(Very) Poor Man’s Business Class: Economy on French Bee’s A350 From Tahiti to San Francisco
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There are only two airlines in the world that operate an Airbus A350 with 10-abreast seating. Both of them are low-cost airlines based in France, and one of those airlines offers cheap flights between the US and Tahiti. So when I needed a cheap, one-way back from Tahiti, my curiosity — with maybe a tad of masochism — was too much to pass up the opportunity to check it out.
I booked a one-way AAdvantage award to get myself to Tahiti, and then needed a cheap one-way to get back to the US. Thankfully, United and French Bee were in the midst of a price war between San Francisco (SFO) and Papeete, Tahiti (PPT). One-way flights on French Bee cost as little as $200 (£159) one-way on this route.
However, I needed to go farther than just San Francisco. I checked around to price the trip from Tahiti to the East Coast. The cheapest one-way ticket from Tahiti to Atlanta (ATL) was over $1,000 (£793) one-way. Wary of both the operational performance of low-cost carriers and the high lodging costs in the Bay Area, I didn’t want to risk booking two different tickets.
Thankfully, I found another option: Kiwi.com. While I’ll discuss the service in more detail in a separate post, I was able to book two one-way flights (PPT to SFO and SFO to ATL) through Kiwi for $473 (£375) total — including insurance that would rebook me for free if the French Bee flight arrived too late to make the United flight.
Kiwi noted in my reservation that it didn’t include a checked bag, so I assumed I was booked into the cheapest, Basic fare. But based on the perks I received, it’s clear that I got the Smart fare instead:
Considering that a checked bag alone costs $45 (£36) online at least 48 hours before departure — or a punitive $95 (£75) at the airport — it’s probably worth it for most passengers to buy up to the Smart fare. In addition to the included bag, the Smart fare includes a meal and a comfort kit.
In order to get on board early for photos of the empty cabin, I tried to add Priority Boarding for $16.79 (£13).
But I got an error message each time I tried to add this to my reservation.
French Bee’s upsell game is strong, with a number of perquisite packs available, such as:
- Comfort Pack: upgrade to premium economy and airport lounge access for $277 or 41,770 CFP francs (£306)
- Serenity Pack: line jumping, priority boarding and airport lounge for $55 or 5,370 CFP francs (£39)
- Express Pack: dedicated check-in, line jumping and priority boarding for $40 or 4,177 CFP francs (£31)
- Duo Pack: duo seats (rows with only two seats), two glasses of Champagne and petits fours for $62 or 5,967 CFP francs (£44)
The French Bee website listed numerous seating types, each with its own cost:
- Standard seat: middle and aisle seats in the rear cabins for $20 (£16)
- Seat sea view: window seats costing a little more at $25 (£20)
- Maxi leg seat: exit-row seats and seats with extra legroom cost $45 (£36)
- Duo seat: rows with only two seats in them cost $50 (£40). The only ones of these I saw were in the emergency-exit rows.
- Cozy cabin seat: the first five rows of the economy cabin ahead of the boarding door. While the pitch is the same in these rows, French Bee charges $35 (£28) each for seats in this cabin.
I passed on paying to choose a seat and found it interesting that I was assigned a window seat for free during online check-in. If I wanted to move to another window seat, it’d still cost $25 (£20). Most other seats still cost $20 (£16).
At check-in, there weren’t many seats that I could choose for free, but there were a few random aisle seats available for free — including 19H, 21C, 39C, 39H, 40C and 40H.
I snagged 39C, hoping that French Bee would board back to front. Plus, I figured I had an outside chance of getting my own three-seat row. Both of those gambles paid off.
With the check-in counter supposedly closing at 5:30am, I got to the airport at 4:45am for the 7am flight. Since I had checked in online, I was able to use the web check-in line. This helped me skip a long-looking standard economy check-in line and walk right up to a security agent doing US inbound security checks. After getting a quick once-over by the agent, I was waved through to the desk.
From entering the line, it took just five minutes to check my bag and get my boarding pass — but that’s only because I asked a lot of questions. The web check-in line had grown when I checked back after returning my rental car, but it was still shorter than the general line.
After being unsuccessful in purchasing priority boarding during online check-in, I inquired about it during counter check-in. The agent checked his price list and then with a supervisor before telling me that priority boarding isn’t available from Papeete. I found this rather peculiar, as priority boarding was a component of multiple add-on packs.
