Our Air France A319, parked at Gate L21 at CDG.

Our Air France A319, parked at Gate L21 at CDG

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?

An Air France A319 (F-GRHR) taxiing at CDG.

An Air France A319 (F-GRHR) taxiing at CDG

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
Class: Economy
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).

Cabin layout of Air France A319s with the "Europe" configuration. Image: Air France

Cabin layout of Air France A319s with the “Europe” configuration. Image: Air France

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.

A closeup of our Air France A319.

A closeup of our Air France A319

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).

Getting artsy with our jetbridge at CDG.

Getting artsy with our jetbridge at CDG

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.

The view of the Air France A319 cabin from Seat 7F. Note the movable curtain, fastened behind Row 3 for this flight.

The view of the Air France A319 cabin from Seat 7F. Note the movable curtain, fastened behind Row 3 for this flight.

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.

Standard overhead passenger service unit on board an Air France A319. Air vents!

Standard overhead passenger service unit on board an Air France A319. 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.

Madhouse at IST's immigration checkpoint.

Madhouse at IST’s immigration checkpoint. This is just the crowd trying to get into the queue.

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.

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SENIOR CORRESPONDENT - LOS ANGELES, CA. With LAX serving as a second home, John enjoys being confined to an aluminum (or now carbon composite) cylinder jetting through the air miles above the terra firma. He has logged millions of miles in such conditions and enjoyed it 99% of the time. Email: john@airlinereporter.com. You can also read more about John's non-AVGeek musings on his personal blog, VNAFlyer.

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11 Comments
C J Stott

As they say, “Timing is everything.” With what has happened in Paris over the last few days, tends to make this post somewhat pedantic and unimportant. Normally, it would have been a great story for airline folks and AV-Geeks, but this week, it seems unimportant.

Hey CJ,

I surely was thoughtful in deciding to post this story or today. I decided to do it, with no intention of disrespect — quite the opposite.

Unfortunately bad things happen around the world, but even with tragedy, people are still going to fly. Thousands are boarding Air France flights, going about their lives, and moving forward. I think it is important for people to keep on flying and have no fear traveling to or through Paris!

Thanks,

David | AirlineReporter

Hello CJ, and thank you for sharing your views. I find it apropos that today, French President Francois Hollande made this comment: “Our duty is to carry on our lives.”

Having visited Paris on our trip just two months ago (not to mention having numerous personal connections there), we were utterly shocked at the developing story in a way I hadn’t felt since 9/11. After finding out that everyone we knew was okay, we moved on to sympathizing with those whose loved ones died or were injured.

I had submitted my final draft of this story well before the attacks occurred; had I still been drafting it, I might have taken a break for a day or two but still would have continued. You are correct, when compared with what Paris is going through, our flight review is as unimportant as it gets.

However, I would hope that the publishing of my mundane story that coincidentally involves an airline with “France” in its name would not be taken as diminishing or downplaying what happened. While we will never forget, life does go on.

Regards,
John | AirlineReporter

Still, dude, you got to go to Turkey for your honeymoon. Regardless of the hassles, you got to go to Turkey on your honeymoon.

Dude… Turkey was great and I love being able to say “Istanbul” and “honeymoon” in the same sentence. With that in mind, hold on to your seat, because the next installment may leave you flabbergasted…

John | AirlineReporter

Plane-Crazy Joe

Captain John, have you not heard the expression: ” you take a CHANCE on Air France ” ( aka Air Chance )? I made that mistake several summers ago! I flew Air Chance on this itinerary: JFK>CDG>LHR>CDG>JFK. I flew their first 380, ” JA “, to and from CDG. On my outbound flight, my ” Super ” was held at the gate by ATC, for about 90 min. The longest runway at JFK was out of service that summer; as it was undergoing reconstruction: widening and lengthening. GREAT TIMING – during the PEAK Summer travel season! We FINALLY were given Push Back and Taxi Clearance. After queuing in the ” Congo Line ” for around 30 minutes, we were finally wheels-up 1h 59m AFTER scheduled Departure Time! We made up SOME time enroute to CDG but still arrived late. So, I then had to HUSSTLE – carrying / and dragging my TWO carry-ons – to transfer terminals and then queuing / clearing through Customs. I was in my early 60s, at that time.

I FINALLY arrived at my gate; relieved to see my A320 still on stand! However, the gate had ALREADY been closed! Air Chance staff REFUSED to permit me to board my flight – EVEN THOUGH THEY MUST HAVE BEEN AWARE THAT MY INBOUND FLIGHT HAD AN EXTENDED DELAY! ( At least, they SHOULD have known this )! So they rebooked me to their next flight to LHR; four hours later, on a 321. Consequently, I’d lost my COVETED Window Seat at the rear of Peon Class! I was thereby stuck in a dreaded Aisle Seat, over the wing; which meant I had NO SUITABLE VIEW outside of the airplane! ( I always have my camera ready when I fly; to snap images of any airplanes of interest and aerial photos ). After I requested, Air Chance gave me a meal voucher; to have a light lunch during my Delay ).

