Thanks to Delta, I found a smashing deal to fly an Airbus A380 for the first time, and not in economy! My wife and I were married late last year, but postponed our honeymoon because we wanted to visit Europe during the warmer months.
We lucked out and found a very low fare valid for this past September, from San Francisco to Istanbul, in the Premium Economy section of Delta partner Air France. This would be our first time flying the A380, as well as the first time in decades flying on Air France. I was cautiously optimistic about what flying Premium Economy would be like, and I subscribed to the mantra of, “anything’s better than coach,” or even my flight on a CRJ-200 the day before.
Would I be severely disappointed?
Air France Flight Review Information
Airline: Air France (AF)
Aircraft: Airbus A380-800 (388) – 516 seats (9 First, 80 Business, 38 Premium Economy, 389 Economy)
Departed: San Francisco International Airport (SFO)
Arrived: Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG)
Class: Premium Economy
Seats: 83H, 83K (upper deck)
|Flight AF83 | SFO-CDG||Departure Time||Arrival Time||Flight Time|
A Quick Background and Subtext
Several weeks ago, Delta posted abnormally low fares for Premium Economy (PE) from a few cities in the U.S. to Istanbul (IST). The fare was valid on both Delta and Air France routes… no surprise, since the two airlines have joint venture immunity and revenue sharing in place.
Here’s the kicker: Delta doesn’t have a proper PE cabin on its aircraft, just a section of Economy seats (called Comfort+) with more legroom. So the result would be paying extra to sit in a regional PE product just for the shorter CDG-IST leg operated by Air France (with the final insult of Air France eliminating intra-Europe PE service weeks later, and rebooking PE passengers into regular coach).
To take full advantage of the PE product, I found flights on Air France equipment. As it happens, the closest available Air France gateway for me was San Francisco, which has two flights operating daily, both with PE cabins available. While most passengers wouldn’t notice, the AvGeek in me saw that one flight was operated by a Boeing 777-300ER (B77W) and the other was on the Airbus A380-800 (A388).
Even though I’m a Boeing guy, I just had to take the opportunity to ride on the largest commercial airliner ever built, so I plunked down my credit card and all of a sudden, my wife and I have a European honeymoon to plan. Yes, we were planning our honeymoon around the Air France A380 — my wife is awesome.
What is Premium Economy on Air France?
Many carriers, to varying degrees of increased comfort and service, offer PE cabins to those who are willing to spend a little more to get out of economy, but don’t want to shell out the big bucks to get into business class. Fans of PE like the bigger seat and priority handling of passengers, while cynics see it as a way to buffer against upgrades and prevent passengers, especially the airlines’ elites, from upgrading into business class from economy using just miles or certificates.
Air France’s webpage dedicated to PE trumpets access to Sky Priority, Skyteam’s alliance-wide branding for a suite of priority services, such as checking in, security screening, boarding, and baggage handling. PE passengers can check up to two 50-lb. items free of charge, which will be priority-tagged and would theoretically be among the first to arrive at the baggage claim.
The fare includes lounge access for a fee ($35/person, last time I checked), which I suppose is better than no lounge option at all. Of course, these items and services are all already included for SkyTeam Elite Plus members, so the extra perks are a great value for non-elite customers.
The seats are larger than standard economy seats, and somewhat akin to the domestic first class seats you find in the U.S., though not quite as wide. They have a hard shell in the back, so when you “recline” the seat, the bottom cushion actually slides forward, and the passenger behind you isn’t impeded. On an Air France A380, the PE section is on the upper deck towards the rear, behind Business class and in front of a small economy class section (the lower deck features first class and the bulk of the economy seats).
Finally, an enhanced meal service is offered. While it’s still an economy meal, PE passengers are served first so both options will still be available. There is also an additional appetizer dish, and apparently upgraded, specially-designed plastic utensils (they are indeed nicer than the typical airline-provided utensils).
Overall it looks like a sharp product, but there are many complaints floating around the internet that the seat isn’t too comfortable for long, overnight flights, since the hard shell makes it difficult to recline to an angle that facilitates sleep. Having booked daytime flights, we hoped that our sleep would be minimal, but that’s a lot of hours to just sit there without at least a quick nap.
Checking In/At the Airport
With a scheduled 3:45pm departure, we stayed the night near the airport and spent the early part of the day in the city, and left around noon to return our rental car and be dropped off at the curb in front of SFO’s International Terminal, a seemingly too-obvious name, but a few domestic airlines do operate out of there, like Alaska Airlines and Sun Country.
