After a stellar flight in the 777 version of La Première, I looked forward to comparing it to the A380. The soft product is the same excellent experience. However, the A380 hard product looked and felt rather outdated compared to its Boeing sister.
Note: this post is part of my trip report series about my recent First Class experience to Barcelona. Click here for the trip report index and introduction.
Air France (AF) Flight 6
- Sunday, April 29, 2018
- Depart: Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG), Terminal 2F, 13:54, 19m late
- Arrive: New York – John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), Terminal 1, 16:34, 34m late
- Duration: 8 hours 40 minutes
- Seat: 2A
- Equipment: Airbus A380-800
Transfer and Pre-Departure
I intentionally booked this routing with only a 1 hour 35 minutes layover in Paris so as to test the La Première ground experience on a tight connection. Weather in Barcelona then shortened this to just an hour and 10 minutes. Yes, Air France loves to try and force you on to tight connections in Paris. However, I generally regard anything under 2.5 hours as playing with fire. I’d usually be a nervous wreck worrying about the connection. But I felt unusually zen about this one.
Turns out, that was for good reason, because La Première makes even tight connections a piece of cake. I’ll cover the ground experience in detail in a later post. But suffice to say, I even had time for a baguette, cheese, and a single malt with time to spare.
The one downside? The tight turnaround meant I couldn’t board first. This made getting unobstructed photos of the cabin difficult, but I managed a few at the end. No seat shenanigans this time, and I was shown to Seat 2A, the window I selected with my strike rebooking.
Air France La Première A380 Cabin and Seating
Whereas the 777 features one of the most private cabins in the sky, the A380 feels more “commercial” by comparison. The La Première cabin in the A380 consists of two rows in a 1-2-1 configuration, plus one “throne” in 1A, for a total of 9 seats.
What surprised me was the lack of privacy in these seats, especially the center section. For one, with no curtains, there’s no physical separation like you find on the 777. But even with the partition raised, it sure looks like you’re still in close proximity to your neighbor. On the other hand, the lack of center overhead bins does make the cabin feel especially airy. Also, with the window seats angled towards the window, you’re mostly protected from your neighbors. Still, it’s nothing compared to the private experience in a 777 seat with the curtains drawn.
If you value privacy above all else, then try and spring for Seat 1A. That seat is off by itself in the corner, so at least you don’t have any neighbors.
The seat itself is pretty much the same as on the 777, with a pitch of 79″ and bed length of 81″. You also have the same oversized lounger/ottoman combo, though the ottoman is noticeably smaller.
Since the seats are offset from the window, the oversized armrest makes for a nice shelf area. In addition, the small partition is a nice touch. It helps keeps things from falling into the wall gap in flight.
Unfortunately, the A380 doesn’t come equipped with the really cool desk lamp found on the 777. Instead, the seat features a standard “snake light” reading light.
Like the 777, the ottoman also features an oversized drawer underneath. This provides plenty of room for a laptop, purse, etc.
However, a couple of things stood out in a negative way. First, these seats are really starting to show their age. You may notice a misaligned headrest on my seat, and a badly misaligned one in the first photo. Second, the seats lack storage compared to the 777. The only storage options, other than underneath the ottoman, are a cubby in the armrest and a magazine rack behind the seat. The cubby provides enough room to stow a phone, camera, etc. But it doesn’t compare to the massive compartments in the 777. In addition, the USB port failed to work, another sign of an aging seat.
Finally, I dislike the angled configuration of the window seats, as you have to lean out to look out the window.
Seat controls are intuitive and easy to use, though more complex than the really basic buttons of the 777. I didn’t get to try out the massage function, though.
The bed, just like the 777, is remarkably comfortable, with a thick mattress pad and high-quality bedding. Also like the 777, the cabin gets quite warm, especially if you like curling up under the comforter. I dozed off for a good 3 hours after lunch. Perhaps longer than I wanted to, but – dang, it’s a comfy bed! It also helps that the pointy end of the A380 is whisper-quiet during cruise.
Waiting at my seat was the same amenity kit and pajamas I received on my outbound flight. I already discussed the kit in my 777 review, and plan a detailed review of the kit later. So, I won’t discuss it further here.
Overall, I found the cabin somewhat disappointing. Perhaps it’s a case of inflated expectations after my first flight. But while elegant and comfortable, the cabin feels outdated. We live in an era of increasingly fantastic first class products, such as Emirates’ new first class. Heck, Qatar even offers enclosed seats in Qsuites Business Class. La Première on the A380 seems – plain – in comparison.
I covered the basics of the IFE system in my first review, so I won’t spend much time on that here. Air France uses the same excellent Bose noise-cancelling headphones on the A380. Also like the 777, the headphones are built-in, so you can’t use them with your own device.
The IFE controller is easy enough to use, though rather bulky.
What I don’t like about the A380 is the fold-out TV screen. I generally dislike these screens, because you can’t watch IFE during take-off and landing. This screen also suffered from a small size and low resolution. Air France equips the A380 with the cool tail camera you find on other whales, but it’s not particularly useful when you can’t watch the take-off or landing.
