A trip report in five parts

  1. Air France A380 Business Class, Washington Dulles – Paris
  2. Park Hyatt Vendome
  3. Mostly Eating in Paris
  4. British Airways Paris Orly – London and the Concorde Room
  5. British Airways “New” First Class, London – Washington Dulles

Looking for something to do for New Years I settled on Paris, there was non-stop business class availability on the Washington Dulles – Paris non-stop. And it’s their Airbus A380.

I’m not one to chase aircraft. I’m much more interested in the inflight product than the model of the plane itself. And believe it or not (it’s sort of something I hadn’t even realized until I stopped to think about it), I hadn’t actually ever been on an A380 other than crawling around one of Qantas’ during the oneworld MegaDO back at the end of January 2012.

So I was a little bit excited to finally fly one, though it wasn’t exciting enough to cause me to route myself in such a way that I would. (Over Thanksgiving I had the option of flying Korean’s first class on the A380 Seoul – New York JFK but opted to fly home to Washington Dulles instead.)

I made a bit of a strategic blunder, though, even before the turning up at the airport. I didn’t check in online. My usual mental model is that when there is the option of online check-in, you use it. Who knows when you’ll be delayed enroute to the airport? You may turn up in plenty of time to make the flight, but past the checkin cutoff time. Checkin online even if you can’t print your boarding pass, they can always reprint it at the airport, long past the time they cannot check you in for your flight.

I knew I was leaving with plenty of time to spare, so I didn’t bother checking in. It turns out I should have.

The check-in line for economy was quite long.

But there were only a couple of people ahead of me in the queue to check in for business class. There was also a separate check-in line for first class, with flowers on the desk.

I was quickly at the front of the line, they issued my boarding passes. And then…. “Would you please put your carryons on the scale, sir?”

I hadn’t intended to check a bag. I was using a 20 inch carryon bag, and had my laptop bag as well. If I had checked in online and printed my boarding pass, I could have gone straight to security and no one would have looked twice at my bags. This agent, though, was going to make darned sure I didn’t going over the cabin baggage weight limit.

Shockingly to me, my rollaboard actually wasn’t overlimit. It was pretty full, I was making a four night trip to Paris and needed some heavy clothes for late December. But she then said, “Your other bag too.”

My rollaboard and my shoulder bag combined were over limit. She insisted that I check the rollaboard. I considered ending the checkin process and trying to talk to someone else, or trying to checkin online still and finding someone to print my boarding pass. I stood there silent for a second and decided I had no really good strategic options, I had lost this exchange. And I turned over my bag to the checked luggage gods.

Then I proceeded to the terminal. This is Dulles so it’s a mess, long security lines and backscatter nude-o-scopes. And once you’re through security, you’re nowhere near your gates.

At least this time I could take train and get dropped off in the terminal I’d be flying out of and — since I wasn’t flying United — not the place where they supposedly plan to build a replacement terminal at some indeterminate point in the future,, from which you have to walk.

Once over at terminal B I found my way to the Air France lounge, which given that we were prepared for a full Airbus A380 was quite crowded. But not as bad as the gate area, and there was free wifi and some snacks.

There were mostly a few different kinds of sandwiches and some cheese. The refrigerator had plenty of mini bottles of water, I admit I took several knowing that I was boarding an Air France flight.

In my past flights I’ve never found Air France service to be particularly responsive. And as a European airline they don’t hand out and refill water very effectively, it’s important to bring your own. If I hadn’t found the bottles in the lounge I would have stocked up in the terminal.

I’ll never understand the dearth of water on European carriers. The glasses they give you for water seem smaller than I’m used to on US airlines, too. And they just don’t come around to top them off, you need to get their attention and it always seems like such a bother to them.

But I also find that restaurants don’t just naturally bring you plenty of water, and most hotels don’t provide them in abundance either. I guess I just drink a lot of water (and I probably drink a lot of water relative to an American, not just to Europeans, so the contrast to me is especially acutre).

