France is in the Air – AF Business (Part 1)

San Francisco (SFO) to Paris (CDG) on the B777-300ER

In February, Airways was invited by Air France to cover Paris CDG Airport's 20th anniversary as a hub.  I covered the story for Airways.  Air France covered my flights to Paris and back in Business Class.  Here are my trip reports.  

Hanging out with Sam Chui at the Air France event at Paris-CDG


It was a rainy day in San Francisco.  Fortunately for my travel plans, severe weather had passed through the previous day and only moderate showers remained.

I arrived at the ticket counter a bit early, three hours prior to scheduled departure.  I wanted to grab lunch at the lounge and catch my aircraft’s arrival, scheduled at 12:35 pm.  It was a light travel day on this Tuesday.  There was no line at the SkyPriority check-in counter.  The ticket agent checking me in assumed I was a frequent flyer asked if I was already familiar with the lounge location. I smiled and replied, “actually, no”.  


On the opposite side of the aisle, the Economy Class line was short as well.


After breezing through the A-concourse security line, I made an immediate left turn to the lounge complex.  So many flight attendant cutouts!  



The Air France-KLM/SkyTeam Lounge was immediately ahead.  Inside, I was surprised to see how crowded it was despite the quiet check-in.  Located directly above Gate A1, the view from the lounge onto the ramp was spectacular.  Too bad the sky was cloudy.


The smaller food service area with beverages and desserts only.



The main service area had an abundant choice of hot food.  That was nice.  Given the large crowd, probably due to earlier Asian departures, most food had just run out and staff was working hard at replenishing.  In addition to the expected cured meats, cheeses, small snack items, veggie sticks, and sandwiches, hot food choices included beef sausages, grilled vegetables, rice, and two different kinds of soup.  



Service in the lounge was excellent.  I had a complex return itinerary and wanted a printout.  When it was determined that the reservation console in the lounge could not make the print, the station supervisor (I didn’t know that at the time) offered to run back to the office so she could make me my print.  That’s service!  

Flight AF84 arrived from Paris-CDG, about 15 minutes late.


At Gate A5, gate agents queued up both loading doors.  Curiously, the agent at this gate made announcements for both this Air France flight and the KLM flight across the hall.  It made sense in terms of efficiency, nevertheless, it was strange to see our agent calling a completely different flight out of our sight.  

One of the agents was yelling strictly at those in the Business Class line: “Business Class only!  Priority boarding after!”.  I rolled my eyes and thought, both of these groups are your high-end customers and I am sure they don’t appreciate being yelled at.  Boarding commenced about 10 minutes late from the advertised time of 2:05 pm, now inside 30 minutes of scheduled departure.  



Flight:  AF83
Origin – Destination:  San Francisco (SFO) – Paris-Charles de Gaulle (CDG)
Aircraft:  Boeing 777-328ER
Registration:  F-GZNJ
msn/ln:  38706/928
Delivered (age):  April 2011 (5.9 years)
Scheduled Departure – Arrival:  2:40 pm – 10:15 am+1
Actual Departure – Arrival:  3:18 pm – 10:25 am+1
Takeoff SFO Runway 28L:  3:33 pm
Landing CDG Runway 26L:  10:16 am
Flight Duration:  9 Hours 43 Minutes


Stepping on board, I sat the stage for my trip and made my first use of “bonjour” to the flight attendant at the door.  France is now in the air!  I was seated in row 6, the last row in Business Class – generally my favorite row on all aircraft types.  Row 6 is the last of two rows in the second Business Class cabin.  Immediately behind that is the Premium Economy cabin.  


For majority of SFO flights, Air France uses the 381-seat Business/Premium Economy/Economy Class (no First Class) 777-300ER aircraft in the “NEV4” configuration.  It has the previous generation Business Class product: 2-3-2 seating (with the dreaded middle seat), no direct aisle access for all, and a not-completely-lie-flat seat.  



Air France is slowly converting most (but not all) of their aircraft in line with its competitors to a reverse herringbone layout cabin: 1-2-1 on the 777.  Those aircraft currently fly to limited markets; flyertalk tracks them in this wiki.

At the gate earlier, I overheard upgrades were being cleared.  Sure enough, the seat next to me would not remain empty on this flight to Paris.  

Pillow, blanket, slippers, and coat hanger were already placed at the seat.  


Seat back slot contents.


