Flight review: Air France A350 business class across the Atlantic
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Air France announced last week the immediate retirement of its Airbus A380s, which in the U.S. served New York, Atlanta, Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco. On these routes — some of which are currently suspended due to the pandemic — Air France will now employ smaller aircraft, including the Boeing 777 and 787 and the Airbus A350. The A350 in particular features the airline’s latest business-class product, which we reviewed here and found much superior to the A380’s.
During the COVID-19 crisis, our team has temporarily ceased taking review trips. However, we have resumed the publication of new flight, hotel and lounge reviews, from trips taken before the lockdown. To help keep you entertained — and maybe inspire you to travel, when that will be possible — we are also republishing a selection of our most popular reviews, including the one below, which was originally published in March of this year. It has been lightly edited from the original.
Air France and I are old friends. I’ve flown on the airline numerous times in the last few years between the U.S. and Europe, on a few different aircraft, including the Boeing 787, Boeing 777 and Airbus A380, both in economy and business class, though not in premium economy nor in the spectacular La Premiere. (The latter won our 2019 TPG award for best long-haul first class; premium economy underwhelmed us.)
I’ve generally had positive experiences with the airline, except on the A380, which has now been retired — it’s too large of an aeroplane for demand post-pandemic, and it has an older onboard product. My main gripes centre on the connecting experience at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.
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Air France currently has four A350-900s — the smaller of the two A350 variants — and 34 more on order. It will become a mainstay of the airline’s long-haul network. The A350 has quickly become one of my favourite aircraft thanks to its whisper-quiet, spacious cabin. In North America, it began serving Toronto before the pandemic, and can now be found occasionally on the flights Air France operates to New York to maintain essential connectivity. Air France’s A350s do not have first class, but their business product is entirely new. Do note however that during the pandemic the onboard and ground experiences will be very different from what was available before the crisis.
As I’ve found many times before, the trick to finding (relatively) great business-class fares on SkyTeam alliance carriers and many other airlines is to originate in Europe. They’re often significantly cheaper than tickets that begin in the U.S. Sure enough, we found an Air France itinerary from Lisbon, Portugal, to Toronto via Paris CDG and then from New York JFK back to Lisbon via Paris for just a hair over $2,300 (about £1,780) for all segments. Plus, I was able to earn SkyMiles and elite-qualifying miles and spending with Delta, helping me tremendously in my quest to requalify for Diamond Medallion status this year.
If you want to use miles to book similar flights, Air France’s frequent-flyer programme, Flying Blue, is probably the best engine for searching SkyTeam availability and a great place to start your search. However, Flying Blue doesn’t maintain an award chart, meaning you can’t count on redeeming miles at a fixed rate for flights. I did a search on the site for some nonstop flights between Paris CDG and various North American destinations including Toronto, JFK and Boston and found tickets for as little as 57,500 miles each way, with taxes and fees of around $350.
If you have plenty of time to connect through the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, you can have a very pleasant experience, especially if you make a point of visiting one of the newer Air France lounges. If you’re in a hurry, you’ll likely find yourself sprinting through the airport’s maze of corridors to make your flight.
I’ve had both experiences; this time I had a five-hour layover. This meant I could take my time navigating the maze and, more important, spend some quality time in the lounge before my transatlantic hop.
My flight from Lisbon arrived at Terminal 2F and from there I made my way to the L gates at Terminal 2E. That’s the home of my favourite business-class lounge at CDG, in Terminal 2E close to the L gates, exactly where I needed to be. (Air France warns that its lounges are now closed due to the virus, except for New York and Chicago.)
This newly refreshed space is large, open, airy and beautifully appointed.
The focal point of the lounge is a space called Le Balcon: a self-serve bar surrounded by striking navy velvet booths housed in a luxurious light-wood frame and topped by an ornate, shimmering, golden ceiling installation. It’s a proper setting for enjoying a beverage before a long flight, and it feels authentically French.
The rest of the lounge isn’t quite as stylish as the centre bar, but still beautiful.
Besides the main room, there are many nooks for relaxing, working and dining, with seating spread throughout the space.
There are several different stations set up with hot and cold food options. There was a wide variety, and everything I tried was tasty.
One of my favourite parts of this space is all of the self-serve alcohol stations — the best being the bucket of Champagne located in back of the lounge in the “kitchen.” There is a selection of liquor and wine for the taking as well.
There are also plenty of other amenities in this lounge that make it feel especially premium, like dedicated nap areas, showers, a sauna and, most notably, a Clarins spa. There are several standalone shower rooms that attendants clean after each use.