They called for boarding approximately 50 minutes prior to our scheduled departure. I didn’t see any reason to get up from the lounge so early so I sat and made a phone call, answered a few more emails, while the lounge cleared out. About 30 minutes prior I figured I still didn’t quite need to board, but I might as well, so I walked out of the lounge and directly across to the gate.

By this time much of the line, or at least the premium cabin line, had dissipated even though the cabin was completely full. They checked my passport and boarding pass ad it was time to board. The person ahead of me, also flying business, confused himself and entered the jetway to board into the plane’s downstairs. The ropes did make it look as though they were only boarding through one jetway, but I did at least know to turn right and head up the jetway to the upstairs.

Once onboard it was just a sea of business class seats. It’s about 14 rows, I think half the upper deck, I don’t think I’ve been in a plane with more business class seats than back when I used to fly United’s old (recliner-style) business on the 747.

The seat reminds me on Asiana’s old business class, and is certainly less comfortable and stylish than Singapore’s regional business class on their A330s. It boggles my mind that Air France would bring A380s into the fleet and not take the opportunity to introduce a flat bed business class. That puts them behind United, British Airways, and US Airways. It even puts them behind Swiss and Lufthansa and Delta. Now American is even getting into the act on their 777-300ER aircraft and plans to retrofit existing 777s. And to me, business class is primarily about the seat.

Oh well, the flight was non-stop and it was several orders of magnitude better than flying coach!

Amenity kits and slippers were distributed while on the ground.

Since I didn’t board when they first called passengers, I wasn’t onboard all that long before it was time to depart. We had a long takeoff roll, and it struck me as we ascended that the plane felt sluggish. I’m not sure if it’s because the A380 is so large or because we were on the upper deck, but the physical sensation was that the plane was a bit underpowered. Nonetheless, takeoff was smooth.

Once in the air I got up and changed into some American Airlines pajamas for the flight, and when I returned to my seat the crew began service.

Dinner offerings were as follows:

DINNER

L’amuse-bouche
Balik salmon and Granny Smith apple

Gourmet appetizer
Champagne foie gras terrine, poached shrimp with mayonnaise cream sauce, coconut-fig chutney on cranberry-raisin bread

Choice of Main Course
Pan-seared tournados of beef with Burgundy-style butter, buttered flat beens, mushroom risotto

Please refer to the suggestion card for today’s special dish

Our special selection of cheeses

Dessert
Fruit tartlet

SUGGESTION DU JOUR

Pan-seared Cap hake fish
Noilly Prat wine sauce, braised fennel, flat beans

BREAKFAST

Orange juice, coffee, tea, hot chocolate
Fresh fruit, yogurt
Fresh bakery selection, breakfast pastries, butter and preserves

I had a glass of Laurent Perrier champagne along with the amuse bouche

Then it was time to put out my tray. A new plane, so new-ish seat, the tray didn’t actually fit and wouldn’t lay flat.

Appetizer was fairly tasty

They came around with entrees and by the time they reached my row, were out of beef. Only the fish was available, which wasn’t going to be my selection but I wasn’t especially hungry in any case. I debated not taking the entrée and just going to sleep, but I was curious to see how it was — overall I found the food on the flight to be somewhat better than the last time I flew Air France out of Dulles. So I did snap a photo of the fish:

Once the flight attendants to cleared the dinner tray, I put the seat into its best angled flat mode, used the blanket as a mattress pad, and put my head down. They had no extra pillows, which was a bit disappointing because there wasn’t much substance to the one in the seat, but I managed to fall asleep.

I did notice that since everyone was having their trays cleared at roughly the same time, everyone was adjusting their seats at the same time too. And these Air France business class seats are the loudest seats I have ever encountered. When they are adjusting there’s this ‘whirring’ noise that they make. Which the entire cabin was making in unison. After a few minutes most people were settled in, so it didn’t continue, but it was sure strange.

And I did have a decent rest, I slept most of the flight and didn’t wake up for breakfast. Instead, I got up about 55 minutes prior to arrival, went to the lavatory to change back into my street clothes, and read for the remainder of the flight. I figured I’d get something to snack on once we’d arrived.

An Air France business class flight of about 7 hours is fine. It was non-stop for me, so I would absolutely do it again. But I was definitely in a sea of people, didn’t have much personal space, and would have preferred a crew that was easier to get water from.