The noise canceling headphone was permanently attached to the seat.  You can connect your own headphone at the port above, but it was a difficult reach.  The water bottle holder was ingeniously located at your side.


Seat controls were simple and to the point.


Legroom


After everyone in Business Class had boarded, flight attendant picked up my jacket and distributed the amenity kit and a choice of newspapers.  


I was offered Champagne, orange juice, and water followed by hot towel.  


The cabin appeared to be ready for departure at 2:40 pm, the scheduled departure time.  The captain introduced the flight and announced that there would be a 15-minute delay due to the loader being slow from to our plane’s late arrival.




That was a blessing in disguise, because SFO was in two-runway operations (instead of four) and I could see a queue to Runway 28.  While we waited at the gate, the lineup during this afternoon rush quickly diminished.  By the time we pushed back (about 40 minutes late), we had a clear path to the runway.

Chic France is in the Airsafety performance”.


Truth be told, I never really got the France is in the Air advertising campaign.  At no time did you see an airplane in the commercial.  If you blinked, you would have missed the one scene of the in-flight product.  After seeing this commercial, I was left scratching my head.  

But as I later learned on this trip, being “French” – the lifestyle, the culture, the food – just simply being French, is the draw for the airline.  Everyone likes to be French.  Air France wants to capitalize that and promote it as “France in the Air”.  

Crossing Runway 01R


Lining up Runway 28L


Goodbye SFO


We quickly broke through the ceiling, but the air remained choppy throughout the climb.  The weather system was quite extensive.  Clouds did not dissipate until we were well into our initial cruising altitude of 33,000 feet between Nevada and Utah.

Thirty minutes into the flight, beverage service began.  The French is rather fancy and proper with packaging.  It reminds me a lot of the Japanese.  Here was a simple cashew with cranberries.  Imagine how much space and waste they could save if the nut package was not boxed up.


The amuse-bouche was a tasty fresh mozzarella, pesto, tomato, and basil concoction (caprese on a spoon?).  


Similar to my experience on British Airways, the beverage glass was too small for soda.  Served with a bunch of ice, I downed my Diet Coke in two swigs.  Flight attendant offered a refill a couple of times, but forgot the second.  She later apologized for forgetting me, well into my meal.  Thinking back, it would not have been proper if I had gotten a whole can of soda!

With the small two row cabin, service was quick and efficient.  Food/drink cart always started from the back, my row.  One hour into the flight at 35,000 feet, dinner service began somewhere north of Salt Lake City.  


I was surprised to see the meal served on a tray ala Economy Class.  How tacky!  However, that was the point.  The sticky mat on the tray tightly gripped the service items and prevented plates from falling during turbulence and tray handling.  The salt and pepper shakers in red plastic cubes were most interesting.  Not needing to use them, I tore them apart anyway to see how they worked.


I was getting rather concerned at this point.  There was no menu and I had no idea what I was eating.  And what were the choices for the main course?  For the appetizer, the smoked salmon was easy to identify but what about the other piece?  Yes, it must be foie gras.  I have had pâté before, but not straight up foie gras.  It had a gamey taste and fatty texture.  I used a liberal amount of the jam to balance out this strange new flavor.  Alas it was an acquired taste, I left half of it uneaten.  

My flight attendant returned and apologized for not having a menu (“they did not board the menu”).  She described the main choices by showing me her plating sheet (all in written in French, may I add).  Choices were:  beef with pepper sauce, Cajon prawns, ravioli with tomato sauce, or the special, lamb with vegetables.  


I went with the special.  Serving size was surprisingly large – no stingy chef here.  Along with the main, I was served a cheese plate (how French!) and was offered a second round to the bread basket.  The lamb stew was very tasty and the meat was tender.  The only disappointment was the food temperature.  The stew was just warm, not piping hot, and the bread had cooled off to near room temperature.

For dessert, the choices were a “trio”, mango or raspberry sorbet, or fruit plate.  I went with the trio along with a perfectly-calming-before-bedtime rooibos-chamomile tea.


Overall, pacing for dinner was good.  We completed dinner two hours into the flight, somewhere over South Dakota.  Service was quick (but not rushed), but I was forgotten twice on my drink and tea refill.  

Settling into the flight, I encountered the big negative of these non-direct aisle access seats.  The idea is, even with your seatmate asleep in the flat position, you can still get in and out by stepping over the stretched legs.  Well, this snorer next to me (who gathered curious looks from the seat ahead) slept with his knees up, legs in an inverted “V” position.  I couldn’t believe it.  Here I was flying in Business Class and I was trapped in my seat.  I studied this scene for minutes, strategizing ways of getting out.


