Flight Story: Air France, Alitalia, and Jet Blue

 

After a two and a half month absence (holy cow!), Y Class is back and ready to roll! Nearly three months ago I said goodbye to The Netherlands, took a quick one-week detour to Paris, and then set off to my new temporary home: Austin, Texas. In the process, my fiance and I took three flights to get there, and boy is there a lot to tell. Let’s start with the first and most disappointing of our three flights.

Flight # 1

Overall Flight Impression: Air France, Underwhelming

Air France Flight 1114 (Alitalia Codeshare, Flight 7351)

Departure: Paris CDG (Charles  de Gaulle) 7:45am

Arrival: Milan MXP (Malpensa) 9:15am

Seats: 27 E, F

Aircraft: Airbus A320

 

Now readers first reactions may be “why would you fly East from Paris to Milan, if your final destination is Austin?” Well, I have a ve good answer. Despite the obscene summer fares for transatlantic flights, I managed to find the steal of the season. After nearly a month of fare and route searching (a normal thing for me), and thanks to my friends at www.momondo.com, I managed to get linked up with a French travel site, www.govoyages.com. Although this site does not have any relative steals, they happened to on ne route alone: CDG-JFK. Unlike any other travel site that I searched (most likely around 30+) Go Voyages offered a one-way flight from CDG to JFK on Alitalia connecting in Milan for 268 Euro (about $370) per person, including taxes. Even Alitalia’s website didn’t have this fare, offering only the typical overpriced one-way fare of $2000+. Our only other option was to try the budget airline XL Airways France for around the same price, which flies direct from CDG to JFK. However, because their website is entirely in French, I could not find any information on their baggage policies, and was worried about possible baggage fees, lack of onboard service, and possible flight cancellations. Plus, this gave me a chance to try two airlines I had never previously flown, Air France and Alitalia!

Our first flight, a quick am flight from CDG to MXP, was an Alitalia codeshare flight operated by Air France. This meant we had to check-in with Air France at CDG Terminal 2F. We arrived quite early, given that there was no traffic so early in the morning on Paris’ normally congested motorways. Nevertheless, even at 5:30 in the morning, Terminal 2F was pure chaos. All Air France passengers departing from 2F had to check in at the same counter, which meant a line of hundered’s of people, with only a few self check-in machines, and two baggage drop attendant’s. After reading about previous experiencesof travellers at Air France’s Terminal 2, I wasn’t surprised. Fortunately, my fiance and I we’re smart enough to realize that we should venture over to an adjacent check-in area, which was empty and likewise had empty self check-in machines. After obtaining our boarding passes, we got in line for the bag drop desk, with only three people in front of us. Only a few minutes later, other travellers that had been in the long check-in lined figured it out and followed our lead by using the empty self check-in machines, and soon the bag drop line behind us was well in the hundreds.

An interesting thing to note is that Air France only gives you one “boarding pass” for your entire journey. That is, even though we had a connecting flight, we we’re only given one boarding pass each, with our entire itinerary on it. Air France uses a barcode on the boarding pass to scan you in to both flights. I hope other traveller’s realize this and don’t throw away their boarding pass after the first flight thinking they will get another one.

As for Terminal 2F at CDG, it was absolutely gorgeous. A spacious interior, as seen below, was complimented by tables of free newspapers from around the world for Air France passengers. I will have to say though that it did not compare to Lufthansa’s terminals in Munich Airport, which in addition to free newspaper’s, offers complimentary coffee and tea. Lucky for us though, we got stuck at the gate with a broke gate monitor.  After hearing a muffeled anouncement say something about Milan by the gate attendant, and not being able to confirm any information on the gate monitor, I thought our flight might be boarding. I walked clear across the terminal until I found a departing flights monitor that wasn’t broken as well. Nope, it wasnt our flight. Instead, it was a flight to Milan LIN (Linate) Airport. Great job, Air France, to send off two flights to seperate Milan airports from the same gate within 15 minutes of each other, and not have a working gate monitor for passengers to know what flight they might be boarding.

Anyway, after boarding our A320, I was looking forward to Air France’s reputable in-flight service. We we’re lucky that no one had sat in the aisle seat next to us, so we had plenty of room to spread out. When the flight attendant’s came around for the drink and breakfast service, I decided to order a tomato juice and a coffee. However, the flight attendant looked at me in a state of disbelief and said “Uh, I’m sorry, we only have coffee, tea or water on this flight.” What a rip! I know its an early morning flight, but how hard is it for the flight attendnts on a 1.5 hour flight to at least stock some juices and sodas. To make matters worse, our “breakfast” consisted of a cold croissant. Now I know this would be a five-star breakfast for an American carrier on such a short flight, but by European standards this was lacking. My fiancee was at least served a warm cheese filled croissant on an Austrian Airlines flight from Vienna to Amsterdam a week earlier. In the end, we landed in Mil hungry and cranky after the hassle and subpar service of Air France.

 

Flight #2

Overall Flight Impression: Best way to fly coach transatlantic

Alitalia Flight 604

Departure: Milan MXP 11:25 am scheduled, 12:40pm actual

Arrival: New York JFK 2:00pm scheduled, 3:00 actual

Seats: 24 A, B

Aircraft: Boeing 777-200

On arrival to Milan, we we’re surprised to find out that our flight to New York was delayed by one hour…no explanation whatsoever. Given that Milan is not really a transiting airport, we had nothing to do but stare at the half-naked Dolce and Gabana men plastered in large advertisements all over the airport (See above). When we got to the gate, I wanted to find out why our flight was delayed, and what the chances were that it would be delayed further. However, no Alitalia agents we’re to be found anywhere. Finally, around 12:00pm, two Alitalia agents arrived at the gate and, without any announcement, began accepting boarding passes! Luckily, we had our eyes glued to the check-in desk. I wonder how many passengers were roaming the duty free shop and missed the flight?

