There are three cabins on the upper deck of Air France’s Airbus A380. Two fall within the mediocre middle of transatlantic offerings, while one is exceptional.
The airline has far better business class and premium economy seating on smaller aircraft, particularly the newer 777-300ER, but would be hard pressed to find a better economy class experience across the Atlantic. Air France’s diminutive upper deck cabin offers unusually attentive service and extra space. Spoiler alert: these seats are worth the advance reservation.
While other airlines operate small upper deck economy cabins on transatlantic A380 routes, the cabins are either sparingly available (just one daily flight on Singapore) or are denigrated by the addition of equipment boxes (British Airways and Lufthansa). Air France’s A380s, which operate between Paris, New York and Los Angeles, with occasional appearances at other U.S. hubs, offers an extremely comfortable ride in economy.
Booking the Upper Deck.
Air France normally charges a fee, between $25 and $40, to select a seat in the upper deck. As a Delta Gold Medallion (SkyTeam ElitePlus) member, I avoided this fee and was able to select a window seat near the rear of the upper cabin at no additional cost. Some seats were still unavailable for free, though these are available as complimentary seat selections by Delta Platinum and Diamond Medallion elites.
I purchased my flight through Delta.com as a return on a round-trip, and was able to select my seat through Delta.com and the Fly Delta app, the same as I would on a Delta aircraft. Note, it may not be possible, or as easy, for Delta Medallions to select these seats on tickets purchased through Air France or another broker.
Curiously, the SkyPriority check-in agent at CDG seemed surprised that I was seated in the upper deck, and told me that I must pay a fee, despite my elite status or be downgraded to a lower deck middle seat. I persistently and calmly explained that the seat was part of the ticket I booked with Delta, which allows elites to access those seats. I even showed her where I chose the seat on the FlyDelta app. Eventually she relented, though not after telling me three times over that I needed to pay her cash while threatening to move my seat to the lower deck.
As she printed my boarding pass, she warned me that I might be denied boarding and moved to another seat at the gate.
I encountered no such trouble at the gate, and later confirmed that SkyTeam ElitePlus members can select preferred seats on all Air France flights at any time before departure, at no additional cost.
At the end of the day I chalked up the strange encounter to an occassionally documented ritual in which a clueless employee determinedly tells an extremely frequent customer utterly incorrect information, while in the process threatening them to no apparent end or outcome. This phenomenon remains one of the great mysteries of science, and least understood behaviors in the airline world.
As a Delta Gold Medallion, I was able to access the Salon (lounge) in Terminal 2E. It is one of the best lounges I’ve encountered in the entire SkyTeam network. Read my review here.
An A380 at a departure gate means long lines. It appeared that upper deck passengers were allowed to board in a separate group, just behind the business class and premium economy passengers also seated on the upper deck.
Regardless, the SkyPriority line that formed when our superjumbo pulled up was as long as I’ve seen in my hundreds of thousands of miles as a SkyTeam flier. Bigger isn’t better in every respect.
Delightfully, once I reached the jetway I was able to bypass a second line, since my seat was on the more sparsely populated second deck, I enjoyed access to the upper level gangway.
The intimate size of this cabin is perhaps its best feature. There are 38 seats in the pricier premium economy cabin, while this upstairs economy cabin has 40.
There are two restrooms for 40 passengers, a ratio on-par with some of the more crowded business class cabins out there. Flight attendants served both the premium economy and economy cabin. Service never felt slow or rushed, and the one time I rang the attendant call button, to request an additional beer, a cheerful flight crew member arrived in just a few seconds.
While economy passengers are restricted from entering the forward premium economy and business class cabins, the rear spiral staircase provides access to the planes massive lower level cabin. There was plenty of room for a short stroll, and abundant room to stretch in the abutting rear galley.
Mood lights were installed on delivery of our A380, and though they were starting to feel a bit dated compared to the dynamic color spectrums now on offer, the lighting still lent the cozy upper-deck cabin a calming, modern ambiance.
