New Air France Dreamliners raise the bar in premium economy.

January 10, 2017

Air France is offering some inexpensive opportunities to experience the first brand new aircraft type added to its fleet since the arrival of the Airbus A380 in 2009.

The carrier’s first Boeing 787-9 took over the  4.5-hour daily flight from Paris Charles De Gaulle  Airport to Cairo on January 9 but it will also initially be used on shorter routes in Europe.

The Dreamliner will move to long-haul service on the airline’s Paris-Montreal route on May 1 after the second of 16 787-9s arrives in spring. 

But there are opportunities to experience the newest addition to the Air France fleet on the cheap within Europe before that date.

 From February 6, flights AF1680/1681 between Paris and London-Heathrow and return will be flown by the first 787 (except on Wednesdays), with one-way economy fares offered at bargain prices as low as 66€.  

 With the deployment of the second aircraft, the airline is planning a round trip between Paris and Lyon in between flights to Canada to give flight crews an extra opportunity to rack up take-offs and landings.

The new plane highlights one of Air France’s weaknesses:  its inconsistent cabin product, particularly in business class.

 Its business product ranges from aging angled lie-flat seats, especially in the A340-300 fleet and on the 10 A380s delivered since 2009, to the revamped cabins of the Boeing 777s. 

The rollout of the newest 777 product started in June, 2014, and it will still take until December, 2017, before all aircraft have been refitted.   Currently, 44 of 68 Boeing 777-200ERs and -300ERs have been upgraded. 

The airline will also keep its A340s for some time — nine of the airline’s 11 A340-300s, some over 20 years old, will only be phased out within the next three years.

 Air France fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told Airline Ratings during a 787 demo flight that the plan was to replace them one by one with the incoming Dreamliners.

Because the ancient A340 cabins will continue to offer customers only a fraction of the comfort of the newer aircraft interiors, the biggest uncertainty surrounds the A380 fleet. 

“We are now making a plan and shall start retrofitting a new product from 2019”, says Bertrand, meaning that it will take at least until 2020, more than 10 years since the superjumbo’s   introduction, before passengers can expect to see enhanced A380 cabins matching the offerings of 777s or the 787.

The wild variety of product levels won’t be helped by the introduction of the first Airbus A350-900s at Air France, planned for September 2019.  While partner KLM took the first 787s in November 2015, and now has eight in service, Air France will take the lead with the A350s.

Air France’s Dreamliners offer 276 seats versus 294 on the 787-9s operated by KLM, the reason being that the Dutch don’t have a dedicated premium economy cabin. KLM has an “Economy Comfort” section, with an enhanced pitch of 35’’, that is otherwise an identical product to Economy.

 Air France takes pride in its new premium economy, which is making its debut on the 787s with a dedicated cabin (rows 11-12) with 21 seats in 2-3-2 configuration.

 “We use the Zodiac Airgo FX Premium seats and enhanced the pitch from 38’’ in our previous product to 40’’ now,’’ customer experience manager Fatou Gueye tells Airline Ratings. 

This is not the roomiest premium economy in the sky  —  JAL and China Airlines are offering up to 42’’ with the same seat hardware — but Air France’s newest product is easily among the best offerings  currently available, boasting a bigger recline of 130 degrees versus 123 degrees in the previous  fixed shell seats that were an industry innovation when introduced by the airline in 2009. 

 The screens for the 787’s in-flight entertainment system from Panasonic, as on the 777s, have been enlarged from nine inches to 11 inches.  Welcome innovations on the new product is the much larger foldout table, which can support a laptop easily, and new footrests which come up higher than previously to make the seat more comfortable for many passengers.

A new feature in the otherwise unchanged business cabin is a smallish bar corner in a space next to door 2L.  

The Air France 787 is also the first aircraft of the carrier’s 225-strong fleet to be wi-fi-enabled, a move that comes late compared to other international carriers such as Lufthansa or Emirates.

 “The technology wasn’t good enough, but now it is time,’’ says Bertrand.  Air France/KLM repeated this mantra and refused to sign up for on-board WiFi for years, allowing the competition to gain big advantages. 

The Panasonic eXConnect system using Ku-band satellites seems to work fairly well and fast, according to people who have used it on Air France’s 787 flights. 

However, the airline charges for data packages, the most customer-unfriendly solution, as passengers have no idea how fast their package is used up.

 Rather than offering a flat fee like Lufthansa, Air France charges from 5€ for 20MB, 10€ for 50MB and 30€ for 200MB. 

In September, Air France-KLM had signed with provider Gogo to equip a total of 124 long-haul aircraft of both carriers, 68 Boeing 777s and 15 Airbus A330s at Air France, but again only starting at the end of 2017.  

There is also no word on any plans for the A380.