Saturday, 12 June 2010

Paris Charles de Gaulle to London Heathrow - Air France

It's funny what you remember about an airline. Initially, I thought that it was many years since I'd flown with Air France. I tried to remember where it had been between, but I couldn't. All I could remember was that I hadn't been all that impressed and that something hadn't tasted right.

As the excitement about sampling the airline's Affaires (business class) service on board its latest, newest and now flagship aircraft grew, the fog lifted and the recollection became clear:

I hadn't actually flown with them at all.

Rather, I'd had a bad experience with an olive and some Ready Salted crisps in Chicago (circa 1997), that just happened to have taken place in the Salon Air France at O'Hare. Funny how brand perceptions can be established.

Anyway, all memories of salty snacks banished and we looked forward with mounting enthusiasm to our inaugural flight on this most massive of civil airliners; an aircraft that hopes to wrest the mass-transport dominance of jumbo-jetting from Boeing's 747, whilst in its premium cabins interpreting Concorde's glamour for a more environmentally-aware early 21st Century.

It's just such a shame that, from the outside, the thing has a face that looks like the aircraft equivalent of a bulldog licking wee off a nettle.

Ah well.

It's raining in Paris when we wake. I'll rephrase that. It's coming down chats et chiens. We forego the five minute walk from the Place de la Vendome to Opera to catch the Roissybus, and jump in a taxi to Chatelet station to connect with the RER rail service instead. It's immediately obvious that our chauffeur is no athlete; there's precious little room in his Peugeot for passengers as his siege quakes beneath him at its rearmost recline, and we rattle off round the Tuileries towards the train.

The RER trundles into Charles de Gaulle Terminal 2 and we ascend from the platforms by escalator to the concourse above. The atmosphere's muggy of air and concrete of form. The flight will sally forth from 2E, so it's a left turn and into the mêlée that is Departures.

The board indicates Zone 7 for check-in, though it's immediately apparent that Zone 7 looks like a refugee camp and that there's a chocolate teapot's chance of success in doing anything useful there.

There are no signs offering guidance to First and Business Class passengers, so we ask Monsieur behind a desk and he suggests Zone 8, bien sur.

At Zone 8, the set-up is more akin to the checkpoint outside a UN feeding station, with altogether more calm and organisation beyond the bouncer, but still something of a scrum ahead of him. In fairness, the majority of the would-be infiltrators turn out to be interloping Economy chancers, but it's still a battle to get anywhere near even a self-service check-in machine.

When we do, we have to politely excuse ourselves through the Tensa-barriered snake of a queue to get to the SSCI daleks, which stand empty ahead of us.

A little bit of tippy-tappy touch-screen titivation and we're issued with boarding passes so flimsy in their looroll-like stationery that the first one doesn't actually have the substance to make it all the way down the chute and out of the redemption slot. It takes the second to come slithering along to weakly assist it on its tissue-ish travels. Lucky I wasn't travelling solo.

We had, of course, had the opportunity to check in online, and this facility even included the option to receive the boarding pass as a barcode on a mobile phone. Unfortunately, the website allows check-in to be fully completed with the ill-judged tap of an enter button whilst still part way through preference selections, and the one barcode that did arrive did so as a text file which couldn't be read (despite selecting the precise make and model of phone).

OK, so: to the gates. There's a special lane at the document check for A380 London passengers. Once through it, we face another test of Gallic organisation: big sign ahead of us 'UK Departures - This Way,' and a bigger sign to the left of us pointing in a completely different direction to our designated gate.

Monsieur standing beneath suggests we follow the one for the gate. Bien sur.

That takes us to the transit train, which deposits us, rather spectacularly, on the platform looking up through a glassy wall at our chariot of the skies. Which, having had an email the previous day from Air France advising us that boarding would require the use of an 8-minute Navette to the aircraft, looked to be remarkably firmly attached to the terminal by means of multiple jetties.