In contrast, though, I was talking with a co-worker about his own Air France flights this past summer which I had helped him to book. He usually flies coach, but had a plethora of Delta miles (before Delta became more or less unable to book Air France business class most of the ime). He love Air France, thought it was incredible. So it really does depend on your starting point for what you think of such a thing. I found it perfectly passable transportation, especially when I relied on myself for water and comfortable sleep clothes.

Once we landed we were off the plane farly quickly, given the jetway expressly for the upper deck. It was a long walk to immigration, which went quickly since with a business class ticket we were entitled to the priority line. Once through it was quick to pick up the checked bag (about which I’m still bitter), and I decided to change terminals to find the Air France arrivals lounge.

With a flight arrival of about 8:45am, I didn’t figure I would have much luck checking into my sold-out hotel. I didn’t want to turn up there and have to deposit my luggage and go out into the city without having a shower. So a visit to the arrivals lounge would accomplish both having a shower, and killing time that might make it possible to check on arrival at the Park Hyatt.

We arrived at terminal 2E, and 2C where the arrivals lounge is makes for a reasonable walk. Indeed, I don’t entirely understand why Air France has its arrivals lounge at the very end of a terminal which is populated predominantly by other airlines and indeed some other airlines which aren’t even members of Skyteam (such as Emirates).

But the obscurity of the lounge perhaps contributed to its being basically empty when I arrived.

At the check-in desk I was immediately directed to an empty shower room, where there were towels but strangely no amenity kit. The last time I used the arrivals lounge there was a plastic package with shampoo, toothpaste, etc. But I had everything I needed with me, so didn’t bother to ask about this.

I freshened up and then went into the dining area of the lounge for a coffee, some meats, cheeses, and a croissant, and then grabbed some more bottles of water from the lounge refrigerator.

Then it was time to head into the city, having managed to burn off a couple of hours since touchdown.

  1. Cygnus said,

    I do CDG-IAD-CDG about once a month, so let me answer two of the things that are puzzling you:

    1. concerning the water: AF puts out drinks in the kitchens, so if you want more water than what is given out during the standard services (which they do about every couple of hours), you just go there and get it yourself. I personally like this more than the service that one finds on many US carriers, where you have to ask the flight attendants for water, since you get to walk a little bit. Other carriers have similar service. AF informs you about this on the menus that they give out, but unfortunately they do not announce it.

    2. concerning the arrival’s lounge in CDG 2C: The arrival’s lounge has been there since before the large extension of CDG, when 2C was still a major terminal for AF. It has only been a couple of months since AF has consolidated all of their flights into 2E, 2F (and the commuter terminal 2G). From what I hear it won’t take long and the arrival’s lounge in 2C will be gone. Since I am usually just changing planes in CDG I have not checked whether a new arrival’s lounge is in the planning, but I would assume that this is the case.

  2. Carl said,

    Thanks for the report Gary. Was this a Flying Blue award?

  3. Ben L. said,

    I don’t think its your problem. I drink a ton of bottled water and always get irritated at the small bottles of water that they hand out since I finish the whole thing in one gulp.

  4. Adam said,

    So you broke the carryon rules by overstuffing your bags, got caught, and are bitter? Don’t break the rules! Then you won’t be bitter.

  5. gene said,

    I am under the impression that on line check in for ex usa international flights doesnt produce a boarding pass. Is that not true?

  6. Bill said,

    Gary,

    We recently flew Air France business class and were rather shocked by their watering procedure. Each seat came with its own mini-water bottle. After observing that we had emptied our mini-bottles, the FA asked if we would like more water. We anticipated either a new bottle or a poured glass of water, but incredibly, she took our mini-bottles and delicately refilled them from a larger water bottle. She did this 2 or 3 times during the flight. Aside from the obvious hygiene issues, it seems a little primitive for a business class product.

    As another up-thread poster remarked, AF does maintain large bottles of water WITH GLASSES, for self-service in the galley. The only problem, at least on our flight, was that the crew was camped out in the galley, deep in conversation, that blocked ingress and egress. Each time you wanted to avail yourself of the available amenities, you had to interrupt their mini-party. So, yes, the AF watering process leaves something to be desired.

