Air France launched it new first class La Première product in May 2014, which is only available on specific B777-300ERs flying from Paris to cities such as Washington DC and the following destinations:
USA (JFK, HOU, LAX, SFO, MIA), Brazil (SAO), China (HKG, BJS, SHA), Japan (HND, NRT), Singapore, Lebanon (BEY), UAE (DXB), Gabon (LBV), Cameroon (YAO), Angola (LAD), South Africa (JNB) and Mexico (MEX).
The A380s all have the older version. The new La Première product sees four seats in their own cabin, each with a curtain that can be drawn across to create completely private suites.
I checked in online the day before my flight via the Air France mobile app. I selected the seats I wanted (for free) and saved the boarding passes for both my London-Paris and Paris-Washington DC flights in the Apple Passbook app. Business class passengers can take two pieces of hand-luggage plus two in the hold, while first class passengers can take two as hand luggage and three in the hold.
My flight was departing London Heathrow Terminal 4 at 0620 so I had to get up early to arrive at the airport by taxi from East London at 0450 (Air France does not include a chauffeur service). I had my suitcase weighed, priority tagged and through-checked to DC. I was also issued with a single paper boarding pass for the two flights. The plane landed at Paris CDG’s Terminal 2E at 0820 (0720 UK time). My onward connection to Washington DC scheduled for 1320.
After a five-minute taxi and a few minutes’ wait for disembarkation, passengers were allowed to exit the plane from the front. As my onward connection was in first class, a member of Air France staff (Vanessa) was waiting for me on the airbridge outside the plane to escort me to the lounge.
Vanessa took me down to the ground in a private lift and then showed me to an awaiting BMW (the image below is of a Mercedes-Benz, which is also used), which she then drove through the airport complex to the entrance of the La Première first class lounge. There was an ID check by a security officer (although there was screening machinery my bags didn’t need to be X-rayed) and then I was into the lounge.
I was advised that I would be met again at 1240 to be taken to the plane for my onward journey. By this point it was 0850 local time so I had about 3.5 hours to enjoy the amenities. The expansive interiors are stylish, peaceful and modern with accents of red and installations of free-standing silvery reeds that create nature-inspired screens. These are particularly effective in the sleep zone, where there are loungers and beds that can be made up with sheets and pillows. (Click here to read the full review of the Air France La Première lounge.)
There is a room with a massive mirrored TV screen where you can watch sports matches or do presentations. Wifi is free although you do need to input your name and email. I couldn’t see many power points around although they might have just been hidden from view. Once I had taken a seat, a member of staff promptly came over to take my order for a lemon tea and bottle of Badoit water.
I had a spa treatment booked for 1000 (you should call ahead at least a couple of days in advance, if not a week to guarantee a slot). There are only two treatment rooms, but there are several showers as well if you just want to freshen up. Passengers all get a 30-minute leg, foot or back massage for free (no mani/pedis).
I went for the back massage. I was very impressed with how professional my therapist (Virginie) was. The music, temperature and lighting were all adjusted to just the right settings. Skincare products are all by luxury French brand Biologique Recherche, which are also available to buy. Other treatments for between 45 and 90 minutes cost 95 to 170 euros.
Talking to staff, I discovered that what really separates business from first is the level of personalisation that can take place for this exclusive sub group of travellers. Although there is an extensive a la carte menu and a buffet that changes three times a day, you can also call ahead a few days before and order any food you like and warn them of specific dietary requests.
I was told that former French president Nicolas Sarkozy recently passed through and mentioned he liked chouquettes and, within 45 minutes, the kitchen had baked him some and put them in a bag to take on the plane. Other examples might be a request for sushi, kosher or vegan cuisine.
If you want a specific magazine not in stock in the lounge, staff will go down to the terminal to get it for you. Staff are highly attentive but not intrusive – they are very good at leaving people alone where appropriate, and not asking too many questions, unless it’s obvious that the traveller wants to have a conversation. Discretion is the name of the game – one staff member I spoke to didn’t even know which destinations people were flying to.
