of fennel and orange salad, Parma ham, melon and grilled artichokes), cheeses, bread and dessert on it. The scallops were delicious. And you can't go wrong with a ham and melon salad, either.
After I was done with the appetizer portion, the FA returned to swap out that dish with my main course. I have nothing but good things to say about the main course, too. The mushroom ravioli were delicious comfort food, and got me very excited for the 10 days of pasta eating ahead of me. Dessert was a mango mousse cake, which was truly sensational.
Dinner service was quick and efficient, which I really appreciated given the late departure. I liked how dinner was served on one tray at one time, with only the appetizer plate being swapped out for the main course. In other circumstances, this may seem rushed and more akin to a dinner service in premium economy, but it's exactly what I wanted at 1:30am.
For breakfast, there was a choice between a more robust meal consisting of fruit juice, coffee/tea/hot chocolate, fruit salad, "dairy products," and a selection of pastries, breads and rolls with butter and jam; or an abbreviated service consisting of just tea or coffee with a pastry, which could be requested up to 30 minutes before landing.
When the FA was clearing my tray after dinner, she asked if I wanted to be woken up for breakfast, or if I wanted to sleep — I told her that I would skip breakfast in order to sleep more. Once I did wake up just a few short hours later, I had just enough time for the express breakfast, which was actually perfect — a cup of tea to help nurse my cold and two croissants because, well, France.
Amenities and inflight entertainment
When I arrived at my seat, I found a hanger, blanket, pillow and pair of slippers at my seat. The pillow was a great size and felt wholly adequate for sleeping — it's on the rare side for an airline to get the pillow right. The blanket was soft but thick — luckily the cabin was cold, or else I would have been uncomfortably warm during the flight.
Air France provided an airline-branded plum-colored amenity kit that contained all the basics including an eye mask, toothbrush, toothpaste, tissues, ear plugs, a pen, microfiber cloth and moisturizer and lip balm from Clarins Paris. The Clarins products and eye mask were great, but I wasn't a huge fan of the kit itself, so I left it on board.
The over-ear headphones were hard-wired into the storage cubby and were of decent quality.
The IFE screen itself was sharp and the interface was intuitive and responsive, though the selection of movies (at least for my American tastes) wasn't great. I found one movie to watch while I ate dinner before I went to sleep, but if I'd had a long daytime flight ahead of me, I may have struggled to stay entertained. Air France offers Wi-Fi on its 787s, but I didn't even bother signing in since I was going immediately to sleep after eating.
I very much enjoyed the service I received on this flight. All the FAs I interacted with were professional and very polite. Most importantly, though, they understood that passengers wanted to squeeze as much sleep as possible on the flight, so they were unobtrusive and worked very hard to keep the dinner service as efficient as possible.
The ground experience at JFK left much to be desired, but once on board, it was all smooth flying. The hard product was modern and comfortable, the plane itself was quiet and new, the food was a delight and the service was excellent. As is often the case with transatlantic premium-class flights, I didn't want this one to end. If I can stumble across a decent redemption again, I would jump at the chance to fly in business class with Air France again.
All photos by the author.