I ended up stepping on the armrest, yes, both of them, over this guy.  And yes, I did the same getting back into my seat.  Good thing that I am thin and limber!

The lavatory is the kind with a view.  Lighted vanity and high-end lotion and soaps were a nice touch, but not unexpected for a premium class lavatory. 




At the bar next to door 2, beverages and snacks were set up immediately after dinner.  



Curiously, the actual “Le Bar” next to door 1 was not set up at all.  In fact, that entire front area (galley, bar, lavatories) remained quiet, dark, and unused.  If you are looking for a good night’s sleep, the front cabin is where you want to be.


I grabbed a couple of snacks for later and went back to my seat.  It was bedtime.  I knew the seat was not full 180° lie-flat, so I was curious how comfortable it would be.  


That was as flat as it would go.

At the fully lowered position, the seat back was at a noticeable angle.  The seat bottom did not go all the way forward to meet the legrest.  Despite all that, once I laid down, the leg gap was not an issue and the angled recline was not uncomfortable.  In fact, after a few minutes, all of these “issues” went unnoticed and I was able to relax.

The cabin temperature was slightly warm; I think a notch above what most would consider as the comfort zone.  It was great for me, because I like my temperature warm and at no time did I feel a need to wrap myself up in a blanket.  However, for those that prefer cool temperatures, you probably would find the cabin a bit warm.

I slept for about four hours, interrupted on occasion by the sound of a baby rattle.  Alas, the drawbacks of being seated near the bulkhead (bassinet location).

About two hours before landing, flight attendant passed out hot towels in preparation for breakfast.  Choices were cheese omelet, cold cheese and meat plate, or pudding.  The pudding sounded interesting, but I had no idea what it really was.  Whatever it was, it didn’t translate well.  [After a quick google search – it probably was bread pudding, what we Americans call French Toast.]


The bread basket was filled with beautiful bread and pastry.  I went with the brioche and the flight attendant pushed the apple pastry on me: “it’s really good,” she said.  The pastry and bread were both tasty and the coffee nice and strong.  Flight attendants quickly returned for juice and coffee refills.  The cheese omelet was nothing special, your typical run-of-the-mill breakfast fare.  


We were finishing breakfast as the sun rose over the English Channel.  As I cleaned up with the final hot towel service, Continental Europe was now in sight.





The purser came to me and said someone will be meeting me at the gate upon arrival.  I thought, “is that a good thing or a bad thing?”  Since she was smiling, it probably wasn’t bad.  

The captain announced that we made up some time overnight and in spite our delayed departure, expected an on-time arrival at 10:15 am.  Weather in Paris was partly cloudy and 3°C.  In reality, it was more like low ceiling and haze.  I couldn’t see the ground until the last couple minutes before touchdown and the nose camera was totally useless.


Nine hours and 43 minutes after lifting off from SFO, we touched down on CDG’s Runway 26L.  



Less than 10 minutes later, we blocked at Gate E26 in Terminal 2E.  Fortunately, this gate was located in the main terminal area, without the need to take a separate transfer bus or train.




After bidding “au revoir” to the flight attendants, I made the short walk up to door 2 and saw a ground agent holding an iPad with my name.  The purser directed me to the agent.  As it turned out, it was the personalized “Meet & Greet” arrival service, a courtesy extended to me by Air France.  

She introduced herself and escorted me to VIP passport control.  There was only one other person in line and I made it through quickly without being questioned.  Of course, the drawback now was the long wait for my baggage. We made small talk about travel, tips on sightseeing in Paris, and the unusual cold weather they were currently experiencing in Paris.  Interestingly enough, the display board showed an estimated arrival time for the bags.  It would have been an arduous 20 to 25-minute wait, but first bags (including mine) showed up after about 10 minutes. 

It was a long walk through the terminal to the central area and the CDGVAL automated shuttle train station.  The CDGVAL train connects Terminals 1, 2, 3, and the car parks.  My escort dropped me off there and I was on my way to my hotel at Roissypole in the Terminal 3 complex, a short 5-minute ride away.


Travelers can purchase the “Meet & Greet” personalized service for departure, arrival, or connection from Air France here.  

See Part 2, where I fly back home via LAX on the A380.



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