I did, however, manage to snag a nap room for about an hour while I waited for the 20-minute facial I’d reserved when I first arrived at the lounge.
I didn’t think I would be able to relax, never mind sleep, when I saw the napping chairs, but I actually got in a solid 45-minute nap.
After I woke up, it was time for my preflight pampering. I’m not well-versed when it comes to spa treatments, so I just let the Clarins staff member decide what I needed most. In any case, the facial was relaxing and hydrating — exactly what my skin needed after a whirlwind weekend in Lisbon.
From there, I took another stroll around the lounge to see what I’d missed and stumbled upon a Detox Bar, which was stocked with teas and fruit-infused waters to help passengers prepare for long flights. This lounge clearly was designed with wellness in mind.
The Wi-Fi connection was strong, with download speeds clocking in at 2.09 Mbps and uploads at 26.36 Mbps.
After a solid four hours in the lounge, I made my way to the gate, where boarding was scheduled to begin at 1:20 p.m. The gate area was busy, but most people had a place to sit and there were power ports interspersed between the seats.
The announcement to begin preboarding was made at 1:10 p.m., with general boarding commencing with Zone 1 at exactly 1:20 p.m. Even though the boarding process began on time, we were held in the jetway for about 10 minutes before being allowed on board.
Cabin and Seat
As I mentioned above, Air France’s A350s have different business-class seats than the newest product that the airline has been installing on its fleet of Boeing 777s and 787s as well as its Airbus A330s.
Air France flies the A350-900 model, which it configures with 34 business seats in a 1-2-1 layout. The seats themselves are essentially the Polaris product that United has been installing throughout its long-haul fleet. A number of other airlines use a very similar seat in their business-class cabins, including El Al on the Boeing 787 and TAP Air Portugal on the A330-900neo.
This configuration allows for direct aisle access at each seat, but not all seats are equal in this cabin. Because of the staggered layout some have inherently more privacy than others; especially if you’re travelling alone, it’s something to consider when choosing a seat.
“A” and “L” seats in even rows provide the most privacy for solo travellers, as the seat’s console is located between the seat itself and the aisle. I was lucky to be able to snag 4L.
If none of those seats are available, “C” and “J” seats are solo on either side of the cabin, though they’re not “protected” from the aisle.
And if you can’t get a solo seat, “D” and “H” seats in odd rows will be the best option. Even though they’re located together in the middle of the cabin, there’s a good amount of separation between you and your neighbour.
Finally, if you’re travelling with a companion, select “E” and “F” seats in even rows — their arrangement is conducive to inflight conversation.
Each seat measures 21 inches wide and reclines fully flat to form a bed that’s 78 inches long, which is about 6 feet 6 inches — plenty of room for my 5-foot-10-inch frame. I’m sure I would have slept just fine in this seat, though I wasn’t necessarily trying to sleep a lot on this daytime flight.
Since I had one of the seats protected from the aisle, it felt very private, but there’s also an extendable partition that provides even more shelter from the goings-on in the cabin.
The footwell wasn’t particularly capacious for the large and clunky boots I had on, but once I took them off, it felt a little roomier. Still, the footwell is definitely something you’ll have to contend with on this aircraft.
The seat has plenty of storage, with an adjacent counter perfect for stowing a laptop, as well as a small cupboard where I kept my wallet, passport and AirPods.
AC and USB power is provided at each seat.
The tray table extends from under the IFE screen, and swivels so that you can get in and out of the seat more easily, even with a meal in front of you.
One feature that threw me for a loop (in the best way) is the automatic blinds on the windows. It’s a classy touch that certainly appeals to the AvGeek in me. I’m surprised I wasn’t asked to stop playing with the shades.
All in all, I was impressed with the business-class cabin on the A350. Even though these aircraft were originally destined for Air France’s now-defunct subsidiary Joon and therefore have a different design language than the rest of AF’s business-class cabins, I liked it. The predominantly grey, navy and white colours work together well to create an air of relaxed luxury.
Amenities and IFE
Waiting for me at my seat were a pair of slippers, pillow, duvet and the signature coat hanger.
Air France seemingly doesn’t leave amenity kits on each seat before the flight is boarded; flight attendants pass through the cabin after boarding to hand them out.
The kits were distributed a few minutes after I’d settled into my seat, and they came in a grey-suede, airline-branded pouch. I’m a little surprised Air France doesn’t have a partnership with one of the many French luxury brands to supply its kits — these are by no means subpar, but it’d add yet more French flair to the whole experience.
