All-Biz to Newark: A Review of La Compagnie's Brand-New Airbus A321LR
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[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="74" ground-experience="7" cabin-seat="22" amens-ife="12" food-bev="16" service="17" pros="All-business lie-flat cabin, incredibly fast (and free!) Wi-Fi, decent catering, frequent fare sales." cons="Bus gate at Orly, no direct aisle access from window seats, IFE display is too reflective to see in a bright cabin, aircraft swaps are possible, entirely inflexible call center agents." /]
I typically firm up my air-show reservations months in advance — with dates often confirmed more than a year out, there's plenty of time to search for award availability and lock in decent hotel rates before most corporate travelers even begin to consider their own plans. But, as a last-minute addition to this year's Paris Air Show team, I was facing nonstop fares of over $3,000 — and that was for economy. La Compagnie to the rescue!
While I wasn't able to score a $1,000 round-trip this time around, the fares were more reasonable than what legacy carriers were offering in coach. Not to mention, I was able to confirm a round-trip on the airline's brand-new lie-flat Airbus A321LR — or so I thought.
La Compagnie does offer a loyalty program, My Compagnie, but you need to fly the carrier quite a bit in order to earn a free flight. I'd need 20 Promo flights in order to earn the cheapest one-way award, for example, though just four Full-Flex flights could net me the same redemption.
Given that I'm new to flying La Compagnie, I didn't have anything to redeem, so we ended up paying out of pocket — about $2,500 for the round-trip, booked about three weeks in advance. While hardly cheap, that's a decent round-trip fare for a transatlantic nonstop during the Paris Air Show, especially considering I was able to confirm a lie-flat seat. And since we paid with The Platinum Card® from American Express, we earned 5x Membership Rewards points (when booked directly with the airline or through American Express Travel on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year), worth $250 based on TPG's most recent valuations.
The day before my return flight to Newark Liberty Airport (EWR), I noticed that the seat map had changed. And when I went to search for a new booking, my 10:30am departure now listed "Operated by Boeing 757," rather than "Operated by A321neo," which then appeared next to the 2:30pm flight.
I called La Compagnie's Paris office, assuming moving me back to the A321 wouldn't be an issue. Boy, was I wrong! The agent would not budge — based on my Promo fare, I had to pay a $500 change fee plus a difference in fare in order to move back to the A321 just four hours later. In total, the change would have cost $2,150 — yikes! Sure, I could have reached out to a public-relations contact, but we fly under the radar for all of our reviews, and asking for special treatment is clearly against TPG policy.
The airline agent and supervisor I spoke to insisted that the aircraft type is never guaranteed — which makes sense with a mixed fleet, sure. But accommodating me would have been entirely reasonable here, especially considering how La Compagnie highlights the aircraft during the booking process. Clicking "Operated by A321neo" brings up this picture and description, for example:
While this is what you see when you tap the 757 — a dated, angle-flat cabin. It's a very big difference.
Ultimately, the supervisor suggested that I email Paris, where someone would review the request and get back to me. I never received a response to my original email or a follow-up, however, and with the Paris office closed the evening before my flight, I called the US phone number instead.
While an agent picked up right away each time I called the Paris office, there was always a wait with the US call center — and, quite bizarrely for an all-premium airline, the call disconnected automatically after 10 minutes on hold. I ended up calling three times before I finally managed to get through, at which point an agent reviewed the notes and maintained what I'd heard before — I could move back to the A321, but only after paying hefty penalties.
It was clear I wasn't going to get anywhere with the US call center, so I called Paris as soon as the office opened at 8am and pleaded my case yet again. Eventually, I was permitted to make the change with a somewhat random $450 change fee and no difference in fare. Given that we needed the review, I didn't hesitate. But I did learn an important lesson: Aircraft swaps are entirely possible with La Compagnie, and the airline seems far less eager to make exceptions than legacy carriers, even if you're making what seems like a reasonable request.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Ground Experience" tpg-rating="7" tpg-rating-max="10" tail="F-HBUZ" age="0" departure="2" departure-2="42" duration="8" duration-2="6" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Like most Paris visitors, I have far more experience passing through the endless maze that is Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) — Orly (ORY) is almost quaint, by comparison. All right, maybe not quaint, but it is entirely manageable, especially when you're flying business class and can scan your boarding pass to utilize the impressively short Accès no.1 queues.
Speaking of my boarding pass — there wasn't any sort of line when I arrived at the La Compagnie desk about two hours before departure, so I was on my way in only a few seconds.
From there, I headed straight to security, where I was able to bypass the entire line after scanning my business-class pass.