  7. James said,

    Thanks for this measured, reasonable review of Air France. Too often I see “ASIAN AIRLINES GOOD, ALL ELSE TERRIBLE” and your perspective and nuance are much appreciated

  8. Tom / SitInFirst.com said,

    Second only to BA (and with limited lie-flat LH J available at present), the AF J experience is the second best European carrier J experience out there.

    Once LH goes majority lie-flat, they’ll move ahead of AF.

    For now, look at AF J availability (using Amex MR via AF) and it is incredible. Far superior to LH.

  9. Zz said,

    How did you get one way on skyteam? Did you get the ticket via AF?

  10. longtime reader said,

    enjoyed your trip report, keep ‘em coming if possible. You may want to edit your text more thoroughly though, multiple spelling errors found and one photo’s full url appeared instead of the image.

  11. Gary said,

    @gene I’ve done it plenty of times, mostly on United though admittedly pre-SHARES.

  12. Gary said,

    @longtime reader – that is always a fair comment regarding my posts… :)

  13. Cygnus said,

    Concerning check-ins on AF: I find that their system does not recognize my frequent flier status when checking in online. So one either has to call them if one wants good seats or do the check in at the airport. Usually the waiting time at IAD is not too bad. I find that they are weighing the hand luggage every third or fourth time I check in at IAD, but it seems to have become more frequent than previously.

  14. Gary said,

    @Cygnus – indeed in the past I’ve flown Air France without the hand luggage being weighed, which is why I was taken by surprise. And to the other question, Flying Blue offers one-way awards at half the mileage cost of a roundtrip albeit with fuel surcharges (and amazing availability, as Tom notes)

  15. Gary said,

    @Tom /wrote,
    “Second only to BA (and with limited lie-flat LH J available at present), the AF J experience is the second best European carrier J experience out there.”

    I think this is really misleading.

    British Airways offers fully flat seats and has for years and years.

    So does Virgin Atlantic, I don’t think you can argue that Air France business is better than Virgin’s?

    And by limiting the discussion to European carriers we ignore that United and Delta and US Airways offer a predominantly flat business class experience. All beat Air France.

    Both Lufthansa and Swiss offer SOME flat business class across the Atlantic, while Air France offers none.

    If we stipulate — what I often contend — that business class is primarily about the seat, then how many carriers is Air France actually better than?
    * Air Berlin, sure, though they’ve just announced a new lie flat seat!
    * KLM? Maybe, they’re jointly owned and the seat might be incrementally better though Amsterdam is a better place to connect!
    * Air Europa, sure, another Skyteam carrier
    * Iberia? Ok.
    * Scandinavian?

    Probably not better than LOT or Austrian. And US carreirs? * American? Maybe, but American is now starting to introduce lie flat seats

  16. wwk5d said,

    Er, I’d say Swiss J class beats the stuffing out of Air France’s J class…especially when it comes to food and overall service.

    Gary, do any non-Sky Team get access to the AF lounge at IAD? I heard ANA used to.

    “Once onboard it was just a sea of business class seats. It’s about 14 rows, I think half the upper deck, I don’t think I’ve been in a plane with more business class seats than back when I used to fly United’s old (recliner-style) business on the 747.”

    Wait till you try Emirate’s J on the A380, that has 20 rows! Though, with a 1-2-1 configuration, it probably doesn’t feel as crowded…

  17. Oliver2002 said,

    Gary, the new AB seat will be only on routes to AUH, not all A330 will get it. LOT and Austrian will get lieflat and horizontal C on all their longhaul by summer. Just FYI. LH A380 C is even larger… 96 C seats, basically the entire UD minus a bit of F :p

  18. AS said,

    Re: the A380 feeling underpowered on takeoff, that is not really the case. The impression comes from two factors: first, the aircraft has much greater noise insulation than other types (the cabin noise is noticeably lower, especially compared to B777), and second, you are on the upper deck, that much further removed from the engines. So it feels like the aircraft glides off the ground, because you don’t hear the engines screaming.