I also asked about the cost for upgrading to premium economy. The check-in agent referred to a pricing chart and quoted me $240 for the walk-up upgrade. While I needed to review the economy cabin, between the cheap $252 fare and $240 buy-up, I could have scored a one-way premium economy flight for under $500 one-way. That’s less than the already reasonable $665 one-way that TPG‘s Zach Honig paid for his French Bee premium economy review flight.
Note that the Papeete rental-car center doesn’t open until 5am. So if you rented a car — hopefully using AutoSlash to make the price cheaper than a round-trip taxi — you’ll probably want to check in with French Bee first before returning your car to ensure you make the 5:30am check-in-counter cutoff. Just make sure to line up at the entrance to the rental-car desks early, as the passengers on early-arriving and early-departing flights will likely be lined up.
Exit immigration and security were a breeze, taking less than 10 minutes combined. Security procedures were similar to non-TSA PreCheck US security but only with a metal detector: shoes off, electronics out, no large liquids and nothing in your pockets.
There was not much airside to keep you busy before boarding. The duty-free shop and one open cafe saw a decent amount of traffic while passengers waited the gap between the check-in counter closing and boarding — which was scheduled one hour and 10 minutes before departure.
There was one Priority Pass lounge in Papeete, an Air Tahiti Nui lounge. However, the lounge door was closed and locked, and no one answered the doorbell when I checked around 5:30am. The Priority Pass app notes that the “lounge opens 150 minutes prior to the first flight scheduled departure. Scheduled flight times exclude Hawaiian and LAN Airlines.” Between this and the fact that French Bee sells lounge access, the lounge should’ve been open.
Boarding was scheduled to begin at 5:50am, but preboarding didn’t start until 6:03am. Preboards — which included families with small children — were held at the bottom of the walkway until 6:10am before they were able to continue out to the plane.
The 13 premium economy passengers were called to board at 6:11am. Economy began boarding with rows 37 to 51 at 6:16am — just 14 minutes before the boarding gate was supposed to close.
A fun fact that I didn’t find out until after the flight: the A350 that operated this flight was the fifth aircraft to ever roll off of the A350 production line. The first four A350s have been retained by Airbus, meaning this is the oldest A350 in use by an airline.
French Bee used two staircases to board the plane, and there was no direction to boarding passengers about which to use. Boarding completed and doors closed 13 minutes to departure. The flight took off at 7:03am, just three minutes after scheduled departure. Passengers in window seats (on the A-seat side) were treated to a wonderful view of Mo’orea at dawn.
Cabin and Seat
Most Airbus A350 aircraft are configured with 3-3-3 seating — three sections of three seats each — in economy. However, French Bee and its sister airline Air Caraïbes stand alone among the dozens of airlines operating the A350 in opting for a cramped 3-4-3 configuration. This arrangement reduces seats to 16.75 inches wide — leaving just 16 inches between armrests. Aisles measure a tight 16 inches wide.
Between the extra seat per row and no business- or first-class cabin, French Bee A350 aircraft are fitted with a whopping 411 seats. Airbus advertises the A350-900 as accommodating 325 passengers.
French Bee incorrectly advertises its economy cabin on its website. It claims to have nine seats abreast in 3-3-3 seating instead of the actual 3-4-3 arrangement. And there are 376 economy seats instead of the 350 seats it claims.
However, the rest of the information on this page generally checks out. Each row that I checked measured 32 inches of pitch — which felt almost spacious when compared to the 30 to 31 inches that’s becoming standard in economy.
If you want a little more space, you’ll want to target rows 48 to 51. The curvature of the plane narrows the cabin, so French Bee installed 3-3-3 seating. While most of the extra space is added to the aisle, the seats are ever-so-slightly wider in these back seats.
Just note that there’s no overhead bin in the middle section of rows 47 to 51, due to the crew rest overhead.
The tight seats weren’t a problem on my flight, thanks to there being more than 130 empty seats (234 passengers versus 376 seats). My choice of a seat in the back cabin paid off. While the forward cabin was fairly full, the rear cabin was much less full. Many couples got a four-seat row to share in the middle seats, and many single travelers got an entire three-seat row to themselves.
With both middle armrests up, my poor-man’s-business-class seat measured a full 52.5 inches wide. That’s wider than even a Cathay Pacific first-class seat — but it didn’t make for a very long bed.