We're then faced with another queue for Security, though some 'No1 Access' pull-up banners catch our attention. There's nothing about this on our boarding passes, nothing on our confirmations, nothing on the Dalek's screens, but we ask Monsieur if they might cunningly, obliquely (if not even obtusely) be anything to do with Business Class. He nods. Bien sur.

No wonder they don't use the words 'Fast' or 'Vite' on those banners, mind you; friendly they may be, but the security staff insist on arranging everything in their trays in the manner of the components of a carefully crafted nouvelle cuisine masterpiece on the finest porcelain plate. It's a toss-up to decide whether the screen-watchers are actually analysing the contents of the liquids bags or marking the trigonometrical artistry of each passing assiette de laptop avec ceinture et chaussures.

Memories of the Illinois Olive Incident return soon afterwards, as we enter the heaving Air France Salon and survey the somewhat less heaving buffet of, erm, croissants and crisps. Fearing another Ready Salted incident, I stick to a bottle of water and test the wi-fi. Free for an hour. There's champagne on ice though; Duval Leroy - taste it at your local Co-op.

We find a seat and check the departures board again.

It's just as well that we're showing on time, as the boarding pass is beginning to wilt and curl, and may not last through more than the shortest delay.

The lounge is divided into several distinct parts, most with apron views. There are large buffet areas with less large F&B offerings.

There are seating areas partitioned off by slightly opaque glass dividers, and plenty of screens showing those all-important flight departure details.

There's also a business area with PCs, though the in-lounge wi-fi, offered by Orange, isn't the snappiest. Not wishing to linger too long, we head towards the posted Gate 54 for flight AF1980 to London, which turns out to be using Gate 53 as well. Indeed, Gate 53 is, in theory, for Business Class passengers and shiny cardholders. No bouncer anywhere to be seen and the queue is akin to the Eiffel Tower's on Bastille Day. It comes as little surprise then that the gate agents find themselves having to redirect mis-aligned passengers into the correct parts of the jetty complex, causing something of a blockage beyond the boarding pass desks.

So, instead of joining the queue, we investigate the very natty displays that show not only the usual flight number and time information, but also seating plans and crew details.

There are more pop-up banners showing off the aircraft's layout....

....and there, through the windows and under grey skies, stands the aircraft itself, ready to swallow its special shorthaul load.

The aforementioned jetty complex is necessarily just so; it has to deal with not only two full-length decks, but also multiple doors and the segregation of arriving and departing passengers. Were it a standalone building, it would in itself be a considerably-sized edifice.

Once within it, there's clear, permanent signage showing the way.

And from its own upper floor, the nose of the bulldog peeps out below.

As big as the building may be, there's still no escaping the sheer size of the motors clinging on to the wings of the 'bus below....

...or the bulk of the stubby fuselage.

And then, finally, after the hubris of the terminal, an altogether calmer atmosphere inside.

Mood lighting washes the wall panels from recessed coving above....

...and the colour pallette selected suggests business-like efficiency:

The seats in this, the smaller forward upper deck
Affaires cabin, and also in the larger one aft of it, are arranged in paired pods, 2-2-2 across the cabin. Each seat has its own large, touch-sensitive screen ahead of it, as well as a swan-neck reading lamp.

Beside the outboard seats, next to the window, are bins similar to those found on a 747 Upper Deck, though slightly smaller. Some of the bins are locked shut however, and therefore Row 62KL has access to only one, whilst other rows have two.

There are two literature slots between the screens, and beneath them are two larger, also open, stowage areas.

There's a sizeable footwell, into which the seat will extend when in bed mode.

And jacket hooks for each seat. It's reported that longhaul sectors would find a numbered hanger pre-placed on the seat, the crew to stow once draped.

The lower stowage compartments are for use in-flight only. Upon take-off, it transpired that ours still contained the previous passengers' detritus, as it issued forth under the acceleration.

The bins, of course, avoid the ejection issue, and had been emptied prior to our boarding.

A large table emerges from the central armrest console, and folds out in two parts. There's also a fixed cocktail table.

The pillar supporting the central console contains USB and network ports, as well as combination sockets accepting US, UK and Euro plugs.

