Living the high life

Air France’s new business class sets new standards in airborne service

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The journey and not the arrival matters”, said the English poet T.S. Eliot, who would have turned in his grave at the sight of most modern travel.

Gone are his early twentieth-century rail odysseys aboard the Orient Express, complete with gourmet cuisine, bow-tied porters and more excess baggage than a triple divorcee with seven kids and a criminal record. We don’t even have Concorde any more, because ultra-luxurious supersonic jets couldn’t find enough rich punters to make them profitable.

Instead, things have gone to pot. These days we book our flights online, get herded onto a plane like lemmings and then crammed into seats with legroom designed for a stunted child-dwarf. And after all that, some airlines even have the cheek to charge us for everything from a glass of water to an extra kilo of luggage.

Airborne lounge

A gloomy state of affairs, then, but sometimes it’s worth reminding ourselves that the journey matters just as much as the arriving – and that executive travel is still alive, kicking and has free champagne.

At least, it did on the Business Class flight I took to Paris a few weeks ago. Predictably, I’d shown little hesitation in taking up the chance to test-fly Air France’s new espace affaires seats, and duly found myself bound for France on a grey Friday afternoon with high expectations for some travel in style.

I’ve flown Business Class once or twice before, but I have to admit that I’ve been a victim of the no-frills syndrome. I confess to a dark period of addiction to bargain Easyjet and Ryanair flights in Europe, taking my cheap thrills from booking absurdly far in advance to pay the lowest fare.

This was, therefore, a refreshing change. After speedily checking in at the special lane for Business and First Class passengers, I headed upstairs to wait in the plush surroundings of the stylish Cedar Lounge at Beirut’s airport.

A pre-aperitif drink and patisserie (I was going to France, after all), saw me through to boarding a new Airbus 777-300, which is a very big and clever plane. In fact it’s surprisingly big for the four-hour trip between Beirut and Paris; usually, you only get this kind of space on longer haul flights. Happily, it means that sitting in the deluxe section at the front of the plane feels more like relaxing in an airborne lounge than sweating in a sardine tin.

Culinary delights

Meanwhile, as my coat was whisked away and hung up in a private wardrobe, I stretched out languorously in seat 7B. Economy passengers passed by on the way towards the back of the plane, looking on enviously at my airborne throne as they shuffled past morosely.

Just under an hour after take-off, whilst reflecting that there is something undeniably pleasurable about sipping a glass of champagne at 40,000 feet whilst having your lower back massaged by a seat, the food started to arrive.

Along with the comfort of the chairs and the legroom, this is probably where Business Class really stands out the most. On my no-frills travels I’d normally order an overpriced beer or a rubbery sandwich just to help me ignore the gang of inebriated holidaymakers or wailing infants, but here the service and food were almost worthy of a top-class restaurant.

Smoked salmon, Swiss beef and magret de canard were the order of the day, all served beautifully on porcelain plates. The impressive personal touch was topped off by tablecloths, individual salt-and-pepper pots and mini bottles of salad dressing, whilst the wine list was chosen by Oliver Poussier, a leading Gallic sommelier who has selected three excellent vintages, including a premier cru Burgundy, to accompany the in-flight meal.

Easy chair

Nodding off after that was easy, and not just because of the Cognac XO I’d supped as a digestif. The supremely comfortable seats go all the way back to 180 degrees, making you feel as if you’re in your favorite easy chair, whilst the shell-like design keeps you separate from nearby passengers. By the time the wheels touched down at Charles de Gaulle I’d even figured out how to operate all the controls on my armrest.

For some irritating reason, though, I can never manage to doze for long on flights, and here was no different – despite the ear-plugs and eye mask which came in the little toiletries bag next to my seat.

Instead, I popped the electronic handset out of its housing, adjusted the excellent Sennheiser headphones and sat back to enjoy a blockbuster on the large back-of-seat screens. There’s the usual selection of games, music, TV shows films on offer, although frankly the latest Harry Potter was really rather sub-standard.

Four hours after leaving sunny Beirut, the Airbus landed in a grey, drizzly and strike-ridden Paris. If this was the arriving, then I’ll take the journey any day.

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