Soaring Through Heaven on Air France’s A380

by Mark Thompson
EDGE Style & Travel Editor
Friday Sep 28, 2012

On Air France, there's still a middle class - and it is rightfully celebrated.

It's called Premium Economy, meaning it's a class above Air France's economy class - and right behind Air France's business class. (Air France's first class service, La Première, is used only on long-haul flights.)

On the new Airbus 380, the four classes of service are arranged like an enfilade, a series of ensuite rooms, separated by pleated curtains that heighten the cocooning effect of each class of cabin.

Air France's A380, the world's largest civil aircraft, made its inaugural flight between Paris and New York in November of 2009. In the ensuing two years, this double-decker, four-engine super jumbo aircraft has become favored by aeronautic aficionados.

As soon as you enter the jet bridge from the airport and peer out the portals for a glimpse of the plane you're about to board, you're bound to be awed by this extraordinary aircraft. In the planning stages since 1996, the A380 required extensive preparations with airports and on-ground crew, including the expansion of runways to a width of nearly 150 feet. You look at this double-decker behemoth and you think Cunard or Celebrity; you think, "How in the world is this cruise liner going to soar into the air?"

But soar it does, at nearly 600 mph, flying 516 passengers at a height of 39,000 feet, which is, incidentally, nearly seven miles above the planet. A recent flight from Paris to New York was as smooth as skating across a perfectly frozen lake - and a waiter ascending or descending the two gracious staircases within the plane could have held a tray of Champagne glasses without spilling a drop.

One of the joys of this massive aircraft is the manner in which Air France has configured its cabins to resemble a series of separate rooms. At the plane’s front is a wide staircase joining the two levels, while a well-proportioned circular staircase is at the plane’s rear; both staircases almost beg for a Marc Jacobs/Louis Vuitton fashion shoot featuring well-groomed global travelers.

With Premium Economy, you get many of the same amenities as Business class, such as Sky Priority check-in. The baggage allowance on Premium Economy is two items, each weighing up to 23 kilograms (approximately 50 pounds) with a Priority baggage tag.

When flying from JFK, those priority advantages are often supplemented by shorter check-in lines at counters that are lined with floral bouquets that are as lovely as the manner of the people behind the counter. The gracious check-in is but a preliminary to what awaits you on the plane itself.

In Premium Economy, the Air France fixed-shell seats are like your father’s favorite Barcalounger, the kind of armchair with footrest where you stretch out and read and watch television, with both the dog and cat on your lap.

The fixed-shell seats provide 40% more space than in economy class, with 20% wider seats and 20% more legroom. Best of all, the seats in Premium Economy afford you greater personal space throughout the flight because the seat in front of you does not recline into yours. Which means, at last, your face is no longer sitting in your food.

Amenities include a noise-reducing headset, a reading lamp, a PC outlet, a toiletries kit (featuring products by Clarins), a feather pillow, and a virgin wool blanket so lush that you’ll wish it were yours. The 10.4-inch interactive screen (imbedded in the wide leather armrest to save leg room) offers more than 500 hours of entertainment options.

Meal service in Premium Economy, conceived by Michel Nugues of "Toques du Ciel" (or Sky Chefs), has been designed specifically for this cabin and includes classic French specialties such as scallop flan, potato salad with filet of smoked salmon, seafood tagliatelle, or penne pasta in a blanquette white sauce. Entrees are followed by cheese, as well as mint chocolate cake and cocoa-kirsch genoise with tropical fruit. Champagnes have been selected by Olivier Poussier, who was named the world’s best sommelier in 2000. After-dinner chocolates are by Valrhona.

Those passengers flying Premium Economy are allowed up to 100 pounds of checked luggage at no extra charge, which is one of those little things that matter when you’ve been shopping in either Paris or New York. And if you’re seated alongside the windows on the A380, there’s a hinged storage compartment beneath the windows, like a windowsill that also serves as a bookshelf. If someone gave you flowers, for example, you might put them in a vase here.

At flight’s end, stewards come around to each seat to bid a personal "adieu" to each guest. Making eye contact, they bid "Adieu" as if you’ve shared something special together, which, of course, you have.

In spite of the plane’s large passenger load, there’s a sense of intimacy and privacy on the A380. The pleated curtains separating each class of service are supplemented by well-proportioned public spaces so that the sense of claustrophobia that is so often a part of flying is nearly non-existent on this Air France plane. Currently, seven destinations are served by Air France A380, including New York, D.C., LA, Montreal, Johannesburg, Tokyo, and Singapore.

As for the price, depending on destination, Premium Economy is approximately 50% less than Affaires - and sometimes only $400 more than a round-trip economy ticket. A recent search on Air France for a round trip flight between Paris and New York turned up a $1000 fare for an economy flight - and a $1500 fare for Premium Economy. That works out to about $30 more per hour for a 16-hour round-trip flight.

For many people, the level of service and comfort make this choice an obvious one, which is one reason why a number of American airlines are now introducing premium economy seating.

Regardless of which class you choose, Air France is the only airline that offers Champagne to all passengers on its long-haul international flights - at no extra charge.

Traveling in the Airbus 380 affords you some of the same feelings that were once reserved for traveling on the Concorde, when commercial aviation made a giant leap forward. Gliding through the sky on this magnificent Air France aircraft, you feel as if you’re flying into the future.


Air France

Air France Premium Economy


A long-term New Yorker and a member of New York Travel Writers Association, Mark Thompson has also lived in San Francisco, Boston, Provincetown, D.C., Miami Beach and the south of France. The author of the novels WOLFCHILD and MY HAWAIIAN PENTHOUSE, he has a PhD in American Studies and is the recipient of fellowships at MacDowell, Yaddo, and Blue Mountain Center. His work has appeared in numerous publications.


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