Food & Beverage
Service began with an offer of a pre-departure beverage upon boarding. I stuck with my usual tradition, champagne. A bubbly FA gladly poured my Taittinger 2006, though I got the distinct feeling she identified me as a poseur from the get-go…
Like last time, the FA took meal orders on the ground. The wine and liquor menu was identical to the outbound, while the main courses rotated to something new.
Meal service commenced roughly 35 minutes after take-off with an amuse bouche. I don’t think I’ll ever develop a taste for caviar. But I have to admit, eating it with a mother-of-pearl spoon was pretty cool.
Next came a cream of pea soup with bread and some of that fantastic French butter. The soup was quite good, flavorful with sweet notes. And the bread was fresh and tasty, of course. Not pictured: my choice of wine; I went with the chardonnay this time.
For the appetizer, I decided to go with the balik smoked salmon instead of the foie gras. I rarely eat fish, but the salmon was delicious. Light yet hearty and meaty without the fishiness. Maybe I should add it to my rotation more often.
Also served at this time was the salad. I forgot to mention in my first review, you have the choice of either a side salad or a large entree portion. I asked for a small salad, but decided to just eat the greens with nothing added except the tomato vinaigrette. Simple, but really good with the vinaigrette, which had a fantastic sweet/tangy flavor mix.
This main course menu much better aligned with my tastes, and I debated between the beef and chicken. I’ve had enough bad experiences with airplane beef to usually steer clear. So, I chose the Landes chicken with poulette sauce. Designed by French celebrity chef Anne-Sophie Pic, this was a great dish. The chicken was perfectly cooked and tender, with hints of curry/coconut flavors in the buttery sauce.
To finish up, I decided to indulge with both the cheese plate and desert. First up was the cheese plate. I enjoyed them all, except the Sainte-Maure de Touraine (unfortunately, a type of goat cheese).
Last but not least, desert from Lenôtre Paris. I’m not sure exactly what this was, though it seemed like some sort of mini chocolate cake. Whatever it was, it was superb.
I did not order coffee, so I can’t confirm whether the powdered cappuccino fiasco on the outbound was a one-off. Feeling thoroughly stuffed, I also passed on the pre-landing snack, though the offerings looked underwhelming.
Overall, I enjoyed the culinary experience much, MUCH more than on the outbound. Certainly more of what I expected on Air France. They still get a big-time demerit for the powdered coffee, though.
I found service about the same as on the outbound flight. That is to say, professional, efficient, and refined, but again, decidedly low-key and hands-off. You don’t have someone hovering over you at all times, but help is there quickly when you need something, and it always comes with a smile.
Like I mentioned in my 777 review, I personally prefer this hands-off approach. What really impressed me on both flights is the level of precision and refinement you experience. Air France is clearly very proud of La Première, and it shows in the service you receive. They don’t feel the need to “over-baby” passengers, and there’s something to be said about that. YMMV if you prefer more proactive service.
Miserable weather in Paris, followed by clouds over much of the Atlantic, significantly limited what I could see. However, I did manage a decent shot of an Air France jet preparing for takeoff, followed by both XL Airways and El Al aircraft just after liftoff.
And the French countryside is beautiful, rain or shine.
Skies cleared by the time we reached the East Coast, and we enjoyed nice views as we passed the coast of Connecticut, followed by the eastern end of Long Island.
On final approach, we made a scenic fly-by of the Far Rockaways.
And finally, as we approached our gate at JFK, an enormous Lufthansa A380.
Speaking of that Lufthansa A380, despite arriving nearly 20 minutes early, it caused us to be late. Apparently, JFK has just one gate capable of handling the A380 – and you guessed it, since the Lufthansa plane occupied it, we got sent to the penalty box. Not just that, but sitting in the penalty box apparently blocked other widebodies from getting to their gates. So our plane was ordered to circle the entire airport, and then come back to the gate. Gotta love the Port Authority…
From a soft product perspective, La Première provides an exceptional experience on both the 777 and A380. Outstanding ground handling, refined service, and comfortable bedding and seating await passengers regardless of the airplane. And the excellent meal on the return makes me think the middling one on the outbound was an aberration. But…boy, when you’ve sampled the great cabin on the 777, the A380 feels like a letdown. It simply doesn’t match the new products available on competitors such as Emirates and Singapore. Or even Air France’s own product on the Boeing.
And of course, the reality is, La Première is hardly cheap, whether paying cash or using miles. “Discount” fares can drop into the $3k range, but La Première remains one of the world’s toughest mileage redemptions. Assuming you even have Flying Blue elite status, a ticket costs a hefty 200,000 miles each way.
So, is it worth it? I guess I actually can see a case where springing for La Première provides value. Air France’s VIP ground handling makes the travel experience so seamless and easy. If I need to get to Europe and have a tight schedule, I can see the convenience being worth the premium in the $3k range. (400k miles for a roundtrip strikes me as excessive, though.) But do yourself a favor and book the 777 if you can.