After disembarking from Etihad Airways 787 business class, I had a two-hour connection in Paris Charles de Gaulle before catching Air France A350 business class back home to Toronto.
Air France business class can be a rather tough product to book using rewards points, since we don’t have the easiest access to SkyTeam loyalty programs in Canada.
In general, I’d say there are three main ways you could book Air France business class at a good value: Delta SkyMiles, Air France/KLM Flying Blue miles (perhaps under one of their limited-time Promo Awards events), or looking out for cheaper cash fares that are typically available from Europe to North America (but not the other way around).
In my case, I had originally booked a deeply-discounted US$750 business class fare from Budapest to Toronto and back, with the outbound in Air France business class and the return flight in KLM business class.
I’d consider US$750 to be a fantastic price point for transatlantic business class, and I planned to use the first flight to get back from Europe and the second flight to kickstart another trip to Europe in the future.
After the itinerary was hit with several schedule changes, I eventually managed to drop the first leg from Budapest to Paris and simply originate in Paris, allowing me to catch this flight seamlessly on my way home from Dubai.
(To be transparent, I had gotten some help from a friend who works for Air France to get this ticket reissued this way. Some, but not all, other passengers who also booked the cheap fare from Budapest were able to do the same by relentlessly calling Delta and trying their luck with multiple agents.)
My two-hour connection in CDG was barely long enough after trudging through a jam-packed and poorly-socially-distanced transit security queue.
I didn’t really have time to check out Air France’s lounge on this occasion, and I headed straight to the boarding gate, where priority boarding was already being called.
Air France | AF356
Aircraft: Airbus A350-900
Cabin: Business class
Route: Paris (CDG) to Toronto (YYZ)
Date: Friday, December 4, 2020
Time: Departing 2pm and arriving 4:25pm
Duration: 8 hours 25 minutes
Air France operates a rather diverse long-haul fleet of Airbus A330s, Airbus A350s, Boeing 777s, and Boeing 787s.
I was very much looking forward to experiencing Air France’s newest-generation seats on the Airbus A350, which are pretty consistently deployed on the airline’s route from Paris to Toronto. (Meanwhile, the Paris–Montreal route tends to receive the Boeing 787 with slightly older reverse herringbone seats.)
Boarding the plane via the door at the very front, I was directed to turn right into the business class cabin.
First impressions? Air France’s business class cabin looked very… businesslike. The seat finishes are a light grey, adorned with small touches of red and blue that reflect the French tricolore colour palette.
Even though the cabin finishes looked a little sterile to me upon first glance, I would eventually take a liking to the classic colour combination and the finer details in the seat itself that accentuate the visual identity.
Air France A350 business class consists of 34 individual seats, arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration across nine rows. Row 1 only has two window seats, whereas Rows 2–9 have four seats each.
The seat type is known as the Zodiac Optima, and it’s the same seat that you’ll find on United Polaris business class.
The window seats alternate between being closer to the windows and closer to the aisles, while the middle seats alternate between being close together and far apart.
When I’m travelling solo, I always prefer to sit as close to the window as possible, and so I had chosen Seat 6A for this flight. The “true” window seats on Air France A350 business class are rather cozy indeed, with a narrow walkway separating the aisle from the seat itself.
It’s always an exciting feeling to settle into an airplane seat that I’ve never tried before, especially one as new as this one, which was introduced in September 2019.
I was offered a welcome beverage as soon as I took my seat. Having already worked up a bit of a buzz on Etihad Airways a few hours earlier, I opted for the orange juice for now.
I explored the seat in-depth, starting with the entertainment screen in front of me. The 18.5’’ monitor is a fairly impressive size, and its touch-screen capabilities were highly responsive.
The one complaint I’d have about the screen was its highly reflective surface, which resulted in a fair bit of glare on the screen. Perhaps a glossy matte finish would’ve been a better choice here.
Beneath the monitor, the tray table can be deployed outwards with the push of a handle, and then rotated into place for dining and working.
If you needed to get up from your seat in the middle of a meal, you could also swivel the table around to do so.
Below that is the footwell, which was about a standard size for a staggered seat like this, where your feet go underneath the console of the seat in front of you – not too spacious, but not too small either.
There wasn’t much room in the way of under-seat storage, and I had to leave my (rather bulky) backpack in the overhead bins for most of the flight.
You’ll find a variety of seat features dotted around the console by your side.
On the panel immediately next to you, there’s a reading light and a simplified set of controls for lighting, seat position, and the call button.
