Can you have low-cost airfare and elegant service? French Bee definitely wants you to think so.
French Bee is a relatively new low-cost carrier, having begun operations in September of 2016. They’re based at Paris Orly Airport (ORY).
With a current fleet of three Airbus aircraft (one A330-300 and two A350-900s) flying to five destinations, they’re a relatively small player, and they’re France’s first LCC. They also have one A350-1000 on order, currently slated for delivery later this year.
From their ORY hub, they fly to San Francisco, Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, Papeete, Tahiti, and Saint Denis, Reunion, all of which are vacation destinations for French travelers.
French Bee is part of the Dubreuil group, which also owns Air Caraîbes, a somewhat larger airline which primarily serves Caribbean holiday destinations from the same ORY base.
Interestingly, French Bee started out being named French Blue. When the airline applied for a U.S. air carrier permit in November 2017, JetBlue objected to the idea of allowing another airline to operate in the United States that had the word “blue” in its name. That eventually led to a rebrand as French Bee in January 2018.
With a target audience of budget-minded holidaymakers, the airline’s pricing is very competitive; fares typically run less than $700 return between SFO and ORY. An additional $250-ish buys you a premium-class seat (more on that later).
There are 411 seats on a French Bee A359: 35 Premium, 50 Cosy, and 326 in Eco Blue.
I flew with French Bee on their SFO-ORY-SFO route the first week of April, traveling in 10-abreast Smart Economy/Eco Blue on the outbound leg and in their Premium cabin on the return flight.
The airline has three fare classes. First is a basic economy product that includes no checked bags, but allows one 12kg (26 lb.) carry-on bag and one personal item. The Eco Blue Smart Economy product adds a single 50 lb./23kg checked bag and an in-flight meal (which costs an extra $25 if you’re in basic economy).
The Premium fare gets you the Smart Economy service plus a second checked bag, the ability to select your seat at booking, priority check-in, priority boarding, and priority baggage delivery, along with a menu of other options outlined at the above link. It’s a pretty good deal for the price.
In keeping with the LCC a la carte pricing scheme, if you want to be assured of sitting next to a traveling companion, it’ll cost you another $50 for that privilege, regardless of which service level you’ve selected.
SFO-ORY, Seat 12K, Smart Economy, Cosy section, Tail F-HREV
Our flight from SFO to ORY originated in Papeete, so SFO essentially serves as a fuel and crew rest stop along the way, as the route is far too long to cover in one leg.
The airline’s shared check-in counter is located at counter 12, at the far end of SFO’s huge international terminal. I had arrived at SFO quite early via a connection from Seattle, so I figured I’d just check in early when the ticketing counter opened so I could visit the airport’s new observation deck.
When I arrived at the counter, there was already a 10-deep line of apparently like-minded travelers. We were told by an airport official that the check-in counter was scheduled to open at 4:30 p.m. for the 8:35 p.m. flight. Five French Bee gate agents arrived at 5:15 p.m. Once they got to work, check-in proceeded efficiently and I was soon on my way to security.
French Bee doesn’t currently participate in TSA PreCheck, but the regular SFO security line wasn’t long in the mid-afternoon and things moved along pretty efficiently.
Curiously, nearly all of the gate announcements were made only in French, which made things tough for those of us with terrible French language skills. On the plus side, it got my brain working to dust the cobwebs off the memory of long-ago college French classes, and forced me to chat with a couple of other travelers in hopes that their French listening skills were better than mine. As things like this tend to do, it all worked out just fine in the end.
The inbound flight was a bit late, which also pushed back our boarding. But, as was explained very nicely in this recent BBC News story, pretty much all airlines pad their published flight times to allow for such issues. Once we got going, despite leaving 30+ minutes later than our scheduled 8:35 p.m. PDT departure, we eventually landed 20 minutes ahead of the published 4:20 p.m. CET arrival time.
This flight also marked this AvGeek’s first A350 flight, so I was pretty excited to get on board the aircraft. I was pleased to note the large windows, cavernous overhead bins, and the quiet interior even at takeoff, and I didn’t have to hunch over to stand in the lavatory, either.
My seat was 12K in the Cosy section (aka up front away from the engines where it’s quieter) Smart Economy class. I had a large window from which to watch the world go by, plus I got lucky and there was an empty middle seat in our row.
The economy seats are slimline, similar to the type often seen on U.S. domestic airlines. There were no pretenses that 10-abreast (3-4-3) seating wouldn’t be tight. As a non-standard sized traveler (I’m tall, but unlike most people, my height is in my torso rather than my legs), the 32″ seat pitch was fine until the person in front of me reclined their seat, then I was looking at the top of their head. The 16″ seat width would have been more noticeable had I not lucked out and had an empty seat next to me.
The in-flight entertainment system features large seat-back screens, USB power outlets with enough amperage to charge my iPad (which was a pleasant surprise; even some mainline carriers’ first class seats don’t meet that standard), and a large selection of videos and music. The planes are also equipped with external cameras accessible via the IFE system, but it seemed that economy passengers couldn’t access them even though I could see people in the premium section viewing them.
One fun perk on this trip was that their excellent satellite WiFi is free to all flyers until June 10, thanks to a promotional offer celebrating the new ORY-SFO-PPT route. So, I was able to annoy my wife via text and surf the web as much as I wanted.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the WiFi worked well every time I used it, regardless of our location along the route. Once that promo deal expires, though, the regular prices are quite spendy, ranging from US$9 for 10 minutes to US$49 for four hours of connectivity.
