BACKGROUND This inaugural flight from Heathrow to Los Angeles was Air France-KLM firmly planting its flag on the UK’s home turf – hardly surprising when according to Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, deputy CEO of Air France-KLM, the London-LA route is the same size as the Paris-New York route. The airline has teamed up with Delta in a joint venture, which also includes new flights between Heathrow and Atlanta, and twice-daily flights to New York JFK. Unlike those other flights, this is mainly point-to-point traffic, since Delta’s hubs lie elsewhere (in JFK, Atlanta and Cincinnati) and it is the last flight to leave London for Los Angeles (and so is the last to arrive at LA, making onward connections difficult). Nevertheless, both parties are serious about the joint venture, intending it to become (according to Glen Hauenstein, executive vice-president of network planning and revenue management at Delta) a “virtual transatlantic airline” with a planned revenue projection of some US$8 billion by 2010.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS This was the inaugural flight, so service was decidedly not normal, not least since a last-minute upgrade allowed for a review of first class one way and business class on the return. I had checked in online some 20 hours beforehand, selecting seat 6E, but on arrival was allocated 1A. In London, both business and first class passengers have a free limousine service within a 50-mile radius of the airport. First class passengers are then escorted through the airport, fast-tracked through security and taken to the lounge, although in the event I caught the Piccadilly line and simply presented myself at the business class check-in.
CHECK-IN The check-in for Air France flights is currently at Terminal 2, although a move to Terminal 4 is planned for February 2009. Check-in for this flight was quick and so was security upstairs. Once through, the walk to the Air France lounge is short, although Terminal 2 is crowded with stores and shoppers.
THE LOUNGE Located by Gate 11, the lounge is comfortable, and a section has been screened off behind the foyer for eight first class seats. There are floor-to-ceiling windows and a good range of drinks, with bags of nuts, crisps and biscuits, as well as packaged cheeses, and in one corner, two iMac computers for internet access.
BOARDING The flight was called at 1630 and we walked back through the terminal again to Gate 9. Air France is codesharing on this route with Delta Airlines. The flights are: AF060/DL8306, which departs London-Heathrow at 1700, arriving in LA at 2015 (11 hours and 15 minutes flying time), and AF061/DL8399, which departs LA at 2025, and arrives at 1440 the next day (ten hours and 15 minutes flying time).
The product is three-class, with economy (Tempo), business (L’Espace Affaires) and first (L’Espace Première). Once on board, a choice of still or sparkling water was offered and, after the doors shut, champagne appeared. Jackets were taken and a comprehensive travel kit in men’s and women’s versions was handed out, along with a white or burgundy sleep suit by Christian Lacroix, eye mask, earplugs and slippers.
THE SEAT Each seat reclines into a two-metre-long, fully-flat bed, and has adjustable back support plus a massage function. Facing each seat is a padded leather bench with a storage drawer beneath. (It is also fitted with a seat belt for a fellow passenger.) Seats have a wide seat pan, which can be increased by lowering the aisle-side armrest. There is a large table which can be set at the proper height for eating meals and working comfortably, and an interactive 10.4-inch video screen with a choice of ten films, as well as numerous audio and TV channels. There is also a telephone and a fibre-optic reading light.
THE FLIGHT The à la carte fine-dining menu is by Guy Martin, the Michelin-starred chef of Le Grand Véfour restaurant in Paris, with the wine selected by Olivier Poussier, World Champion Sommelier 2000. On this flight the cuvée spéciale champagne was Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut 1997, the two red wines were Bordeaux (Pessac-Léognan Domaine de Chevalier 2002 Cru Classé) and Burgundy (Nuits-Saint-Georges 2005 Jean-Claude Boisset), and there was also a Rhône Valley white (Crozes Hermitage Domaine de Roure 2005 Paul Jaboulet Aîné), and a sweet white (Sauternes Château Suduiraut 1996 1er Cru Classé). Air France also serves liqueurs, a selection of nine types of tea and a range of mineral water.
The food is equally high-end, with a choice of appetisers (glazed beef canapé, shrimp canapé and shiitake mushroom with sesame), three hors d’oeuvre (including lobster accompanied by mango, grapefruit and dill cream sauce), and four hot dishes (lamb, sea bass, wild mushroom tortellini and a special which changes every ten days – chicken tajine on this flight).
There was also a bread basket featuring a variety of individual loaves, American crackers and Poilâne sourdough bread, a selection of French and British cheeses, a dessert trolley with a range of individual pastries, sorbets, petits fours, a basket of fresh fruit, an individual tea service and espresso coffee served at the table.
Service throughout was superb – when trying to solve the problem of charging my laptop using a UK plug with US adaptor the staff were excellent (the charger works, but only to slow the dissipation of the charge rather than truly charging).
There was the option of a buffet or service at the seat throughout the flight, and shortly before landing there was another meal service with hors d’oeuvre, a choice of main course (rib-eye steak or ravioli), cheese and a dessert.
ARRIVAL We landed on time and were quickly into the terminal, but then had to wait 47 minutes in the immigration queue, the boredom only being punctuated occasionally by the staff forbidding passengers to use their mobile phones and Blackberries to contact waiting ground transportation. A disgrace.
VERDICT Excellent, and for those for whom money is no object, easily the match of competition on the route (BA, Virgin Atlantic, Air New Zealand and United).
PRICE First class return for travel in May with Air France non-stop started from £5,650 (with a Saturday night stay).