Overseen by a team trained by Michelin-star chef Alain Ducasse, the kitchen at the La Première lounge is the only one in the airport with views of the aircraft stands. A proper working restaurant, it serves between 80 and 120 a la meals from morning until night, as well as preparing cold dishes for the buffet.
Here you will find smoked salmon, cured ham, sausage, sliced fruit, yoghurt, cereal and juice at breakfast, and then six cold dishes at lunch including sandwiches, cheese, bread, croissants, and seasonal fruit tarts. Everything is immaculate and perfectly arranged – tempting appetisers and desserts on tiny individual plates. There is even an entire wall dedicated to different types of water.
The cuisine is French, of course, and the quality sublime. The menu changes seasonally – this was the list when I visited. I chose the veloute, which was poured from a jug into my bowl at the table over some carefully placed pieces of roasted chestnut and butternut squash, followed by a delicate oblong of sea bass with zesty pieces of orange and tender stems of asparagus. Absolutely delicious.
- Pumpkin and chestnut veloute
- Shrimp caesar salad
- Coddled eggs, mushrooms and artichokes with toasted country bread
- Cookpot of seasonal vegetables, crushed tops
- Elbow pasta with ham and black truffle
- Preserved duck foie gras with warm brioche
- Toasted sandwich of chicken, Comte cheese and black truffle
- Oven-baked sea bass with white asparagus from Les Landes with maltaise sauce
Specialities of Aquitaine:
- White asparagus from Les Landes with maltaise sauce
- Bordelaise-style sirloin steak
- Rocamadour goat cheese with fig marmalade
- Apple croustade with Armagnac ice cream
Mains (served with potato puree, seasonal vegetables or baby salad):
- Oven-baked turbot, root vegetables, vin jaune cooking jus
- Saddle of lamb roasted in cocotte, vegetables
- Corn-fed chicken, green asparagus from Provence, cooking jus
- Pan-seared fillet of beef with peppers
- Grilled thick slice of Ibaiona pig black pudding
- Monte Carlo-style baba with rum or Armagnac of your choice
- “La Première” pallet, chocolate from Paris, and praline
- Cookpot of mango and passion fruit, light cream with lime
- Ice cream or sorbet
It was a good thing I had 3.5 hours to experience the lounge but even then I didn’t get time to sit in the opulent, well-stocked speakeasy, Le Salon Le Première, which serves three types of champagne (2005 Bollinger, Perrier Jouet Blason Rouge and Selection Alain Ducasse). It also lists three signature cocktails including the Gautier 1er, which is made with cognac Gautier, bitters, cardamom, espresso, sirop d’erable and Chantilly cream.
In the case of my Washington flight, the gate was close to the lounge, so passengers had the option of walking or having a member of Air France ground staff take them to the plane in the car. I chose the latter. As anticipated, boarding was on time so after I finished my lunch, I was taken to the aircraft. Vanessa was very polite and elegant in her long navy coat, helping with my bags and opening doors. I felt very pampered. I was then taken up a flight of stairs to the airbridge, where there was a separate entrance to the first class cabin at the very front of the plane. (Business passengers use a different one further back.)
I was welcomed by the crew and given the option of sitting anywhere I liked, as the other three first class seats were empty. I stuck with 1A but later in the flight, crew made up the seat next to me into a bed so I had the choice of both. After all the crew introduced themselves, my coat and jacket were hung in the closet and I was offered a glass of Lauren-Perrier 2004 Champagne Alexandra, Grand Cuvee Rose. I was also given two hot towels, menus, magazines (in French) and newspapers (The New York Times and The wall Street Journal).
I had almost no awareness of the boarding process going on behind me in business class, let alone economy. With the giant TV screens and four windows per seat, it was like being in my own private flying apartment. I was also given a leather amenity box (a choice of orange or blue) filled with Carita Paris amenities.