The seat’s tray table measured 14 inches wide and 8.5 inches deep on the sides with a curve in the middle that reduced the depth to as little as 7.5 inches. The tray table slid back by up to 3 inches.
Passengers taking a red-eye will appreciate that seats reclined a solid 6 inches. Unfortunately, this made working on a laptop difficult and reduced passengers’ already cramped space even more.
While I might not have been able to work on my laptop with the seat in front reclined, the inflight entertainment screen tilted enough to counter the recline.
The seat’s headrest had wings that folded in from the sides and shifted upward by more than 3 inches.
The massive, 376-seat economy cabin had eight bathrooms — meaning one lavatory needed to serve up to 47 passengers. There were two in the boarding-door galley (one was inoperative on my flight), four in the middle galley and two in the rear galley (one was inoperative). That means we had six of the eight bathrooms available this flight, but the light load led to short lines.
Amenities and IFE
Each seat was equipped with a sharp, 10-inch inflight entertainment screen with a modest selection of movies and TV shows.
In total, the system was stocked with 32 movies and a total of 18 TV episodes from seven series. However, don’t plan on catching the latest and greatest that Hollywood has to offer, as the movies were mostly older selections. That actually worked in my favor, as I’d only seen two of the 32 (“Home Alone” and “Titanic”). So I had plenty to choose from.
The TV shows weren’t particularly well-suited for a flight, consisting of random clusters of episodes — such as episodes 4 through 6 of Season 4 of “Breaking Bad” and episodes 11 to 13 of Season 1 of “This Is Us.” While this is useful if you just happen to leave off on the episode prior, it’s not set up for binge watching.
In addition to the movies and TV shows, there were 32 albums from various genres. London Grammar’s “Truth Is a Beautiful Thing” helped power me through writing this review.
Each seat had a USB outlet at the bottom of the IFE screen. And there were two universal power outlets for each set of three or four seats, under and between each seat.
AvGeeks rejoice: The French Bee A350 had both a tail camera and a nose-gear camera.
No amenities were provided at seats during boarding. Passengers who booked the cheapest Smart fares needed to pay 5 euros (about $5.50) for a comfort pouch including a small blanket, eye mask, neck pillow, a pair of socks and earbuds.
The comfort kit that Smart fare passengers received was a bit smaller, missing the blanket and the neck pillow. Flight attendants passed through the cabin shortly after takeoff to hand these out. These minikits included a small card that passengers could redeem for a meal during mealtime.
French Bee heavily advertises its Wi-Fi connectivity on its website. And the prices reflect just how proud French Bee is of this service. On the inflight-internet-access webpage, French Bee lists the following data plans:
- HELLO PLAN: $9 for a 10-minute plan
- SOCIAL PLAN: $19 for a 30-minute plan
- GEEK PLAN: $29 for a one-hour plan
- ADDICTED PLAN: $49 for a four-hour plan
Once on the A350, I found that those prices were only for French Bee’s A330. The A350 has much more reasonable Wi-Fi prices for its On Air-powered service:
- HELLO PLAN: $4 for 30-minute plan
- SOCIAL PLAN: $9 for a two-hour plan
- GEEK PLAN: $17 for a six-hour plan
- ADDICTED PLAN: $29 for a full-flight plan
Considering the flight from Tahiti to San Francisco was only eight hours, the Geek Plan seemingly made the most sense. However, for passengers traveling all the way from Tahiti through San Francisco to Paris might be able to utilize the Addicted Plan for both legs of the journey.
All of this was for naught, though. The aircraft operating this leg (F-HREU) wasn’t equipped with a Wi-Fi antenna.
French Bee had an extensive 56-page duty-free book. In addition to the typical watches, jewelry, perfumes and cosmetics, the duty-free magazine included practical items like power adapters (20 euros, or $22), waterproof phone case (13 euros, or $15), compression socks (31 euros, or $35) and even items for AvGeeks, like model planes.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
The cheapest Basic fares only got complimentary water for the eight-hour flight. You needed to bring snacks with you, buy snacks on board or purchase a meal online at least 48 hours before departure. The meals cost $25 or 4770 CFP ($45) — depending on which country’s version of the website you chose. Smart fares included a hot meal.