On the inboard face of the central console is the media control, which pops out and replicates some of the touch-sensitive functions of the main screen. The headphones are also stowed here, and turn out to be hard-wired into the seat. The earcups bore a previous occupants' depilations.

The face of the remote unit controls the media options.

The reverse functions as a telephone and messenger.

The headphones are noise-cancelling, but are not of the closed-cup variety that enclose the whole ear. The effects of removing them and replacing then in the rather tight stowage compartment were also apparent with some scuffing.

Following the safety announcement, the screens change from the welcome message to the display from the tail mounted camera. On board, and even on the upper deck, the aircraft doesn't feel all that large; indeed there's apparently a far greater sensation of height from the upper deck of a 747 than there is from here on the first floor of the Airbus. The tail camera clearly reminds passengers of the scale of the beast however, as we begin our taxi towards the runway.

A KLM 737 looks tiny ahead of us.

We line up taking every seemingly available inch of asphalt width, before a surprisingly strong power surge (helped by a likely low fuel and luggage/cargo load) pushes us firmly along the runway....

....and up towards the clouds.

As soon as we're airborne, the IFE switches over to give passengers the full choice of available features.

Including reversion to the tail camera if you so wish, or a nose camera, or a belly camera which shows the ground below.

The flight is really too short to investigate the IFE content, but a quick scroll through proves that the interface is nice and simple, and it's possible to turn off the screen when listening to music. That's something that I personally value, yet numerous systems insist on glaring out in front of you while you try to close your eyes and drift off to some soothing tunes.

It's also possible to keep listening to 'CD' music whilst watching the moving map; oddly though any music you are listening to will cease if you select any of the camera views.

The screen, while large, isn't apparently fed by content of a resolution much higher than that which would be sent to a smaller one. The net result is that (though perfectly acceptable) the image quality is relatively low. The other slight shame is that the touch-sensitive interface is much more user-friendly than the hand-held media control, but as soon as a little recline is introduced to the seat, the screen becomes too far away to touch. A more responsive hand-held control would be a boon.

As we cruise over the channel, the over-riding impression is one of calm quiet in the cabin; ambient noise levels being clearly significantly lower than those experienced on almost any other aircraft type. On a longhaul sector, the benefit of that reduced disturbance will be enormous in terms of allowing better rest or more efficient work. The windows do seem rather small though, and the thickness of the aircraft skin reduces the overall field-of-vision.

With the seatbelt sign off, it's time for an explore. First to be investigated is the forward passenger 'lounge', complete with 'art gallery'.

Now, above the stairs in my Grandparents' terraced house, there was a cupboard. At no point during the almost 60 years that they lived there, did they ever refer to it as a 'lounge'. I recall that Grandma had a picture of the Garden of Eden on the wall, though it apparently never occurred to her to re-dedicate the box room as a 'gallery'. Long live the power of marketing though, and at least this little nook with a bum-shelf and a couple of LCDs will give the crew somewhere to shunt restless passengers mid-flight, rather than having them hanging around the galley.

Between the 'lounge' and the forward washroom, is the Stairway from Heaven. For, on the Air France A380, it's on the lower deck that the First Class
La Premiere cabin is to be found.

And, I have to say, it's a rather lovely place - as long as you're not one who favours the Middle-Eastern trend towards fully-enclosed suites.

No, Air France have created something more akin, I suppose, to a hotel lobby lounge - even a
grand salon.

If anything, it rather reminds me of some of the lounges that were first installed on the earliest 747s. The choice of colours lends the cabin an immediately relaxed, calm, comfortable air. True, there's not a great deal of privacy but, at the end of the day, this is still public transport. There's also much less chance of passengers being ignored or forgotten about than in a suite. Solo travellers will, I think, still appreciate the space:

....whilst couples can perhaps enjoy a slightly more sociable experience....

From a cursory tour, I have to report that I rather liked it.

Back up the LED-lit Stairway from Heaven to Affaires though, and a further fiddle with the rather more densely-packed business class seats.