After reaching my final destination, some FOUR HOURS LATE, I found that my two Checked bags HAD GONE MISSING!? Air Chance’s ” professionals ” had FAILED to transfer my bags to that later flight! WTF!? CDG is Air Chance’s largest station / hub; so it’s likely their Ramp Tramps frequently deal with situations like mine! ( Apparently, they are LAZY union members ). Air Chance staff at Baggage Claim ASSURED me that my bags would quickly be located, flown to LHR, and delivered to my hotel ( on nearby Bath Road ). Well, that DIDN’T happen! In fact, it was 27 HOURS LATER that my bags FINALLY turned-up at my hotel! Meanwhile, I had NO HYGIENE ARTICLES, NO CHANGE OF CLOTHING during that timeframe!

My Travel Day had actually originated at ATL the afternoon of the previous day, flying up to JFK; so I was exhausted after my Red Eye across the ” Pond “!

I had gone to LHR on a Spotting Mission. So, need I tell you how ANNOYED and AGGRAVATED I was by Air Chance’s INCOMPETENCE!

When I later returned home, I wrote a Letter of Complaint to Air Chance’s applicable US department; located in So. FLA. I supplied all the details of my ordeal – which Air Chance afflicted me with – giving them the opportunity to financially compensate me with a ” Goodwill ” gesture. Air Chance NEGLECTED to do so; claiming no responsibility / accountability for their SNAFU! So, that was my first and LAST itinerary on Air Chance! NEVER again will I take a CHANCE on Air France! I URGE MY FELLOW AVGEEKS TO NEVER SUBJECT YOURSELF TO AIR CHANCE!

Btw, a new, massive airport is now under construction outside of Istanbul; to cope with Turkish’s continuing expansion.

That sounds like a rough trip! I am looking forward to Istanbul’s new airport, and seeing what happens in reality when TK and others shift their operations around.

John | AirlineReporter

Plane-Crazy Joe

Captain John,

Indeed! It was a FLIGHTMARE!! My all-time WORST itinerary – topping EVEN anything United inflicted me with!

Alex Strachan

I actually found this to be a useful — and readable — post, despite (and also because of) the events in Paris. I’ll tell you why. I’m doing some complicated flying, next month, through several airports in Europe and Africa, originating (on Air France partner KLM) in North America. I’m a journalist by trade, and have had plenty of experience travelling in and around so-called “hot zones.” It continues to amaze me not only how venal and dishonest the regular carriers are, as well as cavalier with their paying customers — your story here about the mysteriously vanishing Premium Economy, with no warning and no recompense — but, more to the point, how such seemingly obvious things as making their schedule and poor organization at immigration checkpoints (“security theatre,” where they inconvenience the wrong people and are utterly useless (poorly trained, lowly paid) when it comes to spotting actual problem makers) add up to an unnecessarily draining experience. Several things jump out at me about your story: The fact that, in 2015, when your flight misses its runway assignment, you’re moved to the back of a very, very long line on the runway; the fact that a giant mob is allowed to bottleneck at immigration control, which means that hassled immigration officers don’t have the time to do their job properly and are under pressure to move people through as quickly as possible — not a terrific idea when illegals are using flaws in the system to slip through — and, finally, the airlines’ collective giant ‘f— you’ to their paying customers, as exemplified by garbage food (in France! for God’s sake, just give people a crisp baguette and some cold cuts, a mini bottle of decent wine and be done with it!) Premium Economy that isn’t Premium Economy, and Business Class that mysteriously morphs back and forth between business and the plebes depending on where the curtain is. Sure, the lack of seatback entertainment might say like a petty inconvenience — even though it is 2015 — but not really when you consider things like WiFi and a tray table designed to hold a laptop, rather than spill a food tray onto the floor: This is basic stuff that working people, professionals and journalists need to do their jobs during the frequent down time caused by airline/airport incompetence. Judging from your report here, you could have had the same experience flying EasyJet or Ryan Air, at (I’m guessing) half the price, or less . Air France: Note that.

Thanks for your comments. It was surely aggravating to have purchased airfare with one understanding, only to have that changed for the worse post-purchase without notice. I only knew because I was paying attention; I can’t imagine how regular travelers felt when they found out at the airport. I suppose I should count myself as “fortunate” that this essentially was a tag-on to my long-haul SFO-CDG segment so I didn’t pay a premium to have an inferior product. Still, a decent meal would have been nice, and I would have paid more for a better meal if that had been an option.

I would agree that for a regular, non-status flyer flying economy, there’s not too much difference between the European legacies and the ULCCs (and the same can almost be said with the US airlines). The main differential would be an effective points-earning loyalty program, but many don’t care about that, and what you’re left with is basic transportation between A and B.

John | AirlineReporter

atul jain

It is a shame for air France to provide such poor services even to its premium customers. I’m glad that the Asian and MEB3 airlines are spinning a wide Web of routes to rescue the passengers from dreads like air France.

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