Bose headphones are stored in a cupboard along the side. I was also given some comfy blue loungewear, socks and slippers. The washroom was stocked with toothbrushes, toothpaste, Clarins toner, makeup remover pads, moisturising lotion and even mini hand towels tied up in ribbon.
The first class seat is incredibly comfy – it’s basically an armchair (23 inches wide) upholstered in soft cotton-like woven material. There is a huge amount of space to work thanks to a large pull-out table and surfaces along the side. There is also room for a companion to join you for a meal when seated opposite on the ottoman. Not only is there a privacy screen by the aisle that rises up at the touch of a button, but a curtain that pulls across for complete anonymity.
Window shades have the option of being translucent to let in some light or opaque for darkness and there are proper reading lamps for when the cabin lights have been dimmed. Each has direct aisle access, 24-inch TV screens (with more than 1,000 hours of programming), and the ability to slide down into a fully flat bed.
Crew are on hand to make up beds with a white mattress, sheets, pillow, a duvet and blanket. When the seat is reclined, the bed is 30 inches wide and 78 inches/6.5ft long. There is a handy drawer under the ottoman for storing shoes.
The cabin felt incredibly peaceful, light and spacious, with the ambiance of a living room. There are IFE controls in the panel to one side – these are touchscreen and also have buttons so if you want you can be watching a movie on the big screen while keeping an eye on your flight progress on the small handheld screen. There are also universal/USB charging points for your devices.
WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE?
They are all amazing – but I like being by the window best and the prestige of being in 1A. These seats are also best for solo travellers, while the middle two are ideal for a couple as the curtains either side enclose you. However, it’s not a problem if you don’t know each other, as there is a section of dividing wall that can be summoned between you.
The B777 pushed back on time at 1320 and took off not long after. Once airborne, at 1350 my dedicated member of crew (Pasquale) asked if I wanted to eat now or in a couple of hours. Since I had just had lunch in the lounge, I agreed that later would be better. Just a glass of water would be fine.
At 1345 Pasquale took the liberty of bringing me a bowl of fruit salad on a silver tray, and kept my glass of sparkling Badoit water topped up. She also brought me a saucer of lemon slices to add at will. She returned with a G&T a little later (free poured from a 750ml bottle of Bombay Sapphire again on a silver tray) and asked if I wanted more fruit. I declined.
At 1515 I decided to order some food from the menu. I wasn’t exactly hungry but wanted to try it. Although there were a number of choices there were no vegetarian options but because I had forewarned them they had prepared an alternative, which turned out to be a delicious rice-free celeriac risotto with cheese.
Jean-Marie Massaud designed the tableware for first and business class, while Michelin-starred chef Joel Robuchon has overseen the design of the first class menu (Daniel Boulud worked on business class). If you desire, you can have up to seven courses.
This was the full menu:
Mise en bouche: salmon and caviar tartare
Soup: creamed corn with cachaca
Appetisers: terrine of foie gras poached in red wine or roast lobster, seasonal fruit and vegetables
Hot dishes: pan-seared veal ribs in their own rosemary-infused jus with macaroni gratin and pearl onions; fillet of pan-seared sea bass in a creamy lemongrass sauce (dish suggested by Joel Robuchon); roasted guinea fowl supreme, spring peas in orange blossom honey; or forest fricassee.
Then you can have a mixed salad of your own design – components include endive, Greek-style mushrooms, walnuts, Roquefort, smoked haddock, sauteed striped beet julienne strips, green apple, smoked chicken, flat parsley and curry vinaigrette.
In first class you get five different types of cheese – Camembert, Cantal AOP, Maroilles AOP, Crottin de Chavignol and Bleu d’Auvergne.
For dessert there is a chocolate nougatine tartlet, apple tatin, and three flavours of sorbet (rhubarb is particularly good).
If you are still hungry later in the flight, there are snacks of crab cake with mixed green vegetables with lemon cream sauce, candied orange with grapefruit zest, and plain organic yoghurt.
