REVIEW: Air France “New Business Class” A350-900, Chicago ORD – Paris CDG

REVIEW: Air France “New Business Class” A350-900, Chicago ORD – Paris CDG

REVIEW: Air France "New Business Class" A350-900, Chicago ORD – Paris CDG

Today’s article is from TLFL writer Jason. You can follow Jason on Instagram here @planejayds


Check-in O’Hare Terminal 5

Being a hub for both American Airlines and United Airlines (it’s also UA’s HQ), Chicago is a humongous airport split over four terminals, with the majority of non-US airlines departing from Terminal 5 (there is no Terminal 4). The terminals are all linked landside by a free-of-charge automated people mover, and distances between the terminals vary from walkable (T2 – T3). You also have T1 close by, and then you have T5, which is quite a distance away (think LHR T3 – LHR T5 distance).

O’Hare Terminal 5 isn’t a huge terminal, so it is quite easy to locate the different airline check-in desks, which are well-signposted. I had arrived just under two hours in advance of my 5:30 pm flight and found the Air France desks pretty much deserted.

There were two Sky Priority check-in counters for business class and top-tier frequent flyers, and during check-in, the pleasant agent advised me they had to switch my seat from 10A to 10L as the inbound crew had advised that there were audio issues with 10L’s entertainment system.

Armed with my boarding pass, I headed to security, which was also virtually empty. The only things that had to come out of hand baggage were laptops and iPads, and shoes had to be taken off and x-rayed. I had an interesting experience passing through the body scanner with a red square (which indicates something needing further investigation) showing on the monitor right over my nether regions. The agent asked me if I had anything in the area and I replied nothing that shouldn’t be there. The agent informed me he would have to perform a search of the area and went into great detail about the areas he would have to touch and feel and provided the option of having it done in a private area. I told him to go for it, which he did, and it was extremely thorough.


Lounge – Delta Skyclub

Once through security, you can only go in two directions: left or right. Both the Delta lounge and my departure gate were on the right, so I went in that direction. Delta is the only US airline that operates from Terminal 5, which is handy for their alliance partners Air France and KLM, which have a joint alliance across the Atlantic.

US airline lounges have had a major re-fresh over the past five or so years. US carriers rely heavily on annual paid membership plans to provide access to their lounges, so AA used to top out at ‘Admirals Club Lounges’ and United at ‘United Club Lounges’, and these lounges were pretty basic.

The ‘clubs’ were aesthetically functional, with limited food (packaged snacks, crudities and maybe a soup if you were lucky) and complimentary beverages limited to tea, coffee, soft drinks and maybe one or two ‘house’ wines or beers with ‘premium’ options for sale. UA and AA both realised they were missing a trick here in luring premium international cabin travellers, and so American was first off the rank and unveiled Flagship Lounges, which were for business class passengers and those with OneWorld status, and when UA launched ‘Polaris’ they also launched namesake lounges with similar entry requirements as AA. It is also worth noting that with a few exceptions (e.g., some coast-to-coast markets like JFK-LAX), domestic ‘First Class’ bookings do not grant lounge access at all with the US carriers.

Delta thus far has stuck with their original concept of ‘SkyClubs’ providing access to business class passengers, SkyTeam elites and members of their paid program so I was interested to see what their lounge would be like. I scanned my boarding pass at one of the self-service machines on entry and entered the lounge. 

And it is new, it is huge, and it is really beautiful. The majority of the lounge area is one long, narrow rectangle that has floor-to-ceiling walls running the entire length, and then at either end, the lounge continues around both corners to areas that offer quieter seating and working options.

The main food buffet station is to the left as you enter, and whilst not as wide a range of food as in AA’s Flagship lounge, it was a very decent spread with cold cuts, salads, two soups, as well as some hot options (grilled chicken, veggies, black beans and cilantro rice). There are two tended bars, one at either end of the large rectangular room which had both a premium (paid for) and standard (complementary) selection.

There was also a hot dog stand in a nod to Chicago and a hot chocolate station which had all the accompaniments.

There were a variety of seating setups with bench sofas upholstered in ‘Delta purple’, single seats facing the windows, regular dining tables, tall tables, as well as options more suitable for working with a large communal X-shaped working desk and individual closed booths for making phone calls. Power points abound everywhere to juice up those devices, and Wi-Fi was speedy.

