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Why Americans are choosing Air France flights over US airlines

Tamara Thiessen talks to passengers crossing the Atlantic about customer service, ethics and, of course, food

Air France won the ‘Oscars of the aviation industry’ in 2022 Pic: Bradley Caslin / Shutterstock

In this low-quality, hideously expensive post-Covid flying age, Air France is winning fans on both sides of the Atlantic – for reliability, but also for its customer service and ethics.

Mary Wallace and her husband booked bulkhead seating on Delta from New York to Paris in December. 

“They cancelled the flight that morning, put us on Air Canada in a middle row, last row. We couldn’t even recline.”

New Yorker Vanessa Jennings paid for a premium economy ticket on United from New York to Paris the same month.

“They changed planes and dropped us all into economy,” she said, horrified. “Next time, Air France.”

Read more: MAP: See where France’s 148 main airports are

US government crackdown on issuing refunds

An increasing number of disenchanted American travellers are swearing the same. Others were already faithfuls. 

“Two airlines I never fly: United and American,” said Edwina Dedlow, owner of LA art and event space Plan:d Gallery Frogtown. “Air France is great.”

Many are deserting American airlines, angry at a perceived lack of business ethics on display since the pandemic.

“I hate United!” says Tina Johansson, who regularly flew the Newark-Paris trip before returning to live in France. 

“Their customer service is abysmal. Too bad they gobbled up Continental, which was a decent airline.”

She points out that US airlines now face massive fines for dodgy dealings over flight cancellations. 

It took a crackdown for them to cough up refunds to thousands of customers.

The Department of Transportation intervened in November to fine six airlines a total of $7.5million for refusing to give refunds. 

They were also ordered to pay $600million in refunds, although Frontier Airlines was the only American firm among those penalised.

Covid has ushered in a dangerous new age of zero airline scruples and accountability. 

Read more: Companies offer help to get compensation for French flight delays

Air France winning international awards

While Air France’s prices are usually comparable, many travellers are happy to pay more for a ticket to avoid US carriers. 

“United Airlines is not an airline I would ever fly,” says Virginia Gould, from Alabama. 

“Taking funds for business class and then moving people into economy is standard practice for them.”

Of course, no airline has an unblemished reputation but, for many, Air France is miles ahead.

That is backed up by industry accolades.

At the Skytrax World Airline Awards in London in September, Air France was voted the best airline in Western Europe for the second year running. 

The ‘Oscars of the aviation industry’ are considered a global benchmark of excellence.

A new generation of lower fuel-consuming aircraft, modernised cabins and French cuisine were among the elements that drew praise.

The following month, Air France topped Europe’s best airline charts at the World Travel Awards for its long-haul economy class. 

Riffle through the Tripadvisor reviews, and service and comfort often come up as the reason for flying Air France. 

Read more: France could lead way and make private jets use biofuel, says minister

Passenger compares Air France and Delta

One traveller compares the non-stop flight from Dulles International Airport in Washington to Paris on Air France to a United flight. 

“The two experiences couldn’t have been more different. 

“Wider seats, more legroom and much more flexible policies for changes … The Air France people were polite, accommodating and it was very personalised.”

Kim Proven flew from Edinburgh to JFK via Paris in October after a Delta flight via Amsterdam was cancelled. 

She found the economy-class journey “faultless” and was “most impressed” with the comfort and French attention to detail. 

She and her husband got to trial one of Air France’s new long-haul economy cabins, with bigger ergonomic seats and better recline.

“We were so relieved to see the space, quality, comfort... There was an adjustable foot rest and padded blanket. 

“We were handed eye masks and earplugs in a lovely Air France- colour cosmetic bag.”

Best of all was the nutritious and tasty food. 

“The food was excellent, from snacks to main course … We could not believe our luck. We had to take Delta Comfort+ home, and while it was okay, it was not a patch on Air France.”

Read more: Can US and UK travellers use e-gates at French airports?

Sustainable catering 

The problem with airline partnerships such as Air France - Delta is that the flight experience might be starkly different on the various legs of your trip. 

With typical Gallic culinary pride, Air France is digging its heels in on food quality in the days of climate crises. Since the end of last year, it has been offering “more sustainable” catering.

“Meals are made from 100% French meat, dairy and egg products, as well as fish from sustainable fisheries,” says the airline. “Kids’ menus are made exclusively from organically sourced products.” 

Unfortunately, that is just for flights departing from Paris.

Business class banquet by Michelin-starred chefs

If you can afford business class, it is a true French culinary mid-air treat. 

A friend, Sandy Anderson, flew home to Charlottesville, Virginia, from Paris in time for Thanksgiving.

A “strange noise” in the undercarriage of the plane prompted a full safety protocol response and a 90-minute delay, she said. The food onboard more than made up for that.

“Once airborne, all went well,” she said. “I had my glass of champagne with nibbles shortly after take-off. Lunch was served about an hour later. 

“A real Air France pre-Covid business-class lunch. With real silverware instead of wooden cutlery (or plastic, as is often the case, quelle horreur!).”

“The menu had typically French choices and courses. You might think you are dining at an Alain Ducasse restaurant and not hovering over the Atlantic in a pressurised cabin.

“The mise en bouche appetiser was celeriac purée with hazelnuts and walnut crumble. 

“This was followed by the starter course of foie gras terrine with blackcurrant onion confit and a ‘variation of artichokes’ on the side. 

“This turned out to be a sort of seasoned purée with one artichoke leaf in the middle and was quite tasty.”

Vegetarians, don’t fret. There are beef, chicken, fish and vegetarian choices for mains. 

“I chose the chicken,” says Sandy, “which seemed to be a sort of nod to Thanksgiving, a day late. 

“Chicken fillet with cranberry juice drizzled over it. And a side called ‘variation of corn’, basically a quite tasty polenta-like dish, or cornmeal mush if you’re American. This was mixed with roast chestnuts and a tiny ear of corn.”

Don’t forget the cheese! What respectable French person or airline would? Drumroll… 

“The cheese course was crottin de Chavignol, fourme d’Ambert and Cantal.”

So, a tour de France by fromage, from the Loire Valley goat cheese to a ripe Auvergne blue and raw milk AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) icon from the Massif Central.

“We finished off with a lemon curd macaron, organic blackcurrant clafoutis and a caramel chocolate brownie, plus a small dish of sorbet.” 

The menu is designed by Michelin-starred chefs such as Anne-Sophie Pic.

As another of Sandy’s friends said on hearing of her gastronomic flight: “Wow! I don’t care where I go. I just want to go Air France to get the meal!”

Then there’s the inimitable French style – the presentation and panache. 

As Sandy says, “It was not only delicious, but elegant to look at too”.

Strikes could dint reputation

Add to that French designer flair interiors in tricolore colours… all these things lift the spirits and relieve the stress of a long journey, especially in the days of Covid-inflicted potluck travel.

For some travellers, an equally strong part of French culture might put a dint in the journey.

“Air France is always striking,” says Janet Smith, from New Jersey. “You never know if they will fly. I got stranded in Europe twice.”

In reality, strikes are rare. A much-dreaded Christmas-time strike was averted this winter.

In fact, Air France boasted the second lowest cancellation rate of the 20 largest airlines in the world in 2022, according to recent analysis by travel data provider OAG.

It only ranked 12th for on-time performance, however. In 2022, 72% of its flights were on time, compared to 77% for American Airlines, 79% for United, and 82% for Delta.

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