As far as airline journalism gigs go, I hoped that this would be a beauty. And it did not disappoint. I missed an opportunity to visit the Air France (AF) CDG hub experience in November 2015 due to a lost passport. However, AF gave me a second, even juicier, bite of the cerise with an invitation to try its business class product on board the airline’s recently arrived Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. We would fly out from London Heathrow (LHR) to Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG) on 23 March 2017. You’d perhaps be forgiven for raising an eyebrow seeing a long-haul bird deployed for a painfully short 45-minute hop over La Manche.
Since February, Air France has operated an almost daily first wave CDG-LHR-CDG circuit on the Dreamliner. This is both for promotional reasons and, more practically, for crew to get their flight hours up on type. You may recall that AF did something similar with its A380 for a brief stint back in 2010. These short flights of fancy on the Dreamliner are running until 28 October 2017.
AF1681 departs LHR at 09:40, but a select group of aviation journalists and I joined Ciara MacHugh and Jason Keall, from AF’s UK and Ireland communications team, in the SkyTeam lounge in T4 just after 8:00 am. Fast-track security had been disrupted when one of the scanners broke mid-flow. Nobody got annoyed, possibly out of quiet solidarity, following the terrible events in London the previous day.
Inside the lounge, I briefly marveled at the feng shui living wall before we reclined, nibbled on breakfast goodies, and chatted in one of the VIP rooms upstairs. In fact, we were so casual that the flight had already started boarding when we shamelessly queue-jumped at the gate to get on board for a mini Dreamliner tour.
Ciara briefly showed us the Premium Economy area, waxing lyrical about the 130º recline in a fixed shell and other features which complement the Dreamliner’s innovative design. I can’t do the technical nuances justice, but needless to say that my Avgeek-ometer was on overdrive.
We headed back to business class, a 30-seat section in 1-2-1 herringbone layout, to prepare for departure. Jason very kindly swapped his window berth for my aisle seat and I systematically went on to play with as many seat features, monitor screens, tray table mechanisms, headphone closets, and light switches as I could. I studiously jotted notes in my trusty moleskin in order to look more like a serious airline reporter (which I am) and less like all my Christmases had come at once (which I thought they all had).
I used to be a regular AF passenger between 2004 and 2006 when frequently taking La Navette domestic shuttle service from Paris Orly (ORY) to Bordeaux (BOD). I also flew with AF to New York almost a year after 9/11. However, the AF brand first caught my attention through an advert that the airline ran circa 1999.
It had almost mystic, Dali-like qualities of distant aircraft crossing the sky whilst passing thorough juxtaposed earlobes etc. all to the Chemical Brothers’ Asleep From Day. Every time I look up to a clear blue sky and see far off vapor trails, that song plays in my head. I was therefore gutted that the track was not amongst the Dreamliner’s IFE music selection as we taxied to the runway. I chose Daft Punk’s Revolution 909 instead. At least it’s appropriately French.
I also enjoyed the pre-recorded Galeries La Fayette-esque safety video and listened to the 787-9 hurtling down the runway with nothing more than a subtle whistle from the GEnx-1B power plants. They almost seemed to be dawdling on idle. I had been sold the virtues of this aircraft type by passionate Boeing personnel in Everett during last year’s AirlineReporter Aviation Geek Fest. It was certainly living up to the hype.
Of course, I would be unable to gauge whether the Dreamliner’s lower cabin pressure, air quality, 30% larger windows, and mood lighting would leave me feeling refreshed on a 45-minute flight to Paris. Who cares, this was awesome! One of the features about the 787 on AF marketing material was the fact that less than 10,000 holes are drilled into the airframe. I recall Boeing making that point in Seattle, and other airlines operating the 787 also impart this fact. Of infinite interest to AvGeeks and aeronautical engineers, but I must admit it sounds like a curious USP for airline marketing material to passengers. In any event, I felt good and nicely zen as we climbed.
I then tucked into some ham, cheese, natural yoghurt, fresh pink grapefruit and a warm croissant whilst chilling to a few Chopin preludes (he’s Polish, not French – sorry) before I laid fully flat on the two-meter extended seat bed for a few minutes. Nothing about the flight felt rushed, but I gave an inner sigh when the captain announced our descent into CDG.
Air France Hub – Paris CDG
We landed almost as smoothly as we took off and taxied to Terminal 2E. We disembarked last before our local AF guides took us down to the ramp for a quick photo session and then onto the AF Business Lounge in Hall M. Opened in 2012, as part of the Air France Hub at CDG, I admired the curvy layout and seating arrangement, the sloping partition walls and tranquillity of this particular lounge. AF boldly lays claim to its home base being Europe’s most powerful hub, jostling for position with Schiphol (AMS), Frankfurt (FRA) and Istanbul Ataturk (IST). Oh, and LHR too.
I think that several of us were sorely tempted to get a complimentary 20-minute Clarins treatment which they operate in partnership with AF, but we opted for a spot of lunch instead. To be clear, I wasn’t hungry. I had just enjoyed a refreshing breakfast. It didn’t stop me tucking into some lamb gigot, gratin dauphinois, green vegetables, mushroom tartelette, walnut & fig bread and cheese, washing it down with a glass of champagne and tiny snifter of Bourgogne pinot noir though. Greedy cochon.
AF Maintenance & Engineering
We weren’t there just to gorge on crazy delicious chocolate cake though. The trip was about to get serious with a tour of the AF Maintenance & Engineering Area on the outskirts of the airport. This also included a visit to the Engine Test Centre. Unlike the Dreamliner’s creators at Boeing, AF was more relaxed about taking photos in the work shop. On two conditions – no pictures of people without their consent (France has strict privacy laws) and no pictures of non-AF aircraft (AF’s maintenance operation is a veritable business in its own right, servicing hundreds of customers, allies and competitors alike).
We shuffled along the walkway in the 777 hangar whilst the head of maintenance facilities explained the various types of on-going work. Facilities for the 787 (and the A380) are housed separately as AF develops its expertise in composites. Next up was the engine test cell, which was equally as impressive.
We witnessed all eight tonnes of a GE90 engine delicately being maneuvered like a shipping container being loaded onto a freighter back to its nacelle housing at the test centre’s network of ceiling railings. Engines are tested rigorously in the sound-proofed, windowless chamber. The chamber contains several HD cameras to enable monitoring at all angles during the process. It is difficult to contemplate several thousand lbs. of thrust going hell for leather in such a confined space. It was truly awe-inspiring.
And that sadly brought the visit and the day to an end. Armed with an enviable AF goodie bag, we headed to another of Air France’s business lounges before a return flight to LHR in an A318. It was almost an anti-climax, but since I had been spoilt rotten by the Dreamliner I could hardly complain. The light meal was a curious mix of sweet and savory delicacies – it was exquisite.
The Air France fleet is historically very diverse and remains so. The addition of the Dreamliner is indeed very welcome and enhances an efficient, pleasurable, and comfortable AF business class product. It was excellent. Obviously I tasted a long-haul service on a short-haul basis and everything went all right on the day. The true test will lie in those longer sectors as the aircraft is bedded in. However, I am optimistic that it will continue to be a success with the Gallic flair and panache that typify the French flag-carrying airline.
NOTE: These flights were paid for by Air France, but all opinions, statements, and silly comments are my own.