Nothing premium here: Review of Air France premium economy on the A380
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Premium economy promises to bring some civility back to air travel. While we all dream of flying business or first class across oceans, a true premium-economy class experience is the affordable gateway for most.
Unfortunately, that’s not what I got on Air France’s A380.
Many friends ask me if it is worth upgrading their seats to premium economy. The answer is that it really depends on the airline. China Airlines, Lufthansa and Japan Airlines, for example, all have premium-economy cabins that really do offer an upscale experience at an obtainable price.
But I was flying Air France.
My trip from New York (JFK) to Paris (CDG) was uncomfortable, the food was uninspired and the service, while pleasant, wasn’t special. Basically, there wasn’t anything premium about this trip.
For this trip, I was flying to Cape Town, South Africa to be part of TPG’s efforts supporting PeaceJam. My one-way ticket in Premium Economy cost 102,000 Flying Blue points plus $268.65 (about £207) in taxes and fees. (I needed a one-way ticket since I was flying business class back on another carrier for a separate review.) At our valuations, 102,000 Flying Blue points are worth £1,020. As a point of comparison, my co-worker had purchased a round-trip ticket in the same cabin for $2,324.83 (about £1,790).
Prices can vary widely. Doing some random searches for this winter, I found a $450 (about £347) fare difference — each way — between the cheapest, restricted coach fare and premium economy between New York and Paris. On other dates that gap fell to around £300. The little more legroom that you get in a very uncomfortable seat isn’t worth the extra cash. The only reasons to book it would be to get more elite-qualifying miles or to be eligible for a cheap upgrade to business class.
At online check-in, I was offered a $461.23 (about £355) upsell to business class for the New York-Paris leg. Had I not been reviewing this flight, I probably would have paid for it to sleep across the Atlantic.
When TPG’s Brendan Dorsey flew Air France’s premium economy last year, he also got an upgrade offer: move to business class for $422 (about £325).
Air France flies out of JFK’s Terminal 1.
My premium economy ticket granted me Sky Priority access, which I would also have had as Delta elite status holder. With two people working the Sky Priority counter at check-in — there were no self-service kiosks — I had my boarding pass in less than a minute. I could also have checked in online.
But the TSA security checkpoint at JFK’s Terminal 1 is one of the most painful parts of flying, anywhere. It’s a chaotic maze, with TSA agents constantly yelling at passengers who may not understand English; airlines at this terminal include carriers from all over the world.
There’s nothing calm about it. I wished I had spent $35 for a VIPOne pass through security.
However, my Sky Priority access got me into the first- and business-class lane, shaving at least 20 minutes off the wait.
There was a giant sign and arrow for PreCheck, but that aisle wasn’t open. Explosive-sniffing dogs were out, and everybody got PreCheck — except laptops and tablets still had to come out of bags.
My ticket didn’t entitle me to any lounge access, but my Delta elite status did let me enter Air France’s lounge at T1. (We have not factored the lounge into the score.) Early in the morning or late at night, the AF lounge is also open to Priority Pass members, which is how I was able to hang out there last June before my Cayman Airways flight.
There is slightly better food out during the hours dedicated solely to Air France customers. There was no wait for a shower (which would have failed the TPG shower test).
My only complaint about this lounge is that the tables aren’t near power outlets, and the few chairs with outlets have limited counter space nearby.
While seating at the gate was sufficient, there also weren’t enough power outlets there.
The boarding process was as organized as it could be for a plane carrying 516 passengers. The space at JFK was cramped, but the staff did a good job calling out boarding groups and keeping everything orderly.
Cabin and Seat
I was excited to board the massive Airbus A380 — this was the first one delivered to Air France, in 2009 — and take the jet bridge right up to the upper deck. Premium Economy takes up six rows near the back of the top deck. Once in the private mini-cabin dedicated to Premium Economy, I was impressed with the stylish seats and the way the white headrests, navy seats and red pillows looked together.
Then I sat down. I nearly cried — and not because there wasn’t a pre-departure beverage service.
On paper, the seat statistics are good. Each one is 19 inches wide and has 38 inches of pitch — that’s 1.5 inches wider than in economy and with six more inches for your legs. The seats are laid out in a tolerable 2-3-2 configuration, compared to 2-4-2 in the rows of regular economy behind us. (Most economy seats are on the lower deck.)
But the seat was one of the most uncomfortable chairs I’ve ever had, on an airplane or anywhere else. It was especially bad in a “premium” section.