    Did you not notice the much quieter cabin? Was surprised not to see you comment on that as it’s a significant improvement over previous aircraft.

  19. Lack said,

    Gary : All Swiss business seats are lie-flat.

    Finnair also has flat seats on some of their aircraft.

  20. Alan said,

    ELOL I can honestly say I’ve never given a second thought to the ‘water service’ (as I believe it is commonly called in the USA) on long haul flights – I always get up for a wander anyway and just help myself to more as required. Personally I’d be much more annoyed about them running out of beef with the only alternative being fish – it’s not like should come as a surprise to them that the beef would be a popular choice!

  21. ffi said,

    We did several trips on AF courtesy of a southern bank’s generosity with cards. We were lucky to start after the A380 arrived and most were on the 380, although a few were on the smaller plane as well.

    The most irritating thing is that at CDG one had to go outside immigration for transfers at times.
    Second was the gates at times led to a Bus which then drove you all over the airport.

    After several tickets, we got tired of it (took it for granted for future availability and should have burned the rest of the DL miles). I personally found food OK (better than all US carriers but we prefer LH/BA).

  22. Robert said,

    Gary,
    Lets hope you’ve now burned the rest of your Delta miles and wont have to suffer through Skyteam again!

  23. David said,

    I flew AF Business class from IAD to CDG and back in November and had no trouble getting all the water I wanted. In addition to the bottle at my seat they refilled a glass of water I had several times. I missed flat seats but thought the service was fine.

  24. Chris said,

    Question about access to the arrivals lounge –

    I am arriving in CDG very early this Thursday on an economy ticket overnight flight, leaving after a three day layover on a business class ticket. I also have Delta Diamond status.

    Would me and a guest be able to use the lounge to shower on arrival, or does my sky team + benefit only cover departure lounges?

  25. Mark said,

    @Chris – I brought a non-status guest with me into the CDG arrivals lounge this past April. The attendant didn’t bat an eyelash.

  26. rahul said,

    Nice review thanks for steering me away from them, I must admit AF Business sounds underwhelming.

    As toy our comment about so many Business class seats wait till you try Emirates they have 70+ on the upper deck, talk about a sea of premium seats.

  27. Grant said,

    Im staying at the park hyatt vendome next Tuesday and Wednesday night, so I’m really looking forward to your next post. Hope you had a great day.

  28. Rick said,

    Flew the A380 from LAX to CDG in early DEC. J-class Used DL miles at lowest award level (x3 seats w one AF award ticket via MR pts). Booked trip in Feb ’12 when that plane was scheduled as a 777. Anyway… Overall very pleasurable. Wife and I traveled w 19 mo old twins (had their own seats) and the AF crew was unbelievably accommodating. Service was great throughout. Food good. Seats decidedly UN-comfortable. I also can’t believe they would not do lie-flat on this bird. Swiss is still my preference.

  29. Cygnus said,

    @ffi (post 21): One used to have to go landside when changing terminals before October 2012. Since then terminal transfers between AF flights do not require you to leave the secure area, except for the security check required when entering the Schengen zone. 2E and 2F are now directly connected, while there is a bus to 2G that is airside. The old landside connection from 2G to the other terminals now only stops at 2F. This means that it is a longer walk to the train station than before, but overall the service has significantly improved.

  30. Sam said,

    I’m still waiting for someone with a sharp pencil to compute what it would cost to offer business class passengers a meal choice with 100% guaranty of selection, pushing the entrees not taken down to coach. Or offer the same at check-in with no leftovers.

    And busting chops over carry-on weight in C? There’s a long overdue fight to be waged over carry-ons but it doesn’t start with the folks paying $2k and up (or the equivalent in miles) for a 7 hour flight.

  31. Gary said,

    @Sam – American is rolling out their pre-order meals so that premium cabin customers get their first choice (and they load meals based on advance preferences). Singapore and Thai offer an extensve menu to choose from, while American just lets you pick in advance from the meals they’ll otherwise-serve.

