Recently (Feb/Mar 2015), I had the opportunity to fly Air France round trip to Barcelona, and I booked the entire fare as W class – Air France’s premium economy. The fare was surprisingly low for the season and the seat, as I typically would expect to pay 50%+ over standard economy for a W fare seat, but in this case the price was almost of negligible difference, so I took a chance and booked.
Quick overview (intercontinental / long haul – A380 and 772 (777-200))
- The seat: The intercontinental/long-haul seat for AF’s premium economy is a fixed shell that is completely different and bespoke to the class, and it can’t intrude on other passengers since it’s fixed in place. Recline is liberal for economy, but still limited. Width is great, as is legroom. Some may find the seat hard, I personally thought it was pretty OK. One universal wall outlet and 1 USB port is included per seat. There is a footrest, but you’ll have to be short to want to use it. There is more than enough room for a standard laptop on the seat tray.
- The service: No doubt – premium economy gets much faster meal service than standard economy, as well as a premium economy-only drink and snack bar (very handy).
- The perks: PE had an exclusive bathroom on my 772 (777-200) flight from CDG->LAX, but on the A380, the bathroom was shared with standard economy. The free comfort package (earplugs, face mask, toothbrush, etc.) was a nice bonus, and the main meal was served with an extra appetizer. You also get an apertif of champagne before dinner. You get a second checked bag free of charge.
- The entertainment: AF’s infotainment screens in PE are pretty well sized, but the system is old and the resolution abysmal. Bring an iPad. There is no Wi-Fi on any long-haul Air France flight.
I flew on an Air France A380 (the double-decker) from Los Angeles to Paris (LAX->CDG) for the first leg. Boarding was pretty well-managed by intercontinental standards, with the clerks at the gate calling up first, business, premium economy, and SkyPriority (plus other member levels) to board first. Air France seems unique here, in that there are only two boarding calls – first tier customers, and then… everyone else. Given the science suggests mass-boarding is the best technique for boarding quickly, this is pretty close to optimal. I found this system used on all legs of my journey, at 3 different airports.
Upon reaching my row on the upper deck, I tossed my bag in the spacious overhead and got into my seat. There, I found a blanket, a larger and cushier pillow than standard economy, and a bottle of Evian in the area between the infotainment screens. Everything still seemed pretty fresh, and even the complimentary noise-cancelling headphones looked quite new (not so on my 772 flight back).
I sat and immediately found lumbar support in the seat lacking, but stuffing the pillow behind me quickly resolved that. The seat itself had truly ample legroom, and the width is more than enough for someone as large as myself (very large – 6’1 and quite… fat). I buckled up and we taxied off.
After hitting altitude, about 30 minutes after our late afternoon departure, the crew distributed everyone in the premium economy cabin a bag of accessories (quite a stylish little bag, too), including a face mask, large foam ear plugs, booties for the headphones (because ear germs), a toothbrush, and a couple other small items. At the same time, we were provided our menus for dinner (you can only select a main, which appear to be the same mains as standard economy), and shortly after that, offered an apertif glass (cup) of champagne or any other beverage we desired, along with some pretzels.
Around 30 minutes later, dinner was served. I had a shepherd’s pie (the other option being red sauce pasta with veggies), but an appetizer exclusive to premium economy of smoked salmon and green salad was also served, along with the typical accouterments – butter, bread (rolls were generously distributed), cheese, fruit, a bottle of water, and a brownie. The main was quite typical but certainly not bad, and the smoked salmon salad was actually quite tasty – a pleasant surprise, to be sure. You also got first dibs – it was unlike the meal service would out of either main course, since they had yet to serve standard economy.
The extra large tray in premium economy seats, which folds down twice, allowed me to eat my meal without arching my head into the seat in front of me, and then comfortably fold half the tray back up after I had finished, so it wasn’t an intrusion on my ability to recline. Reclining was the first thing I did after that meal, by the way – the amount of food served was more than adequate, and I was stuffed.
As I started to settle into the seat, I played with the various recline options and the built-in metal footrest. The seat on Air France’s A380 reclines a good amount, but business class passengers won’t be impressed, as it’s nowhere near lie-flat. There is a recliner-style legrest you can prop up, but it’s basically useless unless you’re very short, as is the metal footrest (I put it down once and promptly put it back up). After selecting a movie, I grabbed my free bottle of water (really, this is a nice thing to have!), took a gulp, and watched Guardians of the Galaxy in potato resolution.
The included noise-cancelling headphones were quite good at the noise cancelling part, though I found the quality of audio middling at best. Worry not, though, audio-lovers, as there is a standard 3.5mm (yes, really, no attenuator or multi-plug required) jack right above the storage area for the included cans, so you can plug in your headphones of choice. The touchscreen was typical crappy resistive fare, and the remote control felt like something from 2002. But, everything worked, and I was content enough at that.
I charged my iPad and phone through my travel power strip attached to the seat’s AC adapter (very easy to find unlike many airlines – between the seats, facing the seats in front of you) and stretched out the recline like no one was watching. I was actually pretty comfortable, for a plane. After-dinner coffee was served (or drinks, whatever you wanted), the lights were lowered, and I began to wonder just what I’d do for the next 9-plus hours with my extra wide arm rest, since fighting over it wasn’t actually going to be necessary, and the fixed shell seat in front of me could not angle my infotainment screen into invisibility.
