We had purchased a Premium Economy fare to fly from San Francisco to Istanbul (IST) via Paris-Charles de Gaulle (CDG) with a 60-minute layover. While I was looking forward to checking out Air France’s medium-haul Premium Economy service from CDG-IST, the carrier quietly eliminated the class on everything but long-haul flights and placed passengers into regular Economy. Not nice.
Fast-forward to our landing at CDG — our inbound flight on the A380 was delayed taking off from SFO and spent its time circling the airport grounds, finally docking 45 minutes before our next flight. Would we make it in time, or would we have to spend four hours waiting for the next flight and losing an entire evening in Istanbul?
Airline: Air France (AF)
Aircraft: Airbus A319 (319) – 143 seats (variable up to 28 Business, at least 115 Economy)
Departed: Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG)
Arrived: Istanbul Ataturk Airport
Seats: 7E, 7F
A Quick Background and Subtext
Booked as part of a Premium Economy (PE) fare from San Francisco to Istanbul, this second leg was operated by Air France from Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport. Air France, like many other European carriers, uses convertible seating that allows them to change the number of seats in the business cabin, based on actual booking; they just need to move the curtain divider and block the middle seats.
Back when the ticket was purchased, Air France offered PE on their medium-haul routes, such as CDG-IST. Benefits included Sky Priority access for checking in, boarding, and baggage handling, as well as a seat towards the front of the plane in front of the business class curtain (but no blocked middle seat) and a hot meal (the same as business class).
However, between time of purchase and time of flight, Air France very quietly eliminated PE service on all but their long-haul routes; affected passengers were rebooked into their Economy Flex fare, a reduction by all measures: no Sky Priority, no seat up front, no hot business class meal. Really, the only tangible benefit versus a lesser Economy fare was full points and miles earning.
Luckily, I had “Freccia Alata” status with SkyTeam partner Alitalia, which is considered SkyTeam Elite Plus and affords most of the airport premium services. Without this status, the story probably would have gone very differently.
Making the Transfer & At the Airport
After getting off our previous flight from San Francisco with only 45 minutes until departure, we rushed to the transfer area in hopes that we could get ahead of all the passengers who had just offloaded from our full A380. Fortunately, we had arrived into Terminal 2E, the same terminal as our onward flight to Istanbul. Following the signs to the international transfer area, we saw another welcome sight… a premium line for transfer security. We queued up there thanks to Sky Priority (and no thanks to Air France).
Because of our shortened connection time, we requested assistance from the airport staffer, working the line to see if she could get us to the front. She couldn’t care less, but most of the passengers took sympathy on us and let us skip ahead almost to the front of the line, where a family trying to make our same flight was also rushing to get through security.
After quickly getting through the checkpoint (with no TSA-type shenanigans), we threw on our packs and headed straight to our next departure gate, (no time to stop in the lounge) where we found our flight to Istanbul had been delayed, 15 minutes at first.
We took a moment to catch our breath, happy that we weren’t going to have to fight for overhead space.
Not sure if we were going to be served an actual meal, I walked around a bit to see what was available nearby: a Relay convenience kiosk, a coffee bar with pre-made sandwiches, a juice bar, and a duty-free store. Since nothing caught my attention, decided to roll the dice onboard and headed back to my wife, who was waiting in line (and didn’t mind standing after so many hours seated).
Our delays kept rolling until boarding was called at about 1:15 pm. A semi-mad scramble ensued, not to cut in front of others (though a couple of people attempted and were thwarted), but to be the first to join the back of the line. Down the jetbridge we went and into our Airbus A319.
Pro tip: If you can, grab a seat forward of the exit rows, as these should have a little more legroom.
On our flight, there were only three rows of business class configured; Row 7 was the last possible row of Business if configured to the max. That said, legroom felt standard by U.S.-standards and a little cramped. The seats farther aft had even less room. There were no seatback screens; in fact, no on-board entertainment at all, except for the in-flight magazine and looking out the windows.
Nor were there charging outlets, but a thin blanket was provided, which made my wife happy (since she got two of them, and I got none). I was fine though… I claimed both air vents.