When we gave our Air France bar-coded boarding pass, the Alitalia agent looked perplexed. She had never seen anything like this before, and since it didn’t look like Alitalia boarding passes, she couldn’t insert it into the machine reader. Luckily, she just went to the check-in desk and printed us out new boarding passes for the flight. Looks like Air France and it’s Sky Team partners need to do a little coordinating here.

When the flight had boarded and the cabin doors closed, we were amazed to look around and see dozens of empty rows. The flight was only 40% full…in summer…when all major carriers are operating at 85%+ capacity. Horray!!! Alitalia’s ticket sale blunder turned into our great fortune. Everyone, and I mean everyone, one the flight had their own row of three seats to lay out one, along with three pillows and blankets. I had also chosen to fly on Alitalia because I knew their 777’s that they use on transatlantic flights are equipped with Personal IFE’s at each seat. Although they didn’t have a wide selection of movies, the quality was certainly above par.

Besides the ample space and Personal IFE’s, other perks included a quality meal and free wine and beer throughout the flight. In fact, after the meal service ended, a snack and drink cart was avaliable in the gallery, where passengers could refill juices, sodas, and wine themselves, and get as many snacks as they would like (pretzels, snack mixes, etc.) Although I would have liked to see the snappy flight attendants do a little more work by serving the drinks themselves instead of hidding in the gallery with the curtains closed (which they did for nearly the entire flight), I did appreciate the ability to get drinks and snacks  whenever I wanted. In all the 8 and a half hour flight went by surprisingly fast due to the comfort and emptiness of the coach cabin.

 

Our smooth sailing experience quickly disapeared upon arrival to New York’s JFK Airport. As an American, I was able to go through the passport control line for US citizens, which required me to stand in line for approximately 30 seconds. There were 10 open booths for about two dozen passengers. My fiance, however, had to stand in the line for foreigners, which was about 600 people long, with only 10 open booths. I got our luggage quickly and then stood in the baggage claim area for an hour and a half watching my fiance slowly navigate the outrageous line. The entire time, the 10 booths for US citizens remained manned by immigration officers, but with only a few passengers trickling through from various flights. It wasn’t until my fiance had finally gotten to the front of the line that the immigration officials had the smarts to start letting foreigners go through the US citizens booths to make it go faster. All in all the DHS at JFK needs to really reconsider their procedures and better prepare, as this was a rude and unecessary way for foreigners to be welcomed to the United States.

Flight #3

Overall Impression: Typical Jet Blue experience

Jet Blue Flight 1061

Departure: New York JFK 9:14am

Arrive: Austin Bergstrom 12:16pm

Seats: 24E, F

Aircraft: Airbus A320

I first discovered Jet Blue two years ago, needing to fly from Washington DC to San Diego, and conveniently finding that the cheapest option was a non-stop from IAD to SAN on Jet Blue. I was impressed with the ample legroom in the first 9 rows (34 inches), the Personal IFE’s with Direct TV, and the free snacks.

This time, Jet Blue again failed to dissapoint. My main reason for choosng them was again 

That they are the only airline flying non-stop from JFK to Austin, and besides this, their fare was cheaper than any of the legacy carriers with a connection.  Even though they didn’t have an evening flight that would allow us to connect in JFK the same day that we arrived from Milan, it was still cheaper to book a flight for the next morning and get a hotel room near JFK for some much needed rest.

The first notable thing about the flight is that it left, just as all Jet Blue flights at JFK now do, from the new Terminal 5. Last time we flew on Jet Blue it was from their old terminal at JFK, where our gate was in an extended trailer with no a/c, so this was definitely an upgrade. The terminal is open, spacious, and with lots of amenities. The most interesting thing has to be the check in procedure. At the bag drop desks, after bags are tagged passengers are required to carry the bags themselves about 20 feet behind the desk to a conveyer belt and lift the bag onto the belt where it heads out for sorting. Although I had no problem doing this, I can see many passengers having trouble lifting heavy bags upon onto the conveyer belt, which is constantly moving, unlike the stationary belts at normal check-in desks. On the plus side, Jet Blue allows one bag to be checked free, and $30 for the second checked bag, so we saved money on baggage compared to most other legacy carriers.

The flight overall was smooth and relaxing. Despite being a full flight, having the Personal IFE with Direct TV made all the difference, allowing me to relax and enjoy myself rather than count down the minutes. This is especially commendable given that Personal IFE’s are almost unheard of on domestic routes on most other airlines.

On the down side, Jet Blue has certainly changed since I first flew them two years ago, moving towards an “ala-carte” model, otherwise known as “time to make some additional revenue”. To get a seat in those first 9 rows with extra legroom now costs you extra, along with a pillow and blanket packet, and on-demand movies. Nevertheless, the snacks and drinks are still free, along with the Direct TV.

The quick four hour flight commenced with the pilot announcing “ladies and gentlemen, prepare for the smoothest landing you have ever seen.” Unfortunately, it was one of the hardest, albeit probably due to weather and not the pilot.

In the end, because of the price, the perks, and the non-stop route, it was another easy experience with Jet Blue.

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