Despite owning a prestigious reputation, Air France’s premium cabins had been, until recently, objectively mediocre. For an airline that once battled British Airways to first feature beds on board, it lagged behind its competitors only a few short years after installing them. While fully flat became the new norm, angled flats, which just aren’t up to snuff anymore, remained the default in Paris until late-2014. Since then however, the carrier has revitalized its fleet and also its business class offering. New planes, like the 787 I flew on, is highlighted by a brand new top-of-the-line reverse herringbone seat. It’s been a return to grace — there aren’t many better ways to cross the pond nowadays — and I couldn’t have been more pleased with this leg of the trip.
Air France has long enjoyed a prestigious reputation, seen by many as a standard bearer for sky-high luxury. When the airline rolled out a completely redesigned business class in 2014, featuring a new hard product and improved ground services, it was intending to solidify its place at the top of the competitive premium transatlantic market. The onboard experience has done just that, garnering plenty of positive publicity in the years since its introduction. The recently renovated lounges have not attracted similar amounts of attention, although they probably should. Don’t read too far in to this coverage (or lack thereof), the Salon for Air France’s international business passengers is excellent through and through.
After fulfilling my professional obligations in London, I hopped on a train and soon found myself in Lille, a French town located so far in the north of France that it’s practically Belgium. It’s often overlooked by international tourists, and with a population of around 200,000, many of whom are students, it’s not the most burgeoning hotel market either. There is an unsurprising amount of hostels (which is to say: “there are lots”), but the other end of the spectrum is lacking. If it’s luxury you seek, you’ll have better luck in Brussels, which is a short ride away… but if you must be in Lille, I’m pleased to report that the Marriott-affiliated L’Hermitage Gantois is worthy of your attention.
A crew member, as is typical on international flights, offered landing cards and customs declaration forms during our final approach in to London. She strolled through a second time shortly thereafter, but now presenting pamphlets informing premium passengers of access to expedited immigration and a (mysterious) arrivals lounge. I was eager for the former — Heathrow is notorious for its long waits early in the morning — and curious about the latter. Because there wasn’t a lot of available information, the cynic in me expected a lame continental breakfast stuffed in to a closet. That would’ve been better than nothing… but man, this was even better than something!
Until the new Polaris hard product makes its way on to United’s entire longhaul fleet, higher flyers will more-often-than-not be stuck in a forward cabin seat that’s past its prime. There’s the legacy United first class (really very nice for what it is) and the dormitory-styled seats in business class (nightmarish by all accounts), and then also Continental’s old premium offering. My outgoing leg to Europe featured that third alternative: a B/E Aerospace-designed “Diamond” seat that’s competitive in the crowded transatlantic market. Couple that with a much-improved soft product, and you have what amounts to a solid ride across the pond…although it isn’t without its faults either.
A number of The Higher Flyer Consulting obligations had me jetting off from the East Coast to London on a Friday, taking the train to France on a Saturday, and then returning home on a Sunday. A weekend like that, in theory, sounds absolutely brutal… And, well, sitting down at my day job desk that Monday morning was a struggle. The trip was well worth it though, and thankfully, premium accommodations all the way through to the end made it all the better.
After our excellent flight in Thai’s Royal Silk, my father and I were eager to see how United’s Polaris First compared. We weren’t entirely sure what to expect when we were boarding; United has been rather transparent about its plans to ditch first class. The new, super-business Polaris is the future, and at the time of our flight, United was (and still is) awkwardly juggling the various premium cabins it has across its fleet. Would Polaris First be a comfortable way to travel, or would it be a forgotten flop of a product? Turns out we were in for a pleasant surprise, and our final flight to complete the Southeast Asian Summer Vacation trip was both a winner and an incredible value at only 80,000 MileagePlus miles… but it wasn’t without some glaring indications of the end of United’s first class. Be sure to enjoy it while you can!
As much as we enjoyed indulging in the Thai Royal First Lounge, my father and I had to leave rather quickly. Our departure gate, C10, was quite far away, and we nearly had to sprint just to get there in time. Out of breath and in a tizzy, we arrive to find the boarding area a jumbled mess. The ground crew was totally overwhelmed by a mass of economy class gate lice who were all swarming the business line. That chaotic scene wasn’t the best first impression, but we made it on the plane eventually, and settled in for what would develop into an exceptional regional flight.
Finding the Royal First Lounge at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi was a bit of a challenge when we first arrived for our departing flight. While the airport is physically stunning, actually navigating it is more problematic. It doesn’t help that everything is just so spread out. We entered the terminal at the wrong end, and had to walk what seemed like miles (it was actually a quarter mile, but still, that’s pretty far) until we finally found what we were looking for: the premium check in desk. It only got better — much, much better — from there.