It seemed to take a while to push back after boarding was complete. We sat close enough to get the WiFi signal from the terminal, so we didn’t mind at first. The door finally closed, and the flight attendants proceeded with their safety demonstration, in both French and English in real-time, then followed up by a recorded Turkish narration… no chic presentation or choreography here, just the basics of safety.
The demo ended as we were slowly… and I mean SLOWLY… taxiing to the end of the terminal to turn the corner. We stopped among a crowd of other planes waiting to take off, at least two lines of narrowbodies. The captain came on to the PA to explain that one of the runways at CDG had been closed, so our departure was held for an unspecified while. My wife dozed off, so I took the opportunity to snap some photos of the planes passing by us. It was a couple of planes first… then a few more… then they all just kept passing us while we sat still. At least I got some good shots…
We were kept in the virtual penalty box for a little over an hour before our engines roared back to life and we started heading for the runway, taking off almost immediately once we lined up. Once in the air, service started like normal and the seatbelt signs went off at 10,000 feet.
I could hear the clanking of chinaware from the business cabin, but one of the first things the crew did was to close the curtain, so there wasn’t much to see anymore. The Economy flight attendants came up with their trolleys to start serving from the front, with beverages first followed by the meal… no menu, no options, everyone got the same thing – but compared to flying in the U.S., I guess at least we got something.
I ordered a Coke, and was given a mini Coca-Cola can and a tiny cup with no ice. The next flight attendant handed us a long package holding most of our meal; the third gave us our “hot” item, a flatbread with cheese and tomato sauce inside a heatable plastic bag. If you grew up in the U.S. and ever had those rectangular pizzas in your school cafeteria, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Inside the flimsy container was a very tangy curry coleslaw, cold bread, prepackaged brie, a lemon curd tart, utensils, and moist towelette. The big problem with the tray was no traction on the smooth tray table, so it slid down because of the angle of the plane… very annoying trying to eat with one hand while holding your food back with the other. The food was pretty subpar, so I didn’t try for too long.
Our food trays were collected, and I noticed that most of the food, especially the slaw, was largely untouched by the passengers. With about two and a half hours until arrival, I took a quick nap… my main form of entertainment.
Landing was uneventful, though I woke up in time to see that we were following the coastline into IST. We landed and arrived at the gate, delayed over an hour and a half, most of that time sitting in CDG. But we were in Istanbul, and our honeymoon adventures could finally begin…
NOT SO FAST! Because of our late arrival, we were in the midst of a large bank of arriving flights that overwhelmed the main immigration checkpoint. We had passed by a secondary checkpoint that was open, but the guard directed us away, letting only disabled passengers into that line.
Pro tip: At Istanbul Ataturk Airport, feel free to push and shove your way to establish your place in the immigration queue; then be prepared to watch (several) people walk by you to stand in line with their friends farther ahead.
We were in a very different world, where the strongest
survive get ahead in line, and the weak just have to take it. There is a premium line here, but it’s reserved only for Turkish Airlines’ own premium and elite passengers, as well as Star Alliance Gold elites; everyone else had to scrum into the Turkish citizens line or the “everyone else” line (since Turkey is not part of the Schengen treaty, E.U. citizens have to use the general line).
Turkey requires a visa entrance fee for many visitors, including Americans (USD20, good for multiple entries within 90 days). Pay ahead of time online, and bring the printout with you. Worst case scenario, you can buy it online at the airport (which is in the process of eliminating “Visa on Arrival” purchases), but WiFi at the airport will require you to activate your cellular data to receive a code via text to give you 15 minutes of free access.
While our line had at least a few hundred people in it, most of the booths were staffed, the officers were efficient, and the line moved constantly. Still, we lost about 30 minutes getting through immigration, and by the time we were out, the baggage claim belt for our flight had already stopped. Since we had our packs with us, we just head out past customs, grab some cash at the ATM, and (actually) started our honeymoon in earnest…finally.
Some more #AVGeek photos for your enjoyment…
Read more about John’s Nguyen trip on his personal blog, VNAFlyer.