Dotted around were some refreshment stations with coffee machines, Star Bucks drip coffee, flavoured water machines and snacks. Interestingly, direct boarding is also available from the Delta Skyclub to select gates (I think I counted three), but as luck would have it, there were no SkyTeam airlines parked at these gates during my visit.



AF137 was boarding from gate M16, which was just a minutes’ walk from the lounge, and I could tell as soon as I arrived at the gate area, it would be a fairly light load tonight with maybe 70 people waiting patiently. Boarding is done by ‘zone’, which was from 1 through to 4 and having a business class boarding pass I was in Zone 1.

At 16:35, those requiring extra time to board (families with kids under two and those with mobility issues) were called forward to board with zone 1 shortly following. As I boarded the aircraft through the second door, I received an enthusiastic ‘bonjour’ from the crew member and turned right into the smaller business class cabin. WOW, this cabin was stunning. I remember the last time I flew Air France Business Class on a 777 and I found the visual appeal of the cabin lacking with just lots of blue fabric seats and blue carpet and crew in a blue uniform and no customisation at all.

Aside from having a much better seat, the A350 cabin addresses all of that. It is classy, customised, and branded yet understated.

Naturally, being fresh and new helps, as does the softer mood lighting, but I loved the illuminated AF flying seahorse logo at each seat, which also features on the bulkhead, and the carpet has an attractive zig-zag design which gives it a textured look.

The thing that blew me away was the sheer amount of space and privacy in my seat, which was one of the four window bulkhead seats onboard. It was an immense area and felt more ‘First Class’ than my actual First Class seat I had taken a couple of months before on Lufthansa.

Already at my seat was a coat hanger, a bottle of water (Evian, naturally), a blanket, a pillow, and headphones. A friendly member of the crew was soon by to ask if he could hang any jacket for me, and when I declined, took the hanger away and reappeared with washbags.

He presented two colours (grey or blue) and asked me which one I would like as they had the same contents inside. Next up was a choice of champagne, OJ or water. I took the champagne, and then the large A4-sized menus were presented.

The Chef de Cabine also came to say hi, welcoming me by name, and she confirmed my pre-ordered
the main course of beef, the captain made his welcome onboard announcement advising a flight time of
7.5 hours and at 5:05 pm – 25 minutes before our scheduled departure – the door was closed.

At 5:37 pm, we were speeding down the runway, which was impressive considering the departure from
the gate was only scheduled for 7 minutes before, the joys of a quick boarding due to the light load.


The seat

AF’s A350’s have one of two completely different seat products. The one I was on featured the latest Stelia Opera product, where all seats are the same in a 1-2-1 herringbone configuration and have a sliding door that can be closed. The other configuration is found mainly on the A350’s that were initially delivered to or intended for AF’s short-lived ‘Joon’ offshoot, and the Optima product is in a 1-2-1 staggered configuration. It is important at this point that I make it clear I had managed to nab one of the bulkhead seats, which offer much more space than the regular seats. Saying that, with the light load, I was also able to jump into one of the empty regular seats, and they are still a very roomy product. So, how do you get one of these ‘XL’ bulkhead seats? One of two ways – either have top-tier status with Air
France/KLM and these seats will be available to select from the reservation stage. Or, if you get yourself
on Air exactly 72 hours prior to your flight departure when they release them for everyone
to choose.

Back to 10A. The seat and the features just feel so well thought out with everything exactly where you would want to find it.

There is an iPad mini-type device that is fixed in place, although it can be removed and held in your hand with the press of a button. It controls almost everything, including the seating positions, lighting, electric window blinds, and IFE.

Charging was a treat with a wireless charging feature on the console top as well as USB A and C outlets and a multiplug socket. The tray table slides from under the side console on the left, and the IFE screen is fixed in position in front. Storage-wise, there is a little cupboard at shoulder height that also housed a mirror, the noise cancelling headphones and the Evian bottle. My backpack fit under the ottoman and there was also a good-sized drawer that slid out, and I was able to fit my shoes and a few other bits in there.


IFE and Wi-Fi

The IFE screen is fixed in place in front of you and is a touch screen. Whilst there is no remote control you also have the option of pairing your mobile phone to the system using Bluetooth, and then you can use your own phone as a remote control.

The noise-cancelling headphones are in the little cupboard at shoulder level, and if you are like me and usually spend a good five minutes searching for where they plug in, you need not worry – another well-thought-out feature; they are already wired into place and ready to go.

The IFE system had quite a bit of content, but to be honest, I did not explore too much of it instead watching the tail camera and map feature and playing a bit of online Trivia with my flight mates.