The buy-onboard food and drink was reasonably priced. Various food-and-drink combos offered the best deals, including a hot ham-and-cheese sandwich and a beer for 8 euros ($9) or a tapas plate with two glasses of wine for 10 euros ($11).
It was unclear when the hot meal would be served during the flight. So when the crew passed through the cabin with snacks and drinks about an hour after takeoff, I decided to make breakfast out of it.
Since it was an early-morning flight, I passed on the alcoholic combos and put together an a la carte meal instead. The croque monsieur (hot ham and cheese sandwich) cost 6 euros ($6.70) and justified that cost in size. The instant Nescafe espresso (2.50 euros, $2.80) provided a welcome boost of energy for the early-morning flight. On request, the double espresso came with powdered milk and sugar.
Assuming that the sandwich was going to be on the small side, I also ordered the tapas plate (6.50 euros, $7.25), figuring I could always snack on it later. After running my credit card for the purchase, the crew couldn’t find that any were loaded on the plane. Instead, they offered me the tortilla chips and spicy tomato sauce, which cost 5 euros ($5.60).
In total, I cobbled together a reasonably sized meal for €15 ($17). I put the expenses on my Ritz-Carlton Rewards credit card (no longer open to new applicants), as I hoped to apply my $300 airline-fee credit to the purchase.
Complimentary glasses of water were available in the galley during the middle of the flight.
About four hours into the flight — halfway to San Francisco — the flight attendants flipped on the lights and began serving hot meals to passengers from the back of the aircraft to the front. In exchange for the hot meal, the crew asked for the meal card that came in the small amenity kit.
The hot meal matched exactly what was listed on French Bee’s website for the Tahiti-to-San Francisco route for May.
The pasta-and-raisin salad was a refreshing start. The chicken consisted of good chunks of meat, and the curry was pleasing without too much spice. The cream cheese looked strange listed alone on the menu, but it was a welcome topping for the cold roll that was served with the meal. And the apple tart and small cookie were a nice, slightly sweet way to end the meal.
My only complaint was that the meal was a bit bland, and no salt or pepper were provided. I was much happier with the meal when I added a bit of salt from a packet that I had in my backpack.
Later in the flight, I decided to have one last Hinano Tahiti beer. Instead of ordering one for 4 euros ($4.50), I was easily talked into ordering two for 6 euros ($6.75) as part of a perpetual happy-hour offer.
Besides glasses of water, the only complimentary item given to all passengers was pieces of candy, handed out just before landing.
On a low-cost airline, there's not much that one can do to go above and beyond. But, this crew was friendly and pleasant.
I expected that the crew members would be, well, stereotypically French: standoffish and impersonal — particularly to non-French passengers. That wasn’t the case at all. From my first interaction with the crew (asking if I could take a photo of the boarding door) to the last, the flight attendants were friendly and accommodating.
Noticing my AvGeek-fueled photo-taking during boarding, one of the denim-clad crew members offered to take my photo with the mostly empty cabin. Another was personable when taking my food orders.
When I went to the back galley about an hour and a half before landing, the crew didn’t seem bothered when they had to search the duty-free carts for a model French Bee plane and bag tag. And there were no complaints when I used separate cards for each purchase — to test if they happened to code as airfare.
Because of the low-cost setup of the airline, there was not much that the crew could do to go above and beyond. But my interactions with the crew were pleasant throughout the flight.
I went into this flight fully prepared for it to be the worst of the 430 economy flights that I’ve logged. But it didn’t turn out to be that bad. I was able to get myself and my checked bag from Tahiti to San Francisco with drinks, snacks and a meal for under $280 all-in. And I didn’t get to experience the true horror of the 16-inch-wide seats thanks to the light load (234 passengers versus 376 economy seats). Instead, I ended up with a poor man’s business class — three seats all to myself.
While I got an incredible value out of my French Bee experience, I still hesitate to recommend it. Passengers excited about booking the cheapest fares are likely not going to be happy about being nickel and dimed — especially considering the punitive $90 checked-bag fee at the airport. And flying in a 16-inch-wide middle seat for eight hours between San Francisco and Tahiti is one of the worst ways to start or end a vacation.
But if you’re looking for a cheap price to fly to an incredible destination, French Bee is awfully tempting. Just make sure to pay attention to all of the associated costs to get a true price for the trip. And the 16-inch-wide seats may give you a little extra motivation to stick to that pre-vacation diet.
All photos by the author.
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