Then, down by your legs, there’s a small literature pocket, an armrest that can be folded up or down, and another set of seat controls for toggling between upright, dining, and lie-flat modes.
The remaining seat features are neatly hidden away behind a hatch, which also houses the primary storage unit. Take note of the beige leather strap here – one of many examples of the French design principle of “effortlessly chic”.
Inside, you’ll find a spacious storage compartment, a vanity mirror, a hook for the headphones, an Evian bottled water, and the entertainment controller which can be unlatched and held in your hand to control the entertainment unit.
The controller can even be pointed directly at the screen and used as a pointer to navigate around the entertainment system from the comfort of your seat – something that I haven’t seen offered by many other airlines.
However, it does take a fairly fine degree of wrist control to use the pointer properly, so you might still find it easier to navigate around using the buttons on the controller.
Smartly tucked beneath the storage hatch is the 110V power and USB outlets, positioned for optimal charging convenience. (A second USB outlet is also available underneath the entertainment screen up front.)
Finally, you’ll find a coat hook in the top corner of the wall in front of you, near the walkway to the aisle.
However, Air France also leaves a coat hook at each seat, with the crew coming around to offer to hang up my coat at the front and keep it out of my way for the duration of the flight. I of course preferred that, so I didn’t make use of the coat hook at my seat.
You really do get quite an impressive level of privacy here in the “true” window seats, and you won’t really be able to see any of the other passengers, nor will they see you.
There’s an additional partition that can slide outwards to give you even more privacy (or if you end up in the middle seats with a stranger next to you).
In addition to the coat hanger, an amenity kit and a set of slippers were also left at our seats.
The amenity kit I received was a rather nondescript ridged suede pouch, which was mildly disappointing; for an airline of Air France’s stature, I would’ve loved to have a more luxurious amenity kit, perhaps in partnership with one of the many well-known premium French brands, to add to my collection.
At least its contents were well-stocked, boasting hand cream and moisturizer by Clarins, a cloth for cleaning my glasses (which I always appreciate), and other uncommon items like a shoe horn and a pen.
Before takeoff, the crew members came through the cabin to introduce themselves and distribute the in-flight menus.
One of them also remarked that I was very enthusiastic about taking pictures of everything, and I explained that I was writing a review, which appeared to spark their curiosity and perhaps led to some slightly more attentive and enthusiastic service throughout the flight.
The business class menu, simple and stylish in its presentation, read as follows:
Air France’s safety video did a great job of showcasing the airline’s unique and undeniable French touch, although it’s my understanding that the airline has since introduced a brand-new safety video in early 2021.
As we began our takeoff sequence, I decided to explore through the in-flight entertainment system. I found the entertainment selections to be relatively comprehensive, with almost 150 movies to choose from in the collection.
The TV shows were a little less varied with 29 titles, most of which only offered one or two episodes to watch.
I kept the airshow on for most of the flight, tracking our progress across the Atlantic Ocean. The Airbus A350 also features a tail and under-belly camera, which can be viewed on the IFE system as well.
I also decided to connect to the wifi, so that I could stay productive on this daytime flight. Air France offers three wifi plans, and I chose the medium-priced package (“Surf Pass”), which cost me €18 for the entire flight.
The other two options were the “Message Pass” and “Stream Pass”, which would cost €0 and €30 respectively. If you just wanted to send and receive text messages during the flight, it’s quite nice of Air France to offer a free connectivity option.
The onboard meal service began soon after we reached cruising altitude. There were only six passengers in business class today, so service was always prompt and responsive throughout the flight.
I began with a glass of the Fleur de Champagne by Duval-Leroy, a fruity and slightly toasty cuvée that I hadn’t tried before. This was followed by the meal presentation itself, with the appetizer, salad, cheese, and dessert all delivered on one tray, and the appetizer later being replaced by the main course.
I later confirmed with the crew that the single-tray service is the standard serving method here on Air France business class, rather than merely a COVID precaution.
To me, this was somewhat surprising, as I had imagined that Air France might be keen to draw upon the world-famous haute cuisine of its home nation and impress its passengers with a multi-course serving style, the way that many of the world’s leading airlines do in business class.
Then again, I suppose that luxury is only reserved for Air France La Première passengers… one day, one day. 😉
Lunch began with foie gras terrine and smoked salmon as the appetizer, accompanied by pear chutney and dill cream respectively. I was fairly impressed to see foie gras on the menu for a business class meal, and I very much enjoyed indulging in the rich flavours of the duck liver.
After a delicious appetizer, it was time for the main course: a beef fillet in “rare pepper sauce” (whatever that means). Steak on a plane is never easy to pull off, so I thought I’d put Air France’s onboard catering to the test here.
