Trip Report – Air France A380 Upper Deck Economy Review, Paris CDG to New York JFK

A beautiful view boarding the Air France A380 upper deck at Paris Charles de Gaulle. I’ve never noticed quite so many rivets on an airplane before. Perhaps a paint job is in order.

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.

Gold, Platinum and Diamond medallions can select preferred seating on the upper deck of Air France’s A380 for free through Delta.com. Note: this may only work if the ticket was purchased through Delta (codeshare). Also, I don’t know why the Delta.com seat map says “Lower Deck” in this window.

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.

Boarding Time.

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.

The SkyPriority line for the A380 was the longest I’d ever seen.

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.

Upper deck economy passengers avoided a lineup, as they were allowed to use the second-level boarding ramp (even though it said “business”)

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 Cabin.

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.

The bulkhead row in the upper deck economy cabin on Air France’s A380. Notice the unusually wide armrests and thick padding.

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.

The A380’s rear staircase was a great place to stand up and stretch out.

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.

The storage bins on the A380’s upper deck are quite large. The extra space made me feel like I was sitting in first class. They are also a great place to store stinky cheese.

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.

The rear of the A380’s upper deck is a special place, so far removed from even the wing.

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.

The Seats.

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 paired seats upstairs are quite spacious, and well padded.

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.

I don’t know why U.S. carriers don’t install footrests in long-haul economy cabins. I find they make a huge difference in back comfort and leg swelling on flights over a few hours.

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.

The in-flight entertainment system showed its age, but was functional and still better than many other screens I’ve seen floating around.

I was generally impressed with the depth and quality of entertainment options.

The Food.

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.

I was delighted to receive a printed menu in economy.

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.

My lunch in economy on Air France.

This pasta au gratin tasted better than it looked. There was discernible goat cheese in there!

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.

This was a significantly better salad than I’ve had in economy anywhere else.

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.

Air France economy dessert: a petit 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.

I ordered cognac in economy. Even in a plastic cup, it was a delightful way to conclude lunch.

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.

This snack service was delivered about 90 minutes before landing. There was some decent cheese in there, somewhere.

Our Arrival Into JFK.

View from on high. Sitting in the rear of the A380’s upper-deck, even this Alitalia 777 appeared miniscule. Distant: a Delta 737 posing as a regional jet at 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.

The Takeaway.

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.

I’ll miss this view, and will certainly seek it out on my next transatlantic economy crossing.

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.

 

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Comments

  1. Nice review, those AF economy seats look more spacious than others I’ve seen because of those bins on the side. Glad to see that AF has nice food. The one experience I had on SXM-CDG, they just served tons of raw/steamed veggies for the AVML. I wish they or KLM still flew to DFW so that I could try it out once more…

    • You can always catch an Air France flight from Houston! They often serve Houston with their 777-300er, which has great Premium Economy and business class seats (not so great in the back, though).

  2. Hi, did you sat in seat 88K as pictured? Is the image under Cabin seats 88~89? I’m still debating if I should reserve 88 or 89. Thanks for the detailed report.

  3. I’ve read elsewhere that the upper-deck economy A380 seats on Air France do not have AC power ports. Can you confirm? I have a macbook, and am flying from DC to South Africa via Paris, all on A380s. I’m really hoping you have some good news, because having access to my laptop would make 40 hours in the air a whole lot better.

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