In its upright position, the seat is perfectly comfortable with a lumbar massage function and soft headrest. The motors operate smoothly, if not particularly quietly (although that's probably at least partially a function of the low levels of ambient noise) to send the seat down into its fully-extended position. The outboard armrest drops simultaneously to maximise width.

And the footrest extends into the well beneath the screen, resulting in a flat surface inclined at the industry standard for so-called 'wedgie-beds' of 8 degrees from the horizontal.

Which is probably the biggest surprise as far as the business class configuration of Air France (and principal competitor Lufthansa) A380s is concerned; that is that 15 years after British Airways pioneered fully-flat seats in business class, followed by Singapore, Cathay, Virgin/Air New Zealand, Middle Eastern carriers and now Qantas, Iberia and even North American airlines, these two major Euro-carriers are sticking with inclined beds. It remains to be seen whether it will prove a commercially-astute decision or not.

Back to our short hop now, and the provision of the standard shorthaul catering.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: a box.

And within it, well, who knows what:

Even the initial promise of the Jacquart champagne being served (when asked, not offered) from a full-sized bottle was dashed when it was sloshed into a plastic tumbler. It's not fair to judge the A380 on it, of course, but compared to even the lamentably 'streamlined' British Airways Club Europe catering service, it was dismal.

Speaking of British, we were almost home as TailCam proved. We lined up for 27R and prepared to conclude this shortest of commercial A380 flights.

The threshold passed smoothly beneath us....

....before we met the ground with text-book Gallic driving....

....and rolled past a Qantas cousin....

....and a livery that's still some years away from being applied to an A380....

....even the staff at the Royal Suite came out for a

....and we were given a certificate to commemorate our flight, which was a nice touch....

....though it would have been nicer still if they'd filled it in.

And so, with the unsurprising twenty minute tussle by a BAA-bod to work the jetty for the first commercial A380 arrival at Terminal Four since October 2009, it was time to say goodbye after this super-short experience of an aircraft which some in the industry hope will transform longhaul travel in a way that few new types have done so before.

Putting to one side the service, including the catering, which wasn't terribly relevant in the context of an Air France A380 experience, it was certainly a very interesting flight.

Online check-in was sadly flawed, and the real-world alternative at Charles de Gaulle was far from smooth. Explanation of premium services (fast track and lounge) was zero, and only interrogation of (in the case of fast track) hint-like signage saved the day.

The Salon Air France was comfortable but hardly well-provisioned, even by comparison to KLM's offerings at Schiphol. The latter are of an order of magnitude higher than their Paris counterparts in terms of design, access and food and beverage selections.

Gate boarding was utterly disorganised and the premium line by far the longest of all.

However, on board, the cabin ambience in Affaires was pleasant, and in Premiere very classy indeed. The inflight entertainment system is sophisticated and, apparently, reliable. Washrooms are spacious and seats comfortable, though not, as discussed, fully-flat when in bed mode.

Taking the A380 itself in isolation, the most notable characteristic was the much-reduced noise levels in flight. Without a shadow of a doubt, on a longhaul sector, they would be enough for me to actively choose an A380-operated service over any other. It will be interesting to see how Boeing's forthcoming 787 Dreamliner compares in this regard.

And it will also be interesting to see how, in time, other carriers cope with perhaps the biggest disappointment of the A380 in my eyes. Putting to one side that exterior face that only a mother could love, it just doesn't feel special inside.

Unlike that most gracious lady of the skies, the 747, no part of the A380 structure conspires to wow. There's no yacht-like tapering bow. There's no pseudo-private jet upper cabin. There are just two big, long playing fields onto which a lot of seats are ranked or scattered depending on the price that they're expected to be sold for.

Maybe it's inevitable as civil aviation becomes increasingly commoditised; perhaps the war is lost already as the likes of easyJet and Ryanair win battles that render the excitement that used to come with the rarity of air travel a thing of a less egalitarian past.

Perhaps though, there's still a chance for other carriers to create more memorable spaces within their A380 cabins - especially those for whom first deliveries are still some way off, and for whom the opportunity to be bold remains.

Yes, that's you: BA.

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