The Air France counters are in the Main Hall towards the “A” side (right-hand side if you’re looking at the front of the building), and take up both sides of an aisle. As you’re entering, First Class and Sky Priority check-in is on the left, while Economy is on the right. We headed over to the Sky Priority line and the idle agent working the First Class counter waved us over.
We had already selected our seats at time of purchase and checked-in online (Air France allows online check-in 30 hours prior to departure), so we were there just to get our boarding passes reprinted. We weren’t checking any bags on this leg, since our backpacks fit overhead. However, we would be checking them on the way home, so we asked if they had large plastic bags to protect the straps and keep them from jamming up the belt system.
The super-friendly agent disappeared into the back and happily came out a minute later with two HUGE bags… and “Cathay Pacific” printed all over them. I wasn’t going to ask why, because I didn’t have to know…
With boarding passes in hand, we headed towards security and into the premium security lane, which I was thankful to have access to. Air France doesn’t participate in TSA’s PreCheck program, so it was normal security screening for us, just ahead of everyone else in line.
Oh right, also because of lack of PreCheck, they were funneling passengers into the full body scanner, which I’m not a fan of, so I informed the CAS officer (SFO chose to use a private contract company instead of TSA) that I was opting out of being scanned. Unfortunately, that was a bit of a mistake, as it took a full 15 minutes of my standing there in my socks, blocking everyone else’s way (passengers were lining up behind me thinking they were being processed… and just waiting there…), with nowhere to go, until someone finally “became available” and I received my TSA-approved pat down/grope. I’m pretty sure they just forgot about me.
With security behind us, my wife and I strolled through the mall-like terminal and trekked over to the Air France lounge, which recently relocated into a larger space that was previously occupied by a Delta Sky Club. I have access by virtue of my Freccia Alata/SkyTeam Elite Plus status with Alitalia, so I didn’t have to exercise my PE privilege of accessing the club for a fee, though it took a while for the poor agent to figure out what “Freccia Alata” actually was. With SkyTeam having 20 members and their associated programs and statuses, it’s not a surprise.
The lounge had a decent spread of light and heavy appetizers (spoiler alert: the SFO lounge has better food than the lounge in Paris… shocker!), beer, wine, and soft drinks, though not enough to make a filling meal before boarding and sleeping for the flight, for those who like to do that. By far, my favorite item was the truffled brie, and the cruidites with tzatziki were refreshing.
Highlight of the visit, though, was my celebrity sighting. Now, I’m being honest when I say I don’t get starstruck easily. If anything, I find celebrity run-ins more of an annoyance, and it’s generally not because of the celebs themselves, but because of the attention they get from paparazzi and adoring fans tend to disturb my enjoyment of the day. So when it comes to autographs and selfies, I’d rather not.
There are few exceptions I can think of. This guy is one of them:
— VNAFlyer (@VNAFlyer) October 1, 2015
Eddie Izzard! The stand-up comedian was traveling for the European dates of his “Force Majeure” world tour. I became a fan after seeing his Dressed to Kill show… just clever, intellectual, higher-level comedy, mixed with all sorts of observations and expletives. If you have the time, I recommend watching Dressed to Kill (NSFW!):
I hated feeling like I was bothering him, but my lovely wife (who doesn’t know who he was) walked right up and politely introduced herself. He was so gracious to take the time to chat with us for a little bit and take photos (which he insisted on doing himself with my phone).
What a disorganized madhouse! Passengers for our flight were standing around the relatively small gate area. I blame the confusion and hysteria on two parties.
First, the designers of this gate area that was specifically meant for A380 operations flubbed on passenger space. For some reason, Gates A9 and A10 are on a landing area between two sets of escalators, so there’s a wall on three sides and an architectural cliff on the fourth, boxing passengers in. Sure, it has three jetbridges including one for the upper deck, but it seems like they forgot how much real estate 500+ people (and their carry-ons) take. And this doesn’t include the passengers of OTHER flights coming and going.
Second, the Air France gate agents were absolutely disorganized and overwhelmed, losing control of the crowd. It’s almost like they were hiding behind the podium instead of being actually helpful. No direction nor announcements were given, so the crowd organically found their own way and created their own queues. Impressively, the crowd managed to get itself arranged into an economy line that snaked through the gate area, and a mass of Sky Priority near the bottom of the escalators.
About five minutes before (delayed) regular boarding was supposed to begin, and after pre-boarding had already finished, a staffer finally wheeled out the directional signs showing where Sky Priority and Economy lanes were actually supposed to be. Unfortunately, they were completely switched around from how the crowd had arranged itself. I even went up to a staffer who seemed to be in charge and politely suggested they just flip the signs around. She took a look at the throng of people and triumphantly announces, “Sky Priority will be on THIS side,” pointing to where the economy passengers had already lined up. Okay then.