Before digging in, I was offered to try some red wine with my steak, and I opted for a glass of the Bordeaux Saint-Estèphe, having taken fond memories of the wine from this region from my Emirates First Class flight earlier on this trip. I’m certainly far from a connoisseur when it comes to wine, but over the course of these flying experiences, I’m slowly developing my taste for what I like and don’t like.
I’m pleased to say that the beef fillet turned out to be an excellent dish, its texture sufficiently juicy and its flavours accentuated by a surprisingly complex pepper sauce. Even the asparagus on the side, which I’m usually not the biggest fan of, was pretty tasty when going along with the sauce.
I polished off the cheese and dessert after finishing the main course, and ended the meal with a cappuccino. Unfortunately, Air France offers powdered cappuccinos in business class, and this one wasn’t particularly well-mixed either.
By this time, we were about one-thirds of the way across the Atlantic, with roughly five hours of the flight left to go. Having gotten a bit of work done on my computer earlier, I decided to close my eyes for a brief nap.
I briefly visited the restroom first to wash up before napping.
The main business class restroom offers a baby changing table and some fragrances for passengers to use – it was a little surprising that these were still available during COVID, and hadn’t been replaced by large bottles of hand sanitizer like on many other airlines.
Returning to the cabin, I decided to make my bed in Seat 7C behind me. Since there were only six business class passengers, I had virtually the entire lower-left corner of the cabin all to myself, and I figured that a seat closer to the aisle would give me more room to spread out my legs while sleeping.
Air France doesn’t offer a mattress pad or turndown service in business class, so I went ahead and made the bed on my own.
The legroom was fine in lie-flat mode – not quite as restrictive as some other business class seat types that I’ve tried in the past. There’s a natural curvature to the walls of the footwell, which can be helpful if you wanted to sleep on your side.
Perhaps due to the sheer quietness of the A350 aircraft, but I managed to sleep exceedingly well on this flight – enough to take note to myself how refreshed I felt upon waking up.
I returned to Seat 6A for the remaining couple of hours, mostly passing the time using the wifi on my phone.
The pre-arrival meal was served about one and a half hours before landing, consisting of a quiche-like dessert called a clafoutis, a crunchy vegetable salad, and some more desserts: sponge cake and panna cotta.
I must say that none of these items were my favourites to begin with, so I only took a few bites of most of them.
Over the years, I’ve found that many airlines are able to execute the first meal to a very high level, but aren’t quite as impressive with the second meal or light snack – and Air France business class was another experience that turned out this way.
Perhaps the highlight of the snack service was the orange juice, which I found to be exceptionally tasty. I ordered a few extra glasses of it, and eventually, the crew member came by and left me with the entire carton until it was time for landing!
As we began to make our descent into Toronto Pearson, the crew distributed the landing forms for Canada – a new requirement during the COVID-19 era due to the mandatory 14-day quarantine upon entering the country.
At the same time, I downloaded and logged into the ArriveCAN in order to submit my intended quarantine plan. Things were a bit hectic during my departure from Dubai and I didn’t get around to this before boarding my flights, so it was a good thing that I had Air France’s onboard wifi to complete my pre-arrival procedures before actually arriving at my port of entry in Canada.
Toronto’s street scenes looked sullen and snowy as we dipped beneath the cloud layer – a stark contrast from the sunny two weeks I had spent in Dubai, and an even starker reminder of the housebound two weeks that lay ahead.
Business class on the Air France A350 made for a smooth and pleasant daytime Atlantic crossing on my way home from Dubai, and I was satisfied to check off another new business class experience from my list.
With à la mode cabin finishes, polished and friendly onboard service, a delicious meal right after takeoff, and a comfortable sleeping experience, Air France business class is a product I wouldn’t mind flying again for a convenient route between Paris and either Toronto or Montreal.
However, there are quite a few little touches that I think the airline could improve on, especially to lean even more into its French identity. Small things like individually plated meals, turndown service, or machine-brewed over powdered cappuccinos would take the experience to another level, making Air France more competitive against the world’s leading business class airlines.
There’s an argument to be made – and it’s a good one – that Air France’s First Class product, known as La Première, is where the airline keeps those luxuries reserved for only its most valued passengers. One day, I look forward to experiencing that coveted class of service for myself.
For now, even though Air France was one of the better transatlantic business class products I’ve tried, I don’t think it’s worthwhile for most Canadians to go to the trouble of redeeming points for Air France business class when there are several other airlines we can book more easily.