I’ve tried to purge the experience from my mind. Here’s what I do remember: there was fabric but no noticeable padding. (I actually regretted throwing out my newspaper in the lounge; adding that to my seat would have doubled the padding.)
There was no change in recline; the seat just slid forward in its shell. While that’s good for not having another seat’s back recline into your space, it’s bad otherwise. It just makes you slouch. Despite the leg rest, foot rest and adjustable head rest, getting comfortable enough to sleep was out of the question.
On a long-haul flight, if you can’t get the seat right, I don’t care about anything else. And Air France failed me here.
There was a large tray table that folded out, an international power outlet and USB outlet, and a nice spot to hold water bottles, which the airline provided. That water bottle holder was actually the best design element.
Without a dedicated bathroom for premium economy, the mini-cabin shared two bathrooms with the economy section behind it, separated by a hard divider. As many as 68 people — 38 in premium economy plus the 30 coach seats — shared those two bathrooms.
As on all A380s, the cabin was extremely quiet, and having a private mini-cabin was nice. But other airlines have that too.
I would do everything in my power to book away from this jet in the future. The seat was that bad.
Amenities and IFE
Air France provided a big enough pillow and nice blanket. But neither made up for the horrible seat.
Air France A380s also have no Wi-Fi. While that can be liberating in some ways, it is unacceptable for today’s long-haul traveler.
Headphones were provided, but I ended up using my own noise-canceling ones instead.
The TV screen and movie offerings would have been revolutionary a decade ago. Today, they seemed dated, and the screen resolution was especially poor.
It was nice, though, to have the tail camera view.
I ended up connecting onto an Airbus A340 once flown by Air France’s failed discount airline, Joon. The TVs on that were much bigger and easier to use compared to those on the A380. (Air France is retiring its A380s, in fact, in just a couple of years.)
The amenity kit had stylish colors but lacked anything I needed.
The moist towels that were handed out were pre-packaged; there was nothing warm in this cabin.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
There was nothing premium about the food, either. It was a coach meal with an upgraded appetizer “inspired by the Business cabin menu,” according to the airline.
Air France does offer the option to purchase a premium meal in advance. I did that on my second leg, choosing the traditional French meal for an extra $20. It was better than anything I’ve had in coach before, but for that price, I should have just purchased a cold meal in the terminal and brought it on board.
The free meal I got on the first Premium Economy leg was passable.
I was not expecting Kristal or Krug. Instead, the airline offered Heidsieck & CO Monopole Silver Top Champagne. While that wasn’t a bad pick, I went with some sauvignon blanc. The wine bottle was plastic, but at least the glass it was poured into was real.
The chicken and pasta — even though it was doused in sauce — was still dry. So was the bread, which had me missing the pretzel rolls I’ve had on other airlines. During the breakfast, the muffin was also dry.
The only thing I can say about the food was it was better quality than the seat.
Not bad, not great. But it couldn't make you forget the bad seat.
The flight attendants were friendly but not memorable. Maybe I was too distracted by the painful seat (see a pattern?).
The crew spoke Spanish, German, Portuguese, French and English, all of which was mentioned during a lengthy announcement as we pushed back from the gate.
Drink and meal service started 25 minutes after takeoff. Ten minutes later, the flight attendants made it to my row. The service was quick, but with just five and a half hours until arrival, there would not be much time to sleep. On eastbound flights across the Atlantic I normally eat in the lounge and then try to sleep immediately after takeoff. But, in the spirit of a good review, I stayed awake to report back on dinner.
My wine glass was refilled twice. That’s honestly more than I can say about some U.S. domestic first-class flights. But an hour and 20 minutes before landing, the crew turned on the lights and started breakfast service. That’s just unacceptable for a redeye flight where passengers are trying to squeeze in every last bit of sleep they can.
I paid for Premium Economy and got a coach experience with a few extras.
What was really shocking to me was that on my connecting flight on a former Joon aircraft, the seat and cabin were much better and it felt more like a premium experience. A flight attendant on that second plane to Cape Town later asked me if I had gotten any rest on the 12-hour flight. I said I’d gotten much more than from New York. Once she heard I had flown that leg on the A380, she actually apologized.
This is why you need to do some research — or let us at The Points Guy do it for you — before you fly. Aircraft within the same airline will often have drastically different seats. And while we love the A380, the premium economy seat on Air France’s version of the aircraft is just not that good.
Featured photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy; all other photos by the author.
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