About two minutes before boarding, they finally announced over the muffled PA system which lanes passengers were to use for boarding with their group. You could feel the collective sigh and rolling of eyes, and this swarm of people proceeded to do this dance of having to intersect each other just get to the correct side of the gate. It was utter chaos, a comedy of errors… poor showing by Air France.
They quickly announced the start of boarding for Sky Priority, and we finally fought our way through the economy passengers (not their fault at all) to reach the scanner, and up the escalator we went to the upper deck jetbridge.
Onboard the Beast – Finally
We were greeted warmly by a flight attendant, and directed to cross the cabin to the far aisle to get to our seats, 83H and 83K. It gave us the chance to walk through large business class cabin.
We finally reached the Premium Economy section. I noticed that the first row of the cabin (Row 81) had ample legroom due to the exit doors (which don’t have bulges that intrude into the space) and bulkhead. Since the lavatories for our cabin were aft and there was a crossover space in front of the bulkhead, there was no congregation of passengers in the extra space.
With no seatback in front, the entertainment screens and tables were moved to the armrests. Also because of the door, the window seat only had one window, directly to the side, with just a wall and a door for the rest of the view. It’s worth it to note that Row 81 is typically reserved for the elites and full-fare passengers.
Our seats were halfway through the cabin; I took the window seat while my wife sat on the aisle. On each of our seats were a substantial pillow and soft blanket. Facing us, there were storage cubbies for Evian water bottles (in fact, the top area has a decal saying that it was only for storing water bottles) and small items, and a flip-down tray table that also flipped out and pulled out, creating a fairly large, adjustable work surface. Overhead, there were reading lights… but no air vents! I hate when carriers cheap out on the air vents.
There’s also a touchscreen that provided in-flight entertainment and controlled a few other functions. The screen itself was low-definition, and the interface was a little laggy but manageable. There was a decent list of new release Hollywood, French, and world movies, plus programming and content from around the world. Also music, games, info, flight maps, and exterior camera views.
The seat itself was equipped with a universal AC outlet, USB charger, another reading light, and noise cancelling headphones.
Pro tip: Generally, airline-provided USB outlets have a slow charge rate; if you have the option, plug into the AC outlet with your own charger.
Airbus advertised larger windows as part of the improved passenger experience on the A380. I think that they may have used a little bit of trickery to create the illusion of a much larger window by making only the inner window large, creating a “funnel” effect into the smaller outer window. There were better lines of sight for sure, but I’m not too sure the window itself was much larger than any other Airbus.
Through sheer blind luck, 83K may have been the best seat in the section, in terms of personal space and storage. While the window seats on the upper deck (all classes included) all have these neat closing storage bins, Row 83 is aligned in such a way for the maximum amount of storage and space.
The captain came onto the PA system and apologized for the delayed departure, but promised that we would make up the time in the air. Good thing, because my wife and I only had a scheduled 60 minutes to make our connecting flight to Istanbul, with the next flight four hours after that.
Shortly thereafter, the doors were closed and Air France’s new “chic” safety video started. Cute and clever, playing off Paris’s status as a world fashion capital…. très génial! My #avmuggle wife was very impressed (we’ve been jaded by domestic safety videos that are getting a little long in the tooth *cough*American*cough*).
Many flyers comment about the A380’s noticeably quiet cabin, and I completely agree. Even sitting behind and above the engines, the takeoff was whisper quiet (compared to other aircraft). We rumbled down Runway 28R and take flight after using about 80% of the runway length. A slow right turn over the city/fogbank, and we were on our way to Paris.
As we hit 10,000 feet, the seatbelt sign went off and everyone tucked in for the long, 9.5 hour flight. I took the opportunity to kick off my shoes and recline my seat. Truth be told, there was quite a bit of recline angle on the seatback, but the problem was in the head-and-neck area; since the head rest was attached to the hard wall, my head was propped up no matter how much I reclined. While this actually made it more comfortable to see the screen, it made it very difficult to sleep unless I shifted myself down or my head to the side. I can see why the complaints are there.