One of my favorite features of the upper deck on a jumbo jet is the large side storage bins. These were perfectly adequate to store and seal off some stinky camembert cheese I bought in the CDG duty-free shop.
I’ve often heard frequent fliers gloat about the perks of sitting high and in the rear of the A380. After experience the cabin myself, I can confirm its an unusually pleasant place to be. Being so far from both the nose and the wing superstructure, this is one of the most serene places I’ve been on an aircraft.
Engine noise on takeoff was faint, and the plane seemed to just loaf its way through jet stream turbulence. Air that might feel choppy even in a plane as large as a Boeing 777 was dampened into big, floaty lumps.
Air France equipped the newest of its A380s nearly a decade ago, and the wear was somewhat noticeable, though not bothersome.
I appreciated the extra-wide armrests on the A380 upper deck, which provided just enough additional space so as my rather large seatmate felt comfortably distant.
The seats were well padded and also featured retractable footrests. This is a basic feature that, for whatever reason, U.S. airlines don’t seem to care to offer economy passengers. Footrests significantly reduce lower-back strain caused by sitting, and in my experience make it much easier to nap in a seated position.
The entertainment screen was usable, despite its noticeable age. Air France did a good job equipping these birds from the onset, keeping disruptive under-seat boxes to a minimum.
This was my first and only flight on Air France, and I enjoyed the meal service. It’s hard to gloat about economy meal service on any flight. I employ the cafeteria standard: if I would order the meal again at an office cafeteria, it earns a passing score.
Air France didn’t disappoint. Economy passengers were given printed menus and two meal choices, accompanied by a decent French wine, champagne, aperitif, Heineken and the usual soft drink selection.
By most any economy standard, the menu is impressive.
For my transatlantic lunch I ordered macaroni pasta gratin with baby vegetables and goat cheese. The cheese was real. The pasta was crispy on top. I was impressed.
Both entrees came with a pearl pasta salad featuring red lentils, carrots and cucumber with Sicilian Kashi lemon. This is an exceptional salad accompaniment by any economy class standard. I was actually glad to eat it. This is a lifetime first.
Was the meal followed by a wrapped up brownie or prepackaged ice cream? Why no, I was served an actual pastry, a mini cherry clafoutis.
I finished my meal with a Courvoisier, capping off the best transatlantic meal service I’ve had in anything below business class. This service easily bested a recent premium economy meal on Virgin Atlantic.
About four hours later we were served an afternoon roll with camambert. This cheese > any American airline’s cheese. It was a nice way to ease out of a long flight.
Our Arrival Into JFK.
Despite being seated in the very rear of the aircraft, I managed to beat the majority of downstairs economy passengers off the jet bridge, as the business and premium economy cabins cleared out fairly quickly.
Unfortunately, Air France flies into the outdated Terminal 1 at JFK airport, rather than the more modern and marginally better equipped Terminal 4, home to joint venture partner Delta’s international hub.
Ground operations at Terminal 1 are a mess most hours. During the hours when one of Air France’s 516 seat A380s pulls up, that mess turns into something resembling an NFL game. It took nearly one hour to retrieve my Sky Priority bags from the carousel. Thanks to my Chase Sapphire Reserve-comped Global Entry membership, I was able to bypass an immigration line that looked of at least equal length.
This type of crush load seems to be common at the terminal, even on a Sunday like the one I flew in on. If you want to fly a jumbo jet from France to New York, however, this is no other option.
Unfortunately, SkyTeam airline’s have not installed an arrivals lounge at JFK as they do at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and London Heathrow airports. This absence always seems to puzzle me.
Coupled with priority services and access to Air France’s incredible Salon at CDG Terminal 2E, I hardly felt like an economy class passenger… until I landed at New York’s JFK Terminal 1.
The food exceeded expectations, the ride aboard the superjumbo was whisper quiet, and the intimate service provided in the upstairs economy cabin gave the whole experience a special feel.
If you’re flying economy class to Europe, I’d highly recommend seeking out a spot on the upper deck of Air France’s A380. Even if you must pay up to the second deck, it’s far more affordable than a premium economy fare that would offer a only a marginally better experience, if that.