The majority (five out of six) of weekday flights from New York to Paris Charles de Gaulle with Air France leave from JFK, but the new business class (l’Espace Affaires) has premiered on the Airbus A340 out of Newark, so here we are. The check-in and lounge are shared with Delta – unlike at JFK which has a dedicated Air France lounge. Check-in is a little chaotic, but friendly.
Travellers experienced in US business class lounges know they come in two varieties: terrible and workaday. This is workaday, with bar service for drinks, and snacks limited to a spicy mix shovelled with a plastic scoop into small paper cups – or a basket of apples for the healthy minded. There’s also a business area and T-mobile roaming wifi.
Boarding was announced from the lounge, on time and with no queue. As we reported last issue (July-August 2004), while the new first class (l’Espace Premiere) is being introduced on just 20 routes from Paris, l’Espace Affaires will be offered network-wide, along with the economy Tempo product.
The Newark service is a two-class flight, and over the next 18 months this format will roll out on 51 Airbus A330s, Airbus 340s and Boeing 747-400s. In addition, there will be 33 three-cabin aircraft (23 Boeing 777-200s and 10 new Boeing 777-300s). There are some nice touches in the new product, including a bag for your shoes once on-board and a central alcove to store them between the seats in front. A bottle of water is hidden in the seat and, within minutes, a hot towel is offered along with a travel kit and help with jacket hanging.
It feels spacious, though there is no divider between seats. Configuration on this flight is 2-2-2 (Airbus A340 and A330). On the Boeing 747-400, 777-200 and 777-300, it is 2-3-2. The seat is built into a rigid shell, with a leather headrest, massage functions and a 10.4-inch TV screen with films that start and stop on demand, so you can watch a whole film, instead of the second half of one and the first half of another. The vital stats are: seat pitch 155cm, width 54cm and a recline to lie-flat position at 180 degrees (13 degrees angle to the ground). Like Lufthansa’s new business class, you are flat, but not horizontal.
As you’d expect from Air France, the food and wine were excellent, as was the service, though the attendants appeared unused to the plane and its functions (of which more later).
Most travellers flying from the US east coast to Europe in the afternoon want to sleep. This flight departed at 5.10pm (so 11.10pm in France), yet the meal was not served until 6.20pm (12.20am), and as I went to sleep at 6.50pm (12.50am), most passengers were still eating, so all the lights were on and the noise was considerable. However, in defence of Air France, if your trip to the US was longer than a few days, then this flight will probably be too early for you to go to sleep immediately, and if it was shorter, you’d probably take one of the later flights from JFK (six flights depart daily from New York JFK at 5.10pm, 6pm, 7.45pm, 8.55pm and 10.55pm, and from Newark, just the 5.10pm). Some passengers would probably be connecting onwards as well, so could sleep on the next long-haul leg of their journey.
Nevertheless, there is no quiet area in business class, so it’s simply a matter of bedding down and making use of the ear plugs and eye mask. Here I had a second, admittedly more unusual, problem in that my seat wouldn’t go flat. The staff assured me that I had it as flat as it went, but after a few sleepless hours I gave up, moved to the empty seat next to me, and found it did go completely flat.
The staff were apologetic, and since by then the seat was completely broken, they had to manually pull it into its landing position. I noticed that many other passengers had their seats only partially flat, though that might have been from preference, and it certainly didn’t seem to stop them from sleeping.
Breakfast was served an hour before arrival, and we landed at Charles de Gaulle early, only having to wait a few minutes for a stand to become available.
An excellent product, but for those business travellers who are prepared to pay the premium for business class because they want to sleep, Air France will have to make allowances.
On flights of more than nine and a half hours, Air France apparently offers business and first class passengers the option of choosing what time they would like their on-board meal, as well as a faster meal service. On flights longer than 10 and a half hours, a self-service buffet bar offers even greater flexibility.
I don’t think it will be long before customer feedback compels Air France to give passengers more time to sleep on this route, and less time for the meals.
Air France (www.airfrance.co.uk) will quote only an official fare of £3,606, but Ebookers (www.ebookers.com) is currently charging between £1,715 and £1,748 return for flights (via Paris) to New York departing Heathrow, Birmingham, Manchester or Glasgow.