The flight attendants soon began their service, starting with beverages (we found out on our return flight that they didn’t hand out amenity kits for PE for this flight; we didn’t even think to ask because we weren’t expecting kits for PE). The French/English menu offered various options to choose from:
- Apertifs – A selection will be offered
- Champagne – Served as an apertif
- Wines: According to the flight, you will be offered:
- Red wine – IGP du Comte Tolosan 2014
- White wine – IGP d’Oc Reserve de Thomlomies 2014 Chardonnay or IGP des Cotes de Gascogne 2014 Colombard Chardonnay
- Beer – Heineken
- Mineral Water
- Fruit Juice – Fruite: orange, apple, tomato
- Soft Drinks: Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola Zero, Nestea White Peach
- Available after the Meal:
- Soft drinks: Tonic water, Citrus, Ginger Ale
- Hot beverages: Coffee, Cappuccino, Hot chocolate, Tea
- Digestif & liqueur
I decided on some apple juice, which came with a small bag of mini-pretzels. It also gave me a chance to play with my new camera lens and using what I call the “#foodporn” setting on my camera:
With the relatively small PE + economy section upstairs, the flight attendant quickly finished serving our aisle with the beverage cart and came back up with the meal cart. Our early dinner selections for this flight:
Marinated scallop and pheasant terrine
Chicken with Catalonian sauce,
rice with mixed grains
Pasta shells with marinara sauce,
ricotta cheese and spinach
Grand Marnier almond cake
Coffee and tea
Some minor service hiccups ensued where the flight attendant, while going back and forth on each side of the aisle, skipped right over us in 83H/K. At first we thought she was passing out special meals to the passengers behind us, but then she moved onto the economy section. My wife got up to ask her about our meals. To her credit, the flight attendant was very apologetic, rushing her cart right back up to our seats and giving us our meal selections, plus two bottles of mea culpa wine each.
Then the comedy snowball hit… apparently the flight attendant is so discombobulated that she rushed away without giving us any bread (and you can’t eat a French meal without the bread) I rang the call button, which the crew member didn’t hear, so my wife got up again to chase her down. Then we noticed that my wife didn’t have any utensils (we didn’t want to make the attendant feel even worse, so I gave my fork to my wife). Without a doubt, we get great service from our flight attendant after that (and end up with a few more bottles of wine and extra treats, without asking).
I have a general rule against pasta on planes, so both of us opted for the chicken dish, a saucy, savory dish dominated by green olives, which was great if you like green olives, not so much if you don’t. I enjoyed the terrine; it reminded me of a meaty country pate. The scallop was a chewy, fishy puck. The bread, while not warm, was very yeasty and flavorful, going great with the brie and pate. The “fruit compote” was just a Mott’s applesauce cup, and Granny Smith apples at that… shockingly tart, almost to the point of causing my eyes to tear. The Grand Marnier cake was decent enough for me to finish, but I passed on a second helping from my wife.
After the meal, the cabin lights dimmed for the “rest & relax” part of the flight. The flight attendants came around with little plastic containers of “bonbons” for PE passengers… a nice service touch. Anyone feeling a bit peckish could head to the rear galley, where they had set up a self-serve area for beverages and snacks throughout the flight.
Since I’m a night owl and our flight was aloft from 4:30pm-1:30am, I was wide awake for the duration of the flight, randomly dozing off for maybe 30 minutes. That was okay, it let me catch up on my movie watching.
About 90 minutes from landing, the cabin lights came on in preparation for breakfast service. There was a mad stampede for the lavatories; luckily for me, I had already visited the facilities a few minutes prior.
An abbreviated version of the prior meal service commenced; the drink cart came through, then breakfast was served. No choices here… cheese blintzs for everyone! There was also yogurt, fruit cup, premanufactured muffin, bread, butter, and cream cheese. It was all pretty inedible, to be honest.
Service was completed about 20 minutes from landing, and we all get ready for arrival. The area around CDG was spotty with storms, though the sheer mass of the A380 seemed to have absorbed most of the turbulence that would have probably tossed a Q400 or other small plane around.
We landed seemingly on time, but we must have taxied along the meandering scenic route at CDG. Sure, we made up the time in the air, but the taxi started chipping away at our 60 minute connection time.
Upon our arrival to the gate, I learned why being near the back of a larger double-decker plane is a bad thing. They don’t (and couldn’t, logistically) hold back the economy passengers downstairs from deplaning, so by the time we made our way to the jetbridge, about 3/4 of the plane had already gotten off… that’s about 375 people ahead of us, all headed for either the exits or transfer security.
Fortunately, a pleasant surprise presented itself: Sky Priority exists at the transfer security area. Even then, we asked the lane keeper if there’s anyway she can help us get to the front of the line, which is about 20 people deep. She just shrugs her shoulders and directed us to join the back of the queue.
Fortunately, the gentleman in front of us heard our story and let us ahead of him. The next passenger did the same, and we slowly made our way almost to the front, where we ran into a family who’s trying to make the same flight to Istanbul.
My wife and I jetted off to our next gate, not fearing that we’d miss the flight, but that there would be no more overhead bin space for our packs…
Some additional AvGeek eye candy during the trip:
Travel was at the author’s own expense, and the views and opinions are the author’s own.