  32. RobS said,

    Gary,

    How far ahead of time do I need to book rooms at the Park Hyatt Vendome? I was planning to sign up for the Hyatt card to get the 2 free nights to use for a trip this May and didn’t think I would have too many problems with availability since it’s not heavy travel season, but I’m starting to get paranoid. I’m working through min spend on my 100K AMEX plat now and was planning to apply for the Hyatt card once I’m finished with that, so probably in late Feb/early Mar.

  33. Gary said,

    @RobS you just need them not to be sold out and they don’t always sell out, but advisable not to risk it — as soon as you have the free nights available try to pull the trigger

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  35. DougB said,

    So glad to have read this post, Gary! You were the guy who first showed me the way to access the “front of the plane”, and I always enjoy reading about your travels.

    I’ve come to really appreciate BA’s lie-flat seats in J, and would have expected AF to at least be comparable (if for nothing more than l’honneur). Quel suprise! And for AF to come up short on le menu? Quel dommage! ;)

    Eagerly looking forward to reading the next post!

  36. Kim A said,

    @Gary et al. Comparing AF to DL : have flown 2x AF 380 CDG-JNB and then JNB-ATL on DL 777-200ER–all long trips. Found the service and food on AF better but the lie-flats on DL won hands-down over AFs uncomfortable product.

    Re: water and thirst in Europe, definitely agree with what has been said. Finally asked some friends who live there if they ever get thirsty (!) and they answered that they drink more water when in the USA. They attribute it to our highly salted foods, and the fact that our salt is iodized–a big no-no in Europe–and iodine is a “dehydator”. (Research: it is).

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    After reading Lucky’s SQ A380 Suite review, AF biz class looks so ghetto!

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  42. John B said,

    I flew one segment on Air France in J, just like you, IAD to CDG. The food was very good, the wine was passable(expected much better), the seat was ok for 7 hour flight. But now that so many airlines have lie-flat J seats, I probably would never fly Air France again. Cabin service was the worst, I ever received TATL. Delta’s BE is much better product. I’d rather fly coach on Swiss, than suffer another Air France flight!

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  45. Jerry said,

    Flew AF A380 twice recently. I do like the space on the plane but indeed the seat LOOK old. However, they are not as bad as they look. My experience is that you need to get USED to a C-seat. Years past when I used to fly nearly monthly on former CO, I hated the seat initially, but ultimately, found out how to get comfortable and always looked forward to their service (which has unfortunately gone DOWN so badly since merger with UA; what a pitty).
    Back to AF: I find their service mixed, some very friendly and attentive FAs are matched by some of the sourest in business: “boff”: like they couldn’t care less. It’s also non-personalized, meaning that you do not (necessarily) have a dedicated FA who knows you by name and your preferences. Partner KLM does SO much better in this respect – and on the food too! Of the total on-board service, I found AF’s food quality marginally passable for business. Ok, you don’t fly having a superb meal, but over the years, (most) airlines have made huge improvements. Alas, not AF, or I must have been unlucky thrice in the last few weeks. It is announced with a lot of “style” but found most of it pretty flavourless. Stone cold butter, afternoon snacks on soggy toasts (straight from fridge) or dried-out chicken on a skewer. Tried the 3*Michelin Chefs-special on 2 consecutive flights and was disappointed twice. Small portions (which may be a good thing) and overcooked and non-impressive taste wise. Quite a limited wine choice too (2 white/2 red, after all, this is the French national airline…) At breakfast we were offered the stale bread and dried croissants (re-heated) from the overnight dinner service(!). Coffee was thin and hot water for tea was tepid at most. Again, don’t want to sound too snobbish, but if this is your premium product…? Really….? Surprisingly, their premium-cabin service (incl. food) on short/medium-haul seemed much better!

    As part of their drive to “become the best in the sky” they are introducing flat-bed pod-style seats across fleet; hopefully, they’ll include an upgrade of food service and cabin interior as well.
    True, CDG is a nightmare airport for connecting long haul to short-haul or vice versa. The terminal naming system is confusing, the walks (+up/down, up/down) long and bu Very slow and tiny elevators to lounge. One plus: there’s quite some food and coffee is much better!

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