Inside the kit were essentials like toothpaste, toothbrush, eye mask, earplugs and moisturizers. There were extras I appreciated, too, like the shoehorn and microfiber cloth.
The inflight entertainment was impressive. The screen is large, crisp and easy to use. It was a joy to navigate the interface as if I were using my iPhone.
There were multiple camera views available, including an underbody one that was fun to look at both on the ground and in the air.
There were plenty of new movies to choose from, as well as many individual shows and series. You shouldn’t be bored on Air France’s A350.
Wi-Fi was a low point. I was looking forward to staying connected on this flight since it was a Monday afternoon and I had work to get done.
Air France charged 8 euros for one hour or 18 euros for a full flight of its lower-capacity connection. It was 30 euros for a full flight of its highest-capacity connection. I chose the full-flight “Surf” option for 18 euros. However, it took more than half the flight to get any connection beyond the free messaging option, which didn’t work all too well either. Once I was able to get some sort of connection, it was painfully slow, but I eventually got a few things done.
Throughout the flight, I checked in on the moving map, which offered plenty of views for any AvGeek’s viewing pleasure.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
Menus for the flight were distributed just after the amenity kits, followed by a predeparture beverage of either water, orange juice or Champagne — I took a glass of the bubbly.
Meal service got underway about 45 minutes after takeoff.
First up was a round of drinks (a glass of chardonnay and a sparkling water) along with an amuse-bouche of bergamot orange panna cotta with shrimp as well as a package of cashews and dried cranberries.
As you would expect, Air France offered a very France-forward wine selection, highlighted by the Laurent-Perrier brut Champagne it serves business-class passengers.
For the appetizer course, everyone received smoked salmon with a tarragon yoghurt and grilled vegetables. I’m not the biggest fan of smoked salmon but I loved the veggies and yoghurt.
There were four choices for the main course: lamb confit with olives, lemon and couscous with pistachio and bell peppers; guinea fowl in a sangria sauce with parsnip puree and pear confit with vanilla; pollock in a cilantro butter with ginger biscayne sauce, and orzo pasta with piquillo cream and Espelette chilli pepper.
I probably should have tried the lamb or the pollock, but I had just come from a weekend of eating a lot of meat and even more salt cod in Portugal, so I was looking for a change of pace. Hence, I ordered the orzo, but I was underwhelmed. There wasn’t a lot of flavour and I found myself wanting a snack not long after the meal was finished.
I skipped the cheese course, thinking I might ask for a cheese plate a little later into the flight, and went right for dessert. On the menu, there was one dessert listed, an “exotic amuse-bouche,” tarte tatin with Valrhona chestnut chocolate ganache. Under that was a post-dessert option of sorbets and fresh fruit.
I was in the mood for something refreshing, so I asked if I could just have some sorbet. The FA asked if I’d like strawberry, chocolate or vanilla, to which I replied, “Can I have all of them?” She chuckled and said she’d be happy to bring me all three flavours. I’m glad I asked, too, because they weren’t very big. But they were a highlight in an otherwise slightly disappointing meal.
Around 90 minutes before touching down, the cabin lights were turned back on so the crew could serve the second meal, which was considered a “light snack” on this flight. There was only one option: a savoury vegetable cake served with quinoa and citrus salad. That meal was accompanied by plain yoghurt and dessert: an apricot, almond and hazelnut cake and a citrus Madeleine sponge cake.
Once again, I wasn’t thrilled with the main course, but the desserts were impressive for the second time around.
I typically look forward to eating on Air France flights (especially in premium cabins), but I definitely wasn’t blown away on this flight. Maybe I was having an off day, but nothing I ate — besides the desserts — was particularly memorable or satisfying.
The crew on this flight was great. I was taken care of from start to finish. Several of the crew members were clearly excited to be on board the still-new A350, so we shared that bond.
In past flights, I’ve found that Air France crews can sometimes be impersonally professional, but on this flight, the FAs were relaxed and conversational. Meals were paced well, and my two presses of the call button were answered quickly.
With the retirement of the A380, Air France is still left with three different business-class seats on its long-haul fleet. Luckily, the one it chose to install on its A350s is at least on the same level as the best product found in its 777s and 787s.
I wasn’t wowed by the food, but I had a great flight, mostly thanks to this modern and comfortable hard product — which contributed significantly to our score of 81/100, higher than the 79/100 average for long-haul business class.
As the airline takes delivery of more A350s over the next couple of years, I hope it will send more of them to North America — and the U.S. specifically — so American flyers can experience the latest that France’s flag carrier has to offer without first going to Canada.
All photos by the author.
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