Air France has nine Dreamliners, flying to destinations including Boston, Guangzhou, Bogota and Osaka. I was flying to Nairobi, a route that launched in March 2018 and operates five days a week (no flights on Monday or Wednesday).
The airline has been offering premium economy since 2009, and it is now available across its long-haul fleet. The seat product got a refresh in 2013, and Air France recently unveiled slightly different design that will be rolled out on its A330 fleet.
I started in London and took an Air France flight over to Paris CDG. There are more straightforward ways to get from London to Kenya – British Airways and Kenya Airways both run daily direct flights – but I wanted to try Air France’s premium economy product, and found the connections smooth. My route would make sense if you wanted to fly Skyteam (as opposed to Oneworld with BA) and in premium economy (which you don’t get with Kenya Airways).
I arrived early at Heathrow Terminal 4 for my 1735 flight. Air France/KLM have their own corner for check-in to the right of the main doors, with queues that moved quickly. There were self-service check-in and luggage tag machines that nobody seemed to be using.
My first flight left on time and the staff managed to speed down the aisle handing out lettuce and falafel wraps during the short journey. I found this connection pretty seamless. Since it was early evening I wasn’t groggy, and I had checked in my main bag at Heathrow. The cabin crew told me my new gate number while I was on the plane, and it was about fifteen minutes’ walk from the aircraft, plus five minutes to get through a security screening. It was handy knowing that I was heading for K35 as there were several points in Terminal 2 where I needed to turn to head towards the correct bracket of letters (eg: gates A-F).
The second flight was scheduled for a 2105 departure, and with the time difference we landed at 2000. That meant that since I had priority boarding I managed to walk off one plane onto the next almost without breaking my stride. However what worked perfectly for me would obviously be a nightmare if the first flight was delayed.
I should also note that the transfer was significantly less enjoyable on my return. For one thing it was after an 8 hour flight, but it also required me to take a train to the correct part of the terminal and then take a fairly long bus to the actual aircraft, neither of which I’d had to do on the way out.
The priority queue moved quickly and I got settled into my seat. The premium economy cabin has three rows of seats in a 2-3-2 configuration (AB-DEG-KJ). On my flight it was only half full, so I had a spare seat next to me. Before take-off the crew came around to hand out amenity kits with a toothbrush, socks, earplugs, eye-mask and headphone covers (over-ear headphones are attached to the seat.) The kit designs rotate relatively frequently, and mine was an 85th anniversary tribute to the airline.
The seats fall pretty firmly in the middle ground between business and economy. With 40 inches of pitch and 19 of width they don’t feel cramped, even if you’re not in the bulkhead row. They recline within a fixed shell so as not to disturb the passenger behind, which is a big bonus if you want to work, eat, or just generally retain some personal space. I would imagine this will come to be a must for any premium economy product. The recline is not bad at 130 degrees, though obviously they can’t compete with the lie-flat offering at the front of the plane.
On arrival the cabin looked clean and I thought the seats looked smart and modern, with a white, black and red colour scheme and leather finishings on the arm and headrests. There was also a comfortable red pillow and a thick, soft blanket. A small bottle of Evian was placed in a water bottle holder.
I found the pocket under the armrest convenient for stashing my phone and my own in-ear headphones. There was also what I think was a second water bottle holder on the seat in front, which was big enough for me to place my book in during meal times (I’m always scared that I’ll forget anything I put into the covered magazine holder.)
The seats have 130 degrees of recline, and it’s possible to raise up your legs a little using the legrest, or to put your feet on an adjustable stand.
The IFE screen is 11.7 inches and is intuitive to use. The seat also has European plug sockets and USB ports.
The tray table was firm to work or eat on, and also could extend out to double its size. However the extension was a little less firm, so you probably wouldn’t want to put a lot of weight on it.
All Air France Dreamliners have wifi, with various packages available – a free pass for messaging on WhatsApp, iMessage or WeChat, a Surf Pass for internet browsing and emails starting from €5, and a stream pass for more heavy-duty internet use at a hefty €30. However I have to admit that I didn’t try these options because I didn’t urgently need internet and I generally find in-flight wifi more trouble than it’s worth.
I sat in seat 11D on both legs of the journey. Since the way out left at 2105 and arrived in the early morning, I would have preferred a window seat (A or K) so I could sleep against the window, and it didn’t look like it would be too hard to step over the legs of the person next to you. However it was good for the way back, when I wanted a short snooze but was mainly keeping myself occupied. I didn’t hear much noise from the galley in front, and the nearest toilets are either in the middle of the plane behind row 25 or at the very front.
The only seats I would avoid are 11E and 12E, since you don’t get the benefits of the bulkhead row, aisle access or the window. Also note that passengers in row 10 need to stow bags in the overhead bins during take-off and landing and also fold down their IFE screen.
We departed on time and almost as soon as the seatbelt sign was off the crew came round with a wet wipe packet and a menu, introduced themselves and told us to let them know if we needed anything. At 2200, just under an hour after take-off, they brought round drinks and a bag of pretzel-style breadsticks. I opted for the in-flight cliche of tomato juice, which came with a little packet of pepper and a stirrer.
Dinner came 40 minutes later, and my wine was served in real glass, which was a nice touch. All passengers (unless they had pre-ordered from one of the different menus) got two bread rolls with Camembert and butter, salmon tartare for starter and a red berry crumble for dessert.
For the main I chose creamy penne pasta in mushroom sauce over chicken jus with vegetables. Plane chicken is just too unpredictable, in my opinion. The salmon had potential but was too cold, with parts of it still icy. However everything else was tasty.
The crew came to check if everything was OK halfway through the meal and another roll was offered. The trays were cleared at 2320 and then more drinks came round. I went for a chamomile tea.
The IFE offering was not bad; there were a few recent Oscar nominees and the latest blockbusters, although French-language films dominated the selection, unsurprisingly. The headphones were good for sound although quite uncomfortable after an hour and a half or so. Then again, that’s common with this type.
The lights were dimmed not long after dinner, and the rest of the flight was smooth. Drowsy after a nap, I thought the toilets were at the front of the cabin and so ended up queuing outside the kitchen for a few minutes until a bemused flight attendant found me and pointed me towards the back. The ten-row walk to the toilet is probably a downside of the premium economy cabin if you have a weak bladder. If you don’t then it’s a plus, since very few people end up walking past your seat.
A chocolate muffin, orange juice and Greek yoghurt were brought round an hour before landing, as well as hot drinks.
We landed in Nairobi a little ahead of schedule, at 0555. The visa queues built up quickly, so it was convenient to be among the first off the plane.
Does what premium economy should do in bridging the gap between business and economy. For a really good sleep it can’t compete with the former, but it provides 40 per cent more room than the latter, and the 21-seat cabin means you get a more relaxed atmosphere and attentive cabin crew, as well as nice touches like a menu and amenity kit. The seat is stylish and comfortable, and the fixed-shell recline is a particular bonus.
Comfortable seats in a small, quiet cabin
A return flight in August started from around £1,500. However the pricing between premium economy and business on this route seems to be pretty erratic. On some days you’d be looking at £2,000 in premium economy and £2,285 in business, so upgrading would probably be worth it if possible. However on other days premium economy was down to £1,200 while business was closer to £4,000.
London-Paris: 1 hour
Paris layover: 1 hour
Paris-Nairobi: 8 hours