Orly Airport isn't a destination. This certainly isn't an airport we're going to hear about locals wanting to hang out in when they aren't flying through.
There were basic food and shopping options, though, including a huge (and well-stocked) set of duty-free stores.
As a La Compagnie passenger, I had access to the Icare ("Icarus") Lounge, also accessible to Priority Pass customers and flyers from a handful of other airlines and programs.
Despite the relaxed access requirements, the lounge was fairly empty during my midday, midweek visit.
There were a few passengers here and there, but it was by no means crowded.
I was excited when I saw signs for a terrace, but it was really just a smoking area — there weren't any views whatsoever.
The food selection was decent, though, including a pancake machine ...
... and a spread of yogurts, cheeses, cold cuts and sandwiches.
While the food didn't look spectacular, I was surprised by the quality — everything was fresh and delicious, especially the gazpacho.
My boarding pass listed a boarding time of 2pm, which seemed reasonable for a 2:30pm departure given that the A321 has just 76 seats, so I was surprised when the lounge staff announced boarding at 1:45pm.
The reason became clear the moment after I scanned my boarding pass: bus gate!
I asked the gate agent how many passengers were booked, and she said 33 — just 43% of the A321's capacity! Although all of us could have fit on the bus, we didn't have to wait for everyone to arrive at the gate — after a short wait, we drove out to the plane and waited there for a few minutes before we were waved on board at 2pm.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Cabin and Seat" tpg-rating="22" tpg-rating-max="25" configuration="2" configuration-2="2" lavs="3" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Although 20 rows and a total of 80 seats appear on the carrier's map, La Compagnie actually offers a total of 76 seats on its A321s. Oddly, it isn't possible to select a seat online until check-in, though you can give the call center a ring if you want to lock something in before that 24-hour mark.
All seats are arranged in a 2-2 configuration, which means window passengers will need to step over their neighbor to get in and out.
There's decent privacy, despite the 2-2 arrangement, thanks to the shell design and fixed seat divider.
The cabin has three lavatories, one up front and two by the rear galley. There was never a wait during my flight, which made sense given that there were just 30 or so passengers onboard.
I had reserved Seat 19F, at the window on the starboard side.
Now that I'm looking at these pictures, I realize that I actually ended up sitting in 20F. I just assumed that was my seat, since the passenger in front grabbed 19D, which had been empty on the seat map.
As I mentioned, seats in Row 21 were blocked — a passenger actually had a boarding pass for 21A, but a flight attendant asked her to move up to 20A, instead, explaining that Row 21 was a bit noisy with the galley just behind.
Most of the passengers were seated in the first few rows, so 20 ended up being especially quiet — there was some noise from the galley, but I didn't hear it at all once I popped on my noise-canceling headphones.
As 2-2 seats go, I generally like the B/E Aerospace Diamond. There's a decent amount of storage, including an open area to the side of the seat.
There's also a shelf below the inflight-entertainment screen, and then a small baggage compartment underneath the ottoman.
This version of the seat also had a designated shoe cubby, so I didn't have to fumble around to find my footwear when it came time to get up to use the bathroom.
Finally, there was a very small literature compartment to the side of the seat, large enough for a very thin laptop or tablet, perhaps, but not much else.
The seat controls were simple but allowed for granular adjustments. You could raise and lower just the legrest, for example, as I tend to do for meals.
Moving to lie-flat mode required just one button, though it seemed to take an especially long time to recline all the way here, and the seat stopped moving a few times — releasing and re-pressing the button did the trick. I did find it to be very comfortable in bed mode, though, especially after adding the comforter from the seat next to me as a mattress pad.
Bulkhead seats offered quite a bit more footwell space, but I was comfortable enough in Row 20 as a 5-foot-9-inch flyer. Taller passengers may prefer a seat in Row 1 or the exit row, 9, instead.
I was also thrilled to see dedicated air vents. The cabin got a bit warm at times, so I kept mine on full blast for the entire flight.
There was one oddity, though: these funky window decals. Located at each row, some actually end up blocking much of the window, making it difficult to capture clear photos. They were easily removable, though, and an airline representative confirmed that they were scheduled to be removed at the end of July.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="12" tpg-rating-max="15" screen="15.6" movies="45" live-tv="No" tailcam="No" wifi="0.4" wifi-2="14.8" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
There was an amenity kit waiting at each seat when I boarded, with the usual mix of goodies: a dental kit, eye mask, earplugs, disposable socks and various creams were all included, as was a pen, which could certainly come in handy for flyers without Global Entry.