The flight attendants were consistently friendly, courteous, polished, and helpful, which set a very pleasant tone for the whole flight.
The meal was as expected for an economy flight – a straightforward affair of chicken teriyaki, white rice, and couscous, along with a roll, brownie, and glass of water. Nothing that’ll change your life, but it’s not designed to.
Once we got settled in to the flight, I was tired enough that I managed to sleep for about four hours; the quiet A350 cabin didn’t hurt.
Breakfast was a la carte, with choices made from a menu. I wasn’t very hungry, so I opted for a cup of Nescaf with powdered creamer, which set me back US$2.50.
Once we landed at Orly and cleared customs, I found my way to Orly’s bag claim area, which had signs showing an estimated bag delivery time of 4:30 p.m. The belt started promptly at 4:31 p.m., but no bags appeared until 4:45 p.m. Six bags popped out, then there was nothing else until 5 p.m. Mine eventually came out after an hour.
I’ve since learned that the glacially-slow bag service is, in fact, a feature of Orly. Fortunately, the airport is currently undergoing an extensive renovation project, which I’m told will include improvements to the baggage handling systems.
While in Paris, I was treated to an in-depth operations tour of Orly Airport with both French Bee and ORY staff, along with some great interview time with two of the airline’s C-suite folks; watch for separate upcoming stories on those topics.
As an aside, I also spent an afternoon in Paris, which included a walk through Notre Dame Cathedral; I feel fortunate to have been able to go inside before the tragic fire on April 15.
Orly Airport Observation Deck
A cool discovery was that ORY has an observation deck. It’s free, and you don’t need to be a ticketed passenger to visit. It’s on the fourth floor, easily accessible from the check-in area via stairs or elevator located not far from the French Bee help desk.
There isn’t much signage pointing to the glassed-in deck, but it’s definitely worth seeking out as it provides great views of the airfield.
ORY-SFO, Seat 5K, Premium Class, Tail F-HREU
Soon, it was time to make my way back home. Priority check-in is included with a Premium Class ticket. It was great. It’s somewhat similar to TSA Precheck. You can leave your shoes on, but electronics and 3-1-1 liquids still need to come out of your bags at security. The whole security and customs process took just a few minutes via dedicated lines.
At ORY, French Bee has automated much of its check-in process, even beyond the standard kiosk-based procedures we’re used to in the States. For example, you can weigh and drop your own bags at the counter once you’ve tagged them, ostensibly saving more time.
iCare Lounge access is included – it’s a shared facility, but it was comfortable enough, with plenty of seating and the expected food selections, such as cheese and baguettes, plenty of wine and booze options, and a pleasing variety of nonalcoholic beverages.
On the down side, there was a distinct lack of power outlets in the lounge (as in, I couldn’t find any without having to unplug light fixtures), and the windows featured an excellent view of the terminal’s rooftop HVAC equipment.
Once at the gate, it was deja-vu all over again: we would depart late because the inbound flight was late. Flight time was announced to be 10 hours, 25 minutes.
This time I was in Premium class (a 2-3-2 layout), in seat 5K – the first row – so it was a bulkhead seat with tons of legroom; it was quite a contrast with the first flight. Even better, there was no one seated next to me, so I had my own row.
With such tight seating in the back, the change to large business class seats was nothing short of astonishing. French Bee’s Premium cabin is a comfortable and relaxing environment. It’s not a full-on first class experience, but budget-conscious business travelers should be pleased, especially considering the relatively modest fare differences.
Once we’d gotten established at cruising altitude, dinner appeared. It consisted of a coconut chicken curry, smoked salmon pat, bread, brie, and a few seeded grapes, with chocolate mousse and the world’s tiniest stroopwaffel for dessert. The presentation is pure cafeteria, but the meal was quite good.
The flight crew was every bit as awesome as on the first flight consistently friendly, cheerful, and professional.
We were given amenity kits, which I wasn’t expecting on an LCC. They’re basic, but appropriate to the flight – socks, an eye mask, and a dental kit in a blue fabric pouch. On the outbound leg in Smart Economy, we were provided with socks and an eye mask in a clear plastic bag; that was also a service perk I wasn’t expecting.
The westbound flight to SFO was mostly in daylight, so it was trickier to sleep, even with the window shades drawn. I opted to mostly watch the tail camera feed and read; it made for a comfortable and pleasant journey.
Once at SFO, I was the second person off the plane, and there was no line at the Global Entry kiosks, likely because we landed a bit late and missed a big wave of international arrivals.
This part was a new record for me: it took a mere five minutes to get from the plane, through customs, and to the bag claim area.
Then reality arrived. I got to cool my heels for 45 minutes waiting for my bag. It seems that, for some unknown reason, nearly all of the bags with priority tags were brought to the oversized area at the other end of the bag-claim area.
I had asked a gate agent for help, because by then the carousel had stopped and my bag was nowhere to be seen. We literally chanced across the bags while walking past the oversize-bag area on our way to the help desk. This was also an airport-side issue, but that didn’t make it any less frustrating.
Despite the airport bag-delivery issues, the overall experience was very good. It’s an LCC, and you get what you pay for (or opt not to pay for), but with very polished service regardless of cabin class.
Would I fly them again? Absolutely. Especially as the upgrade to premium is relatively affordable and worth the additional money on such a long flight. Even if you’re sticking with economy to save money for those amazing Parisian patisseries, the onboard service and new aircraft combine to warrant a solid recommendation.
Disclosure: French Bee invited AirlineReporter on board at its expense for the round-trip flights and Paris accommodations; our opinions remain our own.