The aircraft was Wi-Fi enabled but it did not seem to be working on my flight. I tried to access it using both my iPhone and laptop, but neither device would let me select a plan.


After take-off

Ten minutes after takeoff, the crew came through the cabin with a tray containing glasses of champagne and offered one to each passenger.

No other drinks were offered, although I am sure they would have obliged if asked. On a short transatlantic night flight, a glass of champagne seemed a good compromise time-wise between no pre-meal drink or a full bar service. The champagne was served with the same packaged cheese crackers I became addicted to the last time I flew AF.

At 6:30 pm, just as we were passing over Toronto, a tablecloth was laid. A trolley appeared in the aisle
and a tray was placed in front of me containing the starter, side salad, dessert and cheese plate, which again is exactly what works for short night flights like these.

I was offered wine and a choice of bread from a basket. I declined the wine and just took some sparkling water. I noticed when the crew member offered another passenger wine, she presented the bottle and asked if she would like to try it first.

I find Air France’s catering to be very good, and I love that instead of choosing from a selection of starters, everyone gets two smaller portions of the two starters, so no disappointment! Being one of the world’s great nations of cuisine, you have to go along with the French ways, which generally means your bread will not be warmed, and there will be no crackers or chutney/quince to accompany your cheese; I thought I would get creative, and I took some of the raspberry coulis off of the dessert which I wasn’t eating, spread it on a piece of bread and plonked my cheese on top. I felt like a naughty schoolboy when one of the crew very obviously clocked me doing it, but she immediately replied, ‘oh wow I though I was the only person that does that’!

The crew then came through to clear the starter items, top-up bread, and wine (this was done no fewer than three times during dinner) and then presented the main, which was beef. Air France has a pre-order facility where all business class passengers can guarantee their choice on board. The pre-order options are limited to what will also be on the onboard menu, and generally, there is a red meat, white meat, seafood, and vegetarian option.

Air France does not plate the food individually in the galley; instead, it does as BA, where the entire contents of the meal are reheated in a casserole dish, which is why I tend to avoid things like fish and chicken unless they are in a kind of sauce or curry as they can end up very dry. My beef was in a gravy and was served piping hot. Whilst it wouldn’t win any awards for its looks, it was tasty and so tender I did not even need a knife to cut it; it just fell apart with my fork.

We had six hours remaining to Paris, and just as we were passing Montreal, I was offered hot drinks or digestifs, and upon declining, all the items were cleared. The friendly Purser who cleared my table also advised how I could close my door if I wished.

I slept well for a few hours, and at 6:55 am French time, the lights came up just a little as we were passing the south coast of Ireland. Breakfast was offered, and again, it was very impressive, especially for a flight of this length.

A tablecloth was laid, and then the tray presented, which contained some fresh fruit, yoghurt packaged granola and little jars of honey were offered to accompany the yoghurt. I was also asked if I would like the omelette (I was stuffed but wanted to see what the whole offering was) and then offered bread and croissants. Tea, coffee, juice, and water followed and when I asked for a double espresso, it was met with an ‘absolutment, sir’.

At 7:30 am, the captain made an announcement of 40 minutes to landing, and the crew came around with hot towels, which concluded the service.

Interestingly, the Purser also came around to ask each passenger if they had a nice flight, and I gave her my feedback, basically saying it was fantastic, too, which she was happy to receive.

On the subject of service, I found every single crew member I encountered to be fantastic. Not OTT but they were all polite, professional, calm and gave the impression nothing was too much trouble. The Purser was the highlight; who was chatty and maintained great cabin visibility, but the other the crew were great, too, with one asking whether I was staying in Paris and another wishing me a pleasant day as she secured the cabin.

We landed in a cloudy Paris at 8:05 am, and the door was opened at our gate at terminal 2E, Hall M, exactly on time to the minute at 8:25 am.


Final thoughts

Of all the airlines I have tried, transatlantic in Business Class (BA, Iberia, Lufthansa, American, Swiss,
TAP, KLM, Virgin, ITA) Air France has provided the best product so far. Even if I wasn’t lucky enough
to bag myself one of the bulkhead seats, the trophy for Air France would still stand. The cabin is beautiful, the seats are incredible with fantastic tech, immense privacy and a great deal of thought has gone into the design. The service is well executed given the length of the flight, and the catering is high quality and generous in portions. The service was efficient, warm, and personable.

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