Each seat also had a mattress pad and pillow, which, with no neighbor to speak of, meant I had two to use myself.
La Compagnie hands out iPads on its 757 flights, but the A321 has seatback entertainment. While entertainment was only available from takeoff to touchdown on my flight to Paris, the system was active the entire time I was on board for the flight back to EWR.
I'm normally a big advocate of seatback screens, but La Compagnie's were so reflective. It was next to impossible to see anything in some scenes, especially when passengers were required to have the window shades up during taxi and takeoff, along with the final 30 or so minutes of the flight. Looking at the bright side, at least the display made for a fun selfie mirror? It certainly wasn't good for much else during part of the flight.
I could control content using the touchscreen or the handheld wired remote, which also displayed a nifty flight countdown.
While there weren't any TV shows available, there were 45 movies on offer, but many were French-language films without an English track — infrequent flyers should be able to find something new to watch, but road warriors will likely want to bring their own content instead.
La Compagnie offered headphones, too, but they were pretty awful, so I'd recommend bringing your own noise-canceling set.
One incredible benefit to flying the A321 over the aging 757 is the connectivity. La Compagnie offers ViaSat-2 service on its brand-new Airbus. Access is entirely free, and it is fast. I had no trouble playing YouTube videos in high definition, although it did take a few seconds for each video to load at first.
We did experience about 30 minutes of downtime after passing the UK, but the connection was great otherwise. La Compagnie only offers Wi-Fi from takeoff to touchdown, even though the system is capable of gate-to-gate connectivity.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="16" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" meals="2" champagne="Yes" dine-on-demand="No" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Shortly after boarding, a flight attendant came by offering juice and Champagne.
I was going to ask about the menu but then I noticed a "My Meals" option on the inflight entertainment system. And there it was, along with menus for Newark-Paris and La Compagnie's flights to and from Nice (NCE).
The drink cart reached my row roughly 30 minutes after takeoff. I first asked to try the rose, but then asked for a glass of red wine as well, which was served with a small, packaged snack mix.
The appetizer didn't appear until nearly 45 minutes after that — an hour and 15 minutes after takeoff. I didn't mind much given that we had a long daytime flight ahead, but that was a fair amount of time, considering how few passengers were on board. I'm not a huge fan of squid, but the potatoes and tomatoes tasted just fine. The bread was cold and stale, though, and served without butter or olive oil.
The flight attendant came by with entrees more than an hour and a half after takeoff, but the selection didn't match the on-screen menu. The options included a duck breast or "fish." Since I was the very last passenger to be served, I asked if I could try both. The flight attendant seemed to get very uncomfortable after I made that request, and said she'd have to check to see if there were enough — I could only have one right now.
I went with the duck, which was flavorful but very, very tough and just barely warm. I only ate a few bites and set it aside hoping I'd get the fish, but the flight attendant never brought that by. She eventually just took the duck away. I also wasn't offered more wine or water with the entree, which seemed odd.
I did get a drink refill with dessert, though, which consisted of an apple tart and mixed cheese and arrived two hours after takeoff. Neither was exceptional, but I ate a few bites.
A prearrival meal was served about 90 minutes before landing. This time, the options matched the menu. I went with the ham sandwich, which was soggy and bland, though I enjoyed the rice pudding.
The other option was a dessert plate with a side salad. I asked to snap a pic — the sweets were tempting but felt a decadent for what's normally a savory prearrival meal.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="17" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="Yes" turndown-service="No" /]
While all passengers were served from the rear galley, the flight attendants split the cabin in two. On the nearly full flight from Newark, they divided things up by number of rows, but given our light load, this time they seemed to split the cabin after a certain number of passengers to make things more efficient. Still, the service wasn't exceptionally speedy — especially given that there were just 30 or so of us to take care of.
It's also worth mentioning my call-center-and-aircraft-swap ordeal here again as well. Though the crew on board was not involved with either of those less-than-ideal experiences, given the inflexibility of the call-center agents and the fact that my two emails never received a response — along with the bizarre US phone system that automatically disconnected the line after 10 minutes on hold — I'm removing 5 points from the service score to reflect my preflight customer-service experience.
Generally, I enjoyed my flight. The service was fine, the food was edible, and we departed and arrived ahead of schedule. From the fast Wi-Fi to the much-improved entertainment to the full-flat seats, there's no question that the Airbus A321 offers a far better experience than La Compagnie's comparably awful 757-200.
Aside from all of the frustration I dealt with following the aircraft swap, the only thing I really didn't care for about my La Compagnie experience was the decals on the windows — which, thankfully, are easily removable and only scheduled to stay up through July.