Air France First Class Cabin Awards To Open To Non-Elites

Apr 29, 2013

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Flying Blue, the frequent flyer program of Air France, KLM and Air Europa, recently posted some major changes to the program which will come into effect in June including some big mileage redemption requirement increases for premium economy, business and first class on Air France.

One of Air France's international First Class seats.
One of Air France’s international First Class seats.

However, one of the other facts that was recently clarified about what amounts to a major devaluation is the fact that it looks like starting in June, First Class awards on Air France will be available to non-elite members of Flying Blue for the first time.

In the past, First Class awards could only be booked by Flying Blue members with elite status and Air France blocked all other SkyTeam partners from booking them, but that should all be changing soon. According to the announcement site, “From June 2013, Elite Awards on Air France flights will no longer exist” and the airline has published an award chart (see below) with mileage requirements listed for First Class Classic Awards, all of which would seem to suggest that non-elites will now be able to book classic First Class awards on the airline.

I’ve flown Air France business class in the past, and found it to be decent but not remarkable – the seats are angled lie-flats, though the airline plans to update its fleet with Cathay-style business class seats starting with its A380’s and 777’s.

One bright spot in the Flying Blue devaluation might be the opportunity to book First Class awards on Air France.
One bright spot in the Flying Blue devaluation might be the opportunity to book First Class awards on Air France.

Every time I’ve walked past the airline’s First Class cabin, though, I’ve secretly harbored a desire to experience it. The product is wide leather armchair-style seats that extends into a fully lie-flat bed with a footrest/ottoman that. I wouldn’t put it in the same league as some other first class products, such as Cathay Pacific’s which is much more updated and in a 1 x 1 x 1 configuration instead of 1 x 2 x 1 like Air France, or as nice as Lufthansa’s newest first class, but I would still like to try it out.

However, I’m not in any hurry to. That’s because of a few drawbacks that exist, not least of which is the fact that both the new mileage requirements and Air France’s ticket surcharges are sky high, so you’ll still end up paying a lot in terms of both miles and money.

Air France's seats aren't as nice as Lufthansa's but I'd still like to try them out.
Air France’s seats aren’t as nice as Lufthansa’s but I’d still like to try them out.

For instance, a First Class ticket between North America and Europe will require 162,500 miles. Each way! Plus 185 euros ($235) at least in ticket surcharges.

Also, while business class availability on Air France is usually very good – barring recent technical difficulties redeeming Delta SkyMiles for it – First Class has been blocked to all other SkyTeam partners, including Delta. If you have Delta SkyMiles, I wouldn’t hold my breath that you’ll be able to use them to book this service anyway since Delta blocks first class international awards.

Flying Blue's new award chart will charge some exorbitant numbers of miles for certain awards.
Flying Blue’s new award chart will charge some exorbitant numbers of miles for certain awards.

The good news, though, is that if you have American Express Membership Rewards points, you can transfer them to Flying Blue at a 1:1 ratio, and you might even be able to use other partners’ miles such as Korean Air (a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards). Whereas Air France would charge you a shocking 260,000 miles to fly First Class each way from South Korea to Europe, Korean Air will only charge you 160,000 miles roundtrip for a first class, so you could potentially save 360,000 miles total!

Not only that, but if you use Korean Air miles, you can get a roundtrip award ticket in first class for 100,000 miles according to the airline’s award chart.

Screen shot 2013-04-29 at 9.37.50 PMWe don’t yet know if you’ll be able to book the new First Class award seats with partner miles, but if  so, this could be a potentially huge value proposition!

However, Alitalia (another Amex transfer partner) only lists economy and business class redemptions on Air France, so it looks like you might not be able to use your MilleMiglia miles to book First Class.

It will also remain to be seen how bookable these seats will be and what kind of availability there is – whether Air France will release award seats in advance or at the last minute like more and more carriers are doing these days.

This redemption isn’t going to be for everyone at such high levels, but if you have a ton of Amex points and want to fly across the Atlantic in style, this is just one more option to have, especially as the number of first class seats on international flights has decreased dramatically over the years, especially those bookable with miles. For example, Lufthansa has phased out first class altogether on some flights while Swiss makes it nearly impossible to book first class awards, though you do have some British Airways and American Airlines flights with first class available – though many flight through London, meaning high fuel surcharges and taxes on these as well.

Despite the high mileage and surcharge prices, I think this is a net positive since it gives flyers an additional option and Air France First Class comes with some good perks like access to the La Premiere lounge at Charles de Gaulle and new onboard Biologique Recherche products in the First Class amenity kit, not to mention food and wine that’s generally better than what you’ll find in business.

Flying Blue awards are also bookable one-way, so it’s another good option to have if you need flexibility in your award, and even with the high surcharges, booking it with miles (a lot of miles) is still better than having to pay for First Class outright.

Because of the rule barring non-elites from booking First Class awards in the past, you won’t find many bloggers who have written about the experience, but if you want to check it out, here’s a review of a flight from CDG-LAX from a few years ago on FlyerTalk.

Again, there are still a lot of details that haven’t been released yet, but I’ll keep reporting on this story as it develops.

Have any of you flown Air France First Class? How was the experience? Would you redeem miles for it?

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