Leaving Paradise at the Door: Premium Economy on French Bee's A350
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It's been an exciting year for flights to French Polynesia, to say the least. The region's namesake carrier, Air Tahiti Nui, just took delivery of its very first 787-9 Dreamliner, offering a big comfort boost throughout the plane. This year also brought two new nonstops from San Francisco (SFO) to Papeete (PPT): an A350-900 flight on newcomer French Bee, and a 787-8 Dreamliner option operated by United.
I caught United's 787 inaugural down to PPT, but I was looking for a new product to try on the return. French Bee was the obvious choice, especially considering the in-flight experience seemed to be a bit of a mystery — months into the service, I haven't come across a single comprehensive review.
While there are plenty of options to book United's new flight between San Francisco and PPT, including directly via the MileagePlus program (starting at 35,000 miles each way) and airline partners, or through a credit card portal, such as Chase's Ultimate Rewards, unfortunately there aren't any opportunities to redeem points or miles directly for a flight on French Bee — at least not yet, since there's very limited distribution.
That said, paid fares are often quite reasonable, and you could always offset the cost with a card that earns points or miles you can use to "erase" travel-related expenses, such as the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card.
Eight hours is an awful lot of time to spend in French Bee's incredibly dense 3-4-3 coach, where seats are just 16 inches wide, so I booked a ticket in premium economy for a few hundred dollars more. There, seats measure 18 inches wide — half an inch narrower than you'll find in regular coach seats on some Boeing 767s, such as United's retrofitted planes. Still, at $665 for the one-way flight to SFO, including taxes and fees, the fare was decent enough to justify sucking it up for half a day.
Unfortunately French Bee doesn't have a frequent flyer program of any kind, nor does it appear to have any sort of relevant partnerships. However, since I paid with The Platinum Card® from American Express, we earned 5x points on the $665 purchase, netting 3,325 Membership Rewards points, worth $63 based on our valuations. So at least that's something.
Check-In and Lounge
When I booked the flight, I had been dreading the 7:25am departure, knowing that I'd have to arrive by 6am to have time to check-in and check out the lounge situation before boarding just before 6:30. I'd been waking up at sunrise every day, though, so a 5:15am call from the front desk had me ready to go when we pulled up to the terminal a few minutes before 6:00am, after a short five-minute ride from the InterContinental Tahiti.
The regular queue was quite lengthy... premium economy to the rescue! I was at the counter just a couple minutes after arriving, though the agent picked up a phone and made a call immediately after I handed over my passport.
As it turns out, I had been moved across the aisle to accommodate a family in the center section of the same row. She apologized and very politely asked if that would work for me — of course it would! I definitely appreciated the airline making an effort to accommodate a family and clearly communicating the change, rather than leaving us to fend for ourselves during boarding.
Arriving 30 minutes before boarding ended up giving me plenty of time — I was through to the gate area in 15 minutes, and there wasn't much to do there but wait.
The terminal reminded me a bit of Honolulu (HNL), with a hybrid of indoor and outdoor seating areas — the outdoor section doubled as a designated smoking area, though.
Food options were limited to a snack bar — really, there's not much reason to arrive too long before departure.
While the downstairs area was beginning to fill up, there was plenty of space upstairs — the views were much better there, too.
The second level was also home to the airport's only lounge, with Air Tahiti Nui branding (but operated by PPT). French Bee customers don't have access, even when traveling in premium economy, but I had no issue getting in with my Priority Pass card, a benefit of The Platinum Card from American Express, Chase Sapphire Reserve and a bunch of other premium credit cards.
The food options looked a bit more appetizing than what I saw below, and everything was free!
It was breakfast time, so there were a mix of continental options available.
At first, I was excited to see little dishes of poisson cru, with tuna and coconut cream — fresh, but not nearly as good as what I'd had in restaurants throughout Polynesia.
There was also a small self-service bar, with wines and liquor.
Soft drinks and beer were available in the fridge as well, including the local brew, Hinano.
At 6:35am, it was time to board F-HREV, the newest of French Bee's two A350-900s, delivered from Airbus just seven months ago and used for the airline's flights from Paris (ORY) to Reunion (RUN), in the Indian Ocean, along with flights to Tahiti (PPT) via San Francisco (SFO).
