Meghan and I recently flew aboard Air France in economy class from Washington to Paris. This is essentially the reverse of the flight Kathleen reviewed last year, though we have some elaboration and additional recommendations to offer a year on. Air France is one of the last traditional airlines that at least still seems to convey a sense of actually caring about the passenger experience, so we found this to be overall a pretty good way to cross the ocean. Read our review, insights, and tips here.
Flight: Air France #55
Date: 15 February 2018
Origin: Washington-Dulles (IAD), Virginia, USA
Destination: Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG), France
Aircraft: Boeing 777-300ER
I've written recently about where Washington-Dulles International Airport (IAD) stands heading into 2018, with new flights, plans, and food and beverage options coming available. They're having a good moment. This flight departs from Terminal A, conveniently situated just across the concourse promenade from the Air France lounge. Pass through security in the main terminal (Air France does offer TSA PreCheck), and board the AeroTrain to Terminal A.
Further reading: Renaissance is in the air at Washington Dulles International Airport
The lounge admits Priority Pass members, but only during off hours. Access is otherwise reserved for Air France passengers from 14:00 to 18:30 each day. We were permitted entry with the combination of our Priority Pass card and our Air France boarding passes, though our economy seats alone would have not let us through. The space is bright, airy, and modern, with enormous floor to ceiling windows offering unparalleled views of flight operations between the A-B midfield terminal and the main terminal.
The bar serves up some of the best complimentary champagne we've tried in an airport (of course, right?), though I was disappointed to note that their complimentary red was from Napa, California. What a shame to waste an opportunity to pour wine from France's many world famous red wine producing regions. So… another Champagne, s'il vous plaît. We found excellent sandwiches upon baguette, cheeses and fruits, past and sausage, and potatoes on the buffet. Meghan and I disagreed in that she preferred the food in the Air France lounge, while I prefer the food in the Turkish Airlines lounge about a ten minutes' walk away (also available for Priority Pass members). Both are excellent, so I’d recommend sticking to the Air France lounge if you are flying Air France that day.
While we're talking "airport experience"... we find our destination airport, Paris Charles de Gaulle, to be a strange place. It is rather confusingly arranged, and a bit bewildering to navigate in comparison to London Heathrow's Terminal 5 and Madrid's Terminal 4S where two of Air France's primary competitors in Europe call home. The lounge situation is also terrible there.
Gate and Boarding
Two observations about boarding: (1) security is tight, and (2) economy passengers and those with status or premium cabin seating board simultaneously, but from two separate lines. In practice, though, this means that there is far less value derived from status or premium seating in this boarding process than there is on most other airlines. Also, be prepared to be questioned by a customs officer. Stay calm, answer questions honestly, and take care to just generally not be a criminal (in life).
Boeing's 777-300ER is a big airplane. I'd not flown one in quite sometime, and was even surprised at how big it really feels. Air France has configured these cabins with a single row of ultra-premium first class up front (you won't even sniff this if you don't have a ticket for it), business class both to the left and right of the boarding door, premium economy, and economy in the back. The economy seats are arranged in a 3-4-3 configuration, i.e. three seats on either side of the aircraft separated on each side be an aisle with four seats in the middle.
We don't fly with any sort of SkyTeam status, so no chance of an upgrade here. We did pony up something around $40 per seat to take advantage of one of this configuration's nice little peculiarities: the four rows in the far back of the plane have only 2 seats on each side as the fuselage narrows a bit towards the rear. Pay for the privilege to choose your seats in advance so that you and your traveling companion each get a window or an aisle, and nobody has to sit next to a stranger. Row 49 features an extra seat back pocket for storage. A quirk of the arrangement, though, is that the tray tables and in-flight-entertainment screens are somewhat off center from your seat, though this wasn't a big deal for us. The seats in that row (at least) offer an above average 32 inches of legroom. Overhead bins throughout the cabin are the modern style, quite spacious inside and arranged such as to create the illusion of lots of space in the cabin. Seats are comfortable enough to have given me several hours of rather uninterrupted sleep (though please, some airline sometime, add a little more padding to the seat cushion). Overall, this is one of the best long-haul economy cabins we've flown.
Crew and Communication
We've found all of our Air France crews to be delightful, helpful, happy to pour more wine, and otherwise great at communicating in multiple languages. Satisfaction with the crew is always so subjective, but we've nothing but good things to say about the ones with whom we've flown. Thank you, Air France!
Food and Beverage
Let there be no surprise that, once again, Air France really shines with their in-flight Champagne situation. It's not the bottle I'd choose to serve friends at home, but it was quite compelling versus that to which economy travelers are accustomed. Served as an apéretif, the Champagne is followed by options for a Merlot or Chardonnay -- both French -- and a combination of cognac, tea, and coffee options to conclude the serving.
This eastbound flight offered two meal options. Meghan chose the pasta, and I chose the chicken with a kale puree. Both were served with what we can only characterize as a "nom" lentil salad, and both were quite satisfying by economy standards. One drawback of our choice to sit in the 2x seat section at the rear of the aircraft is that we were served nearly last. No problem unless you have designs on a specific meal option. On the return trip aboard the same aircraft, we were dismayed to learn that the "Duck Shepherd's Pie" meals were gone, and that the only selection left -- the veal -- contained mushrooms to which Meghan is allergic. I thought the veal was itself tasty, and the crew was very good to round up extra lentils, bread, and cheese for Meghan.
Breakfast headed into Paris was the flight's principle weakness. Nothing special, though oddly the second meal served the opposite direction back into Washington a few days later (at 3pm local time) was also breakfast themed, and better than the actual breakfast we ate on the Europe-bound flight. Strange.
Aircraft and Destinations
Air France flies a mixed fleet of Boeing and Airbus wide body aircraft on their long-haul routes, and an Airbus-only fleet of single-aisle aircraft on their shorter haul routes mostly within Europe. I value the 2x (no middle seat) arrangement on either side of the aircraft, so would tend to prefer flying on the Airbus A330 myself, but I am nearly certain that is not offered on the Washington - Paris route.
The Dutch airline KLM and Air France are both subsidiaries of the same company, and the combined French / Dutch carrier maintains a further trans-Atlantic joint venture with Delta Airlines (similar the British-Iberia-American Airlines tie-up). The effect here is to create a strong network wherein passengers can easily book and transfer from one airline to another. For example, one might fly from New York to Paris on Delta, and then continue on to another smaller European destination with minimal transfer fuss aboard Air France.
I was nervous about this flight because I have grown so accustomed to enjoying the perks of status aboard American Airlines and its OneWorld partners. That said, our Priority Pass membership put us in a lounge with tasty food and great Champagne, an extra $40 apiece put us in reasonable seats, priority boarding is so different aboard Air France so as to make our deal hardly worse than anyone else on the plane. The overall experience was far and away better than a similar route we flew last year aboard British Airways (Dulles to London Heathrow) and the entire British Airways experience in general. All in, I've found Air France to at least come off as still caring far more about the overall experience than their British competitors, offering a solid way to cross the Atlantic in either direction.