Wines are chosen by sommelier Paolo Basso, and wine authors and experts Thierry Desseauve and Michelle Bettane. When flights in first class cost more than £10,000 return, you expect the wines to be knock-out.
There are two reds, one from the Rhône Valley and the other from Bordeaux. The first is a 2012 Chateauneuf-de-Pape Domaine du Grand Veneur, Alain Jaume et Fils (Grenache noir, Syrah, Mourvedre), and a 2010 or 2011 Margaux Chateau Cantenac Brown, Grand Cru Classe (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot).
The two whites are a 2013 Meursault les Clous, Bouchard Pere and Fils from Burgundy (Chardonnay) and a 2010 Grand Cru Riesling, Altenberg de Bergheim, Gustave Lorentz. The sticky is a 2009 Sauterne Chateau Lafaurie-Peyraguey, 1er Cru Classe, from Bordeaux.
The drinks menu lists the Glenlivet aged 18 years (Founder’s Reserve in business), Jack Daniel’s, an aniseed aperitif, gin, vodka, rosso vermouth, Tesseron cognac “XO selection lot 90”, Calvados hors d’age, Bas Armagnac Chateau du Tariquet Folle Blanche aged 12 years, Pear Eau de Vie, Green Chartreuse, Graham’s LBV 2009 red port (Tawny 10-year-old in business), Heineken, various soft drinks and three types of French water (Evian, Perrier and Badoit). Coffee is Segafredo and tea is La Collection des Thes Fauchon, served with chocolates by Michel Cluizel.
After doing a bit of work, I went to the washroom to get changed while Pasquale made the seat next to me into a bed, arranging the covers perfectly. At 1700 I settled down for a couple of hour’s sleep – the mattress was supremely comfortable. It was a proper bed. I got up and dressed at 2000. The window blinds were opened and I was brought a cold glass of juice. I took the time to fill in my customs form and prepare for landing.
We left the Atlantic and started flying over land at 2015. I could see snow in the fields and the sun was still shining – it was 1615 local time. We landed at 1630 and, once at the gate, waited for the airbridge to be attached. This time there wasn’t one right at the very front for first class passengers, only from the galley behind so Pasquale walked me through the business class cabin so I was ensured to be first off the plane.
Another member of staff greeted me as soon as I set foot on the airbridge and whizzed me to a secret lift to the ground where I boarded my own personal shuttle van. After a couple of minutes’ drive I was at the terminal. There was a bit of a walk to immigration but it wasn’t too crowded and I was soon at the front of a short queue, again escorted by a member of Air France ground staff. (There is the option of self-service kiosks if you are travelling on an ESTA but I had a visa so they didn’t work.)
The immigration officer asked me a couple of questions, photographed me and scanned my finger-prints. I was then directed into baggage reclaim. It only took a couple of minutes for my suitcase to appear – my helper rushed to retrieve it and place it on a trolley – but there was a 15-minute queue to get landside as people had to hand over their customs forms and it had created a bit of a bottle neck. A security officer was doing checks with a sniffer dog. I was then handed over to my driver who was waiting for me on the other side.
I don’t make a habit of flying first class so I can’t compare Air France’s offering to those of other airlines, but I can certainly vouch for it being a greatly elevated experience when compared with business class products. The level of service was the defining feature, as well as the incredible bed and the amount of privacy. Being personally looked after from airport arrival in Paris to landside pick-up in DC meant it was entirely stress-free and easy.
Pasquale, the member of crew assigned to first class, deserves a special mention – she was extremely attentive, kind, welcoming and helpful, encouraging me make the most out of everything the cabin offered. This special treatment was no doubt enhanced by the fact I was the only person in the cabin but I am sure they go out of their way to please all first class travellers.
SUITE CONFIGURATION 1-2-1
SUITE AREA 3 sqm
SEAT WIDTH 23-30in/58.4cm-76.2cm
SEAT RECLINE 180 degrees
BED LENGTH 78in/6.5ft
PRICE Internet rates for a return first class flight from Paris to Washington DC in May ranged between £6,418 and £8,986.