When I went to Cairo, I flew on KLM but on the way back to New York, I flew on Air France, its sister airline. Why? Because it's flying the A380, the world's largest commercial aircraft. After Emirates, Air France is the second airline company to fly the big plane to New York. It's currently the only A380 in their fleet, debuting to the skies in November 2009 and exclusively used on the busy Paris-New York trans-Atlantic route. Having flown on the A380 from Dubai last year, I took the chance to fly on it again. It's new, it's big, why shouldn't I?
Transit - I only had 2 hours layover at Charles de Gaulle Airport after a 4-hour flight from Cairo. Right outside the airbridge, French immigration officers were checking passports of all passengers, an indication of their extra vigilance especially on flights coming from North Africa and the Middle East. After passing through security, I went straight to my departure gate where a more intense secondary check was done on all New York-bound passengers. Everything in my possession was checked, even my wallet down to its tiny compartments for any trace of explosives while a male agent conducted a full body search on me. Never have I gone through such an intensive search since encountering paranoid Saudi customs in Jeddah airport many years ago.
Boarding - Passengers trickled into the pre-departure gate slowly due to the secondary security checks. I wondered at that point if the plane would depart at 1:30 PM as scheduled when I saw a backlog of passengers waiting to be screened. One hour before take-off, boarding commenced. There were 3 lines leading to the 3 airbridges. Since my cabin is on the second deck, I took the dedicated lane that led to a flight of stairs and up into the airbridge directly connecting to the plane's second deck. Being one of the first passengers to board, it was a bump-free walk into my assigned seat by the window at the economy section.
Voyageur Class -
this is where I'm sitting
The aircraft is configured into three classes with a capacity for 538 passengers. Première (First Class) is at the front section on the lower deck and directly behind it is Voyageur (Economy Class). One floor up is Affaires (Business Class) with another Voyageur cabin behind. Two stairs at each end connect the two decks - which is truly great if only we could use them freely for a stair-a-thon exercise in the middle of a long flight.
The Seat - During reservations, I chose to sit on the upper deck since the seating configuration is 2-4-2 as opposed to the lower deck's 3-4-3. I love to sit by the window and one advantage in this cabin is the extra bin next to me which was good for storing items needed on the flight like my sleepers, toiletry kit and camera. The personal video screen in front is decently sized which offered plenty of choice for multi-media entertainment (including live views outside from the cameras mounted at the nose, belly and tail of the aircraft). Seat pitch is 32 inches - pretty much the same as the others but the seat width is a very good 19 inches (in other words, good for those with wider butts).
The Flight - As expected, we were pushed back from the gate half an hour late but the pilot announced it had more to do with resolving the entertainment technicality issue than what I thought was the gridlock earlier in the security checks (and this being a day flight taking seven hours and a half, I certainly want to watch a movie or two!). After reaching our cruising altitude, flight attendants went about distributing free headsets and menu cards. Drink service started soon after and mind you, Air France doesn't skimp - they serve champagne even in Economy Class.
About an hour later, lunch was served: there were two choices and I had the Beef Ragout. Also on my tray was a Salmon starter, a Mandarin orange, Chocolate tarlet, and Camembert cheese. Since this is a French airline, I took advantage of the wine being offered and I was given a small bottle of 2008 Cotes du Ventoux La Vieille Ferme, a red wine. What can I say but this is one of the best lunches I've had in coach class 38,000 feet up in the sky!
I went back to my seat as soon as the seat belt signs were on: turbulence ahead. Any thoughts about this mammoth aircraft just sneezing at turbulence is certainly not true. We had moments when the plane actually jerked and the French among the passengers could only utter a very Gallic oui! One thing very obvious about the A380 is how quiet the cabin is. I could actually hear people talking 3 rows behind or 3 rows in front of me. But of course, that unintentional eavesdropping may not amuse everyone (just use the ear plugs: Air France provides them in the amenity kit along with socks and eye shade).
c'est si bon!
An hour before arrival, flight attendants brought the trolleys once more to serve snacks. I wasn't planning to eat again (as I wanted to eat dinner in New York) but I gladly accepted the meal tray so I can take a photo of it. Curious, I took one bite at the cheese sandwich, followed by another, and oh boy, it was good I ended up eating the whole thing - oops, there goes my dinner plans. I washed it down with a very great tasting yogurt drink.
The Arrival - My hope that we'll be catching up with our delayed departure was lost when the captain announced we were expecting a rainy arrival in New York. It meant only one thing: delay. On our descent, I could see from the flight path view on my screen how the captain did zigzag maneuvers just above Long Island. We were scheduled to arrive 3:45 PM but our touchdown was a quarter after 4 PM! And that was not the end of it: the runways were so busy that there was practically a traffic jam of departing/arriving airplanes and ours was put on queue in the taxi way, eventually stopping at our designated gate just before 5 PM. That's when reality hit me - I'm really back in New York City.