Many of my fellow passengers seemed to be continuing on to Paris, a total distance of nearly 10,000 miles — comparable to the world's longest flight, but with a stop nearly halfway through the journey in San Francisco.
Cabin and Seat
French Bee's A350s offer two classes of service: premium economy, with 35 seats, along with a whopping 376 seats in coach. There were a total of 331 passengers onboard my flight, including 33 in premium economy, so the plane was about 80% full.
Premium economy is arranged in a 2-3-2 configuration, spread across five rows.
Seats measure just 18 inches across, making them an inch narrower than the seats Singapore offers on the same plane — even though SQ's are arranged in a more dense 2-4-2 configuration.
Coach, meanwhile, is kind of a disaster. French Bee squeezes in 376 seats, which makes it possible for the airline to offer incredibly competitive fares. Unfortunately cheap prices come at the expense of comfort — in a rare move, the airline installed seats in a 3-4-3 configuration, where most carriers offer 3-3-3 seating in coach on the A350.
3-4-3 is becoming more commonplace on Boeing 777s, and it's certainly tight there. The A350's cabin measures 18.4 feet, however, while the wider 777-300ERs offer almost 19.6 feet. As a result, French Bee's coach seats measure just 16 inches across, compared with at least 17 on many new and refreshed 777s. The aisles felt especially narrow, too, as I discovered throughout our journey to SFO.
I actually ended up spending a lot of time in the economy cabin. The one lavatory designated for premium-economy passengers was "broken," so we were instructed to use the two lavatories in the middle of economy. I never saw the captain or first officer pass through the cabin, though, so I'm thinking the forward lav may have simply been "reserved" for the crew, especially since I saw the occupied light in the cabin switch from red to green a few times. There was always a wait for the coach lavs, but never longer than a few minutes, so this unfortunate arrangement didn't affect the experience all that much.
I had picked a seat in the last row, hoping that would minimize traffic, since passengers would be walking forward to use the lavatory. Sadly that's not how it panned out.
9H still ended up being a good choice — the seat offered decent recline, even with the bulkhead just behind, and I didn't feel guilty encroaching on anyone's space by tilting my seat back.
At just 18 inches wide with 36 inches of pitch, the seats didn't feel much more spacious than, say, Economy Plus on a United 767, where you'll find similar width and legroom. I was sure happy not to be seated in coach on this plane, though.
Storage was at a premium, too — with a strut just below my seat, I couldn't fit my backpack in there, so that went up in the overhead bin. The main compartment below the screen was large enough to store my book and iPhone, but not much else.
There was also a small compartment between the seats — intended for a water bottle, I imagine, but I used it to hold my drink cup between meals, to avoid knocking it over from the center console.
Speaking of the center console, I was hoping to find some storage there, but no can do — that's simply where the fold-out tray table was held.
At least there was a slide-down footrest — aside from a slightly wider armrest, it was the only thing that really distinguished these seats from regular coach on a full-service carrier.
The biggest benefit for me was the legroom — the person in front of me never reclined his seat, so it was easy to get in and out. My neighbor at the window felt pretty stuck, though — there was no way to get out of the row without asking me to stand up, which I was happy to do throughout the flight.
French Bee doesn't include amenity kits as a perk on its premium-economy page, though I did notice "1 comfort kit premium" listed on my flight confirmation, so I wasn't entirely surprised when it arrived.
It was basic, but adequate for a low-cost carrier, with an eye mask, ear plugs, dental kit and headphones. The headphones were garbage, though — the kind you see at some hotel gyms, designed for watching TV and then tossing after you're done with your 45-minute workout. Naturally, I used my Bose set, instead.
Fortunately, the 12-inch in-flight entertainment system has a standard headphone jack, along with a USB port for charging a smartphone or other gear. The seat also supposedly has a power outlet, though I wasn't able to find it. The IFE was modern, though the selection was pretty weak — there were 32 movies, but only a tiny selection of popular new releases ("Deadpool 2") and just six TV shows.