As we neared Paris, breakfast was served. A small omelette which was quite delicious along with some bread, cheese (of course!), fruit, and yogurt were provided. Nothing extraordinary, but service was again quick and efficient. We landed, and after an agonizing 40 minutes of taxi / gate assignment, we deplaned alongside business class ahead of the pack.
I flew two domestic short-hauls to and from Barcelona on Air France. Premium Economy did have significant perks: Air France serves all its business and premium economy passengers a full meal for flights >1 hour in duration, including beer, wine, and champagne. Standard economy gets only snack service. The seat gets more legroom, but otherwise, it’s economy with food and early boarding (nothing to scoff at, though). The food was quite good for the most part, and again, Air France rigorously enforced the 2-stage boarding procedure to ensure business and priority flyers were on the plane first.
772 (Boeing 777-200)
For my flight from CDG->LAX, I had originally booked an earlier seat on an A380, but I missed the plane. I was rebooked to an older 777-200 (AF calls them a 772), and I feared the worst. My fears were, largely, unfounded.
Boarding was a bit of nightmare – the plane had an unexpected security screening, and a gaggle of grandmas in wheelchairs took about 30 minutes to be carted onto the 777 ahead of all the other passengers (entirely fair, but it took entirely too long), and it was obvious no one was looking forward to this nearly 7000-mile red-eye, with many passengers visibly agitated at the delay (bad vibes = bad plane ride).
We got on, and while the PE section was much smaller on the 777 than the A380 – a mere 32 seats by my count – it looked basically identical. Overhead storage was configured differently, but there was still ample space, and all the same amenities provided. Free bottle of water, nice pillow, blanket, pre-dinner snack (this time some delicious butter crackers), bag of stuff, champagne, dinner menu. I noticed one of the restrooms ahead of us was out of service, but after takeoff, the steward curtained off premium economy from both business and standard economy, so a scant 32 people had an exclusive bathroom. Very nice – on the A380, we were required to share with standard economy, though there were only a small number of economy passengers on the upper deck (maybe 60).
The seats were older, for sure – my neighbor’s only reclined after vigorous encouragement, and the footrests were substantially narrower than those on the A380. The seat had the same width and pitch, though, so it basically felt the same to me, down to the extra-wide armrests. We got our snacks and champagne and hunkered down.
Dinner was actually surprisingly good – PE’s exclusive appetizer was 3 cold shrimp on a bed of mint and parsley tabbouleh, and while the shrimp were a bit tough, they tasted refreshingly real to me. The main course was chicken in a brown sauce with couscous, and I found the quality substantially better than the American-sourced fare we received on the flight from LAX. Bread, cheese, fruit, and a mini lemon meringue pie were provided, though we did not get our after-dinner sweets on this plane (I’m guessing they couldn’t source any).
The lights went down, and I played with the infotainment system. This unit was even worse than the on the A380 (again, no Wi-Fi on Air France long haul, either, and probably not till 2016-2017+), and had huge banding issues. I watched Interstellar in the most forgiving sense of the word (I heard it and saw some images, occasionally, I think). The Air France headphones on this 777 were battered and bruised, clearly in need of replacement, so I used my own set instead. After the film, I went over to the private premium economy snack area and refilled my now-empty bottle of Evian with a larger one.
The seat, I thought, was just as comfortable as the A380 I took from LAX, and seemed basically identical in every functional sense of the word. Outlets, USB port, headphones, etc. The remote control was older, though, and placed at thigh-level instead of vertically nearer the front of the seat divide, meaning I would accidentally activate it relatively often when shifting in my seat.
Our special little bathroom had a couple of perks, too – there was face wash and hand lotion, with small cotton pads to scrub your face. It was a refreshing apricot-scented wash that didn’t need to be rinsed, and after getting a bit greasy sitting on the plane 5 hours and, before that, 7 hours at the airport, I relished in the clean and refreshed feeling my face got after a quick scrub.
Later, breakfast was served (my jetlagged stomach politely declined). About an hour after that, we landed and gated quickly at LAX (way ahead of schedule considering we departed 40 minutes late).
Air France Premium Economy: Overall value assessment
Air France premium economy is, at 15-25% above standard economy fare, an excellent deal all things considered. I’ve read whining and moaning about the seats and the service, but honestly, it’s so much better than standard economy on a large long-haul flight that I’m not sure how those people justify their complaints. It’s better in almost every way, and worse in basically none. The extra checked bag alone almost pays for itself! Now, if we’re talking in-demand season, I believe Air France charges quite a lot more for these seats, something like 40-70% over standard economy. At such a premium, there is no way these seats are truly worth the money, but if you have miles or a credit card with good rewards, the spend could be entirely worth it to avoid suffering with the rest of the herd for 10-plus hours. Additionally, if you simply have the disposable income but don’t want to splurge on Air France’s largely unremarkable long-haul business class, premium economy is much better value for money.
The lack of Wi-Fi is definitely a major drawback (Air France knows it, and they’re pricing competitively), and the infotainment system is in dire need of updating, though it’s functional. Food and drink extras are modest, but what is provided over standard economy is certainly appreciated (who doesn’t want to be greeted with champagne?).
I think the PE experience across all of Air France’s long-haul fleet is basically comparable, too, something that isn’t always true of this fare class on other airlines. The problem is that not every Air France plane has it – 747s are still business and economy only, though the A330s, 777s, and A380s do all appear to have at least one supported configuration.