BACKGROUND: With a dozen cities on the continent served from its hub at Paris- Charles de Gaulle, Air France has proven itself a popular choice for business travel into and out of Africa. In 2003 the French carrier partnered with Dutch airline KLM, and today passengers enjoy seamless connections and access to more than 200 destinations worldwide from their dual hubs in Paris and Amsterdam. Air France offers a daily service to Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport, served three times per week with a Boeing 777, with the remaining services operated by an Airbus A380.
CHECK-IN: The Air France online check-in is one of the best on the web, with a fast intuitive design that quickly gets the formalities out of the way. Aircraft seating diagrams are clear and accurate, allowing me to quickly choose a favoured aisle seat. At the airport, check-in and/or bag drop is equally efficient with dedicated lanes for premium passengers. Once airside, premium travellers enjoy the use of the SLOW Lounge, surely the best lounge at ORTIA. The quality of food and beverages – including a staffed, well-stocked bar – makes a few hours here a treat. There’s free and fast wi-fi, shower rooms and a handful of private work spaces. Flights are not called at boarding time though, so pay attention to the departure boards.
BOARDING: With an almost-full A380 to process, the ground staff had their work cut out for them. Further complicating matters were a dozen passengers in wheelchairs and a medical patient on a stretcher! But the ground staff handled it all with aplomb. The dedicated SkyPriority lane allowed La Premiere and business passengers to get settled quickly, with champagne and soft drinks offered shortly after boarding. The dedicated coat hanger left ready and waiting on each seat is a nice touch.
THE FLIGHT: The A380 fleet has not yet been fitted with Air France’s impressive ‘new’ business class product, but the 2-2-2 layout has a spacious feel to it nonetheless. Note, though, that window seats won’t have direct aisle access. That aside, it’s a comfortable cabin on the ‘superjumbo’. The seats offer an ample foot well – something many premium cabins lack – and a welcome pack included flight socks, slippers and a shoe bag. Soon after take-off the stylish Clarins amenity kits were offered, filled with the usual mix of facial creams, earplugs and toothbrush. There’s in-seat power if you need to work, and a bright, responsive touch-screen for the in-flight entertainment that offers a range of European and international movies and television programmes. I was happy enough to delve into the wine list and dinner though. Air France works with acclaimed sommelier Paolo Basso for its on-board selection, which on this flight included wonderful Languedoc Blanc from southern France, and a Grenache blend from the famed Rhône appellation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Air France understandably prides itself on its culinary offer, and this flight’s menu didn’t disappoint. Dinner began with an amuse bouche of ostrich carpaccio, followed by four courses ranging from herb-marinated salmon starters to hot choices of grilled beef tournedos, Provencal-style hake and roast chicken on basmati rice. A selection of gourmet cheeses follows, before dessert and digestifs. There’s an ‘Express’ menu if you’d rather squeeze in some extra sleep, but I chose to savour the experience, ending off with a selection of delicate cakes and a glass of fiery Armagnac. A true Gallic experience at altitude! When it’s time for shut-eye, there’s a cosy blanket and decent pillow. The seats in the A380 extend to an angled-flat – not fully-flat – bed, but even with my six-foot frame I got a decent night’s rest. Breakfast offers up an array of choices, from pastries to omelettes to charcuterie platters, but as usual I decided to skip the meal in favour of a bit more sleep. Happily, coffee and croissants are served up until 30 minutes before landing.
ARRIVAL: Arrival was on time at Paris Charles de Gaulle, with an easy intra-terminal connection for my onwards flight to Mexico with SkyTeam partner Aeroméxico.
VERDICT: An impressive business class experience from start to finish. On-board service was superb, and the smaller touches added a welcome dose of sky-high pampering.