Of course, "Moana" felt especially relevant after having just spent a few days in Polynesia, so I fired that up before we even pushed back from the gate.
French Bee advertises an HD screen, but I think high-definition must be used pretty loosely here — the screen wasn't especially sharp, and the super-reflective coating made watching a bit challenging until my neighbor lowered the window shade.
But... something was off with "Moana". Everyone was calling her "Vaiana." And the dialogue was a bit different. Turns out, in France "Moana" is "Vaiana," and the film has indeed been modified for that audience. So, in some ways, it was like I wasn't actually watching "Moana" for the 10th time.
Meanwhile, the aircraft featured a glorious tail camera, which more or less comes standard on the A350. French Bee's moving map was "unavailable," though.
Flight attendants also came by with iPads about 40 minutes after takeoff. My device was loaded up with a few magazines — definitely a nice surprise. They were collected again about an hour before landing, giving passengers plenty of time to do some reading throughout much of the flight.
Not only was there Wi-Fi — it was free (!) and decently fast, too. The speed tests I conducted don't quite reflect the performance, since I was able to load email, web pages and even produce a TPG post with decent efficiency.
Food and Beverage
Ugh. The food. Do yourself a favor and eat in the airport, or bring along some snacks. I hadn't done much of either, so I was at French Bee's mercy on this eight-hour trek to California.
The first meal was breakfast, which arrived an hour and 15 minutes after takeoff. At first, I assumed there would be more coming, but this was it — a small plate of fruit, a cup of yogurt and a baby croissant. The full cabin was served from one cart, which first made its way up the port side of the plane before finally arriving at my row. As a result, the croissant was barely warm when it arrived, though it was surprisingly flavorful. I was hungry again within a couple hours, though — while food and booze are available throughout the flight, premium passengers have to pay outside of the main meal services.
Some five hours after breakfast it was time for lunch. Again, the service began on the other side of the cabin, and this time it took a full 30 minutes for the crew to reach me. I was offered a choice of "chicken" or "fish" — which is especially hilarious given how French Bee describes its catering:
"The French in French bee fully expresses itself in the French cuisine you will get to experience. A long shot from the simple choice of 'chicken or fish,' on our flights we don’t eat food, we relish it!"
I asked if the fish was tuna, which was more or less met with a shrug. It didn't take long to find out why.
I was drawn immediately to the appetizer — more out of curiosity than my ever-growing hunger. What was I looking at, exactly? A strange piece of tuna? A veiny tomato? Discolored watermelon? Truth be told, I'm still not sure — the entire dish was pretty bland, including the tuna and cucumber (?) below. Even the sauce on the side was lacking flavor, and there wasn't any salt or pepper to season it myself.
The entree, meanwhile, was an abomination. The dish actually reminded me a bit of my childhood — often a good thing, perhaps, but not today. Think leftover elementary school cafeteria fish sticks, cooled to room temperature and served with a mysterious "brown sauce" and a helping of a white greasy goo (I think this may have been "mashed potatoes," but to me it tasted like an ambiguous mushy, flavorless fat). It was truly the most disgusting dish I'd eaten in my entire adult life. ZERO STARS.
Given what we got in the premium cabin, I can only imagine what my fellow passengers were served in coach. I had high hopes for an airline based in France — instead, I was served food even a starving animal probably wouldn't want to touch.
I arrived in San Francisco safe, and on-time. And I didn't have to sit in that horrendous-looking 3-4-3 coach. At $665, the fare wasn't awful for a one-way ticket from Tahiti. That said, I could have booked United economy for $239 on the same leg, and scored an "upgrade" to Economy Plus for free as a Premier 1K elite — not an option for my fellow French Bee passengers, I imagine, but likely the better pick for me.
Overall, I really shouldn't complain too much — I had an absolutely phenomenal time in French Polynesia, and if booking a cheap flight makes it possible for you to do the same, French Bee might be worth considering.
I did enjoy the fast, free Wi-Fi, and found the crew to be friendly overall — however, if I do fly airline again, I'll certainly be bringing along my own food. Those flavorless, lukewarm fried-and-dried fish cubes are not fit for human consumption — I'm not sure I'll be able to stomach breaded animal protein for a long time to come.