Europe Echelon: AIRFRANCE Singapore – Paris-CDG Airbus A380-800 Voyageur

It’s my first time in Europe.

With time now on my side, I have the freedom to express, elaborate, detail and reflect, which means for the horological challenged, the posts will be pretty long. While certain posts have the benefit of retrospect, others are thoughts which I penned down in real time, while I was in Europe, but with the blog, I can expound on.

To The Old World

Days after returning from my Japan trip early December last year, I felt the itch to travel once again. I began scouring the web for fares – eager as always to travel – and on the hunt for a bargain. It wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to suggest that I was fatigued from the growing monotony of visiting East Asia. After a two-year intimate acquaintance with the new center of the world, I began recognizing the subtle patterns and influences no matter how much Japan, Korea and China assert their individuality. I grew weary and jaded about the prospect of visiting the region once more. So, I sought a complete change of environment.

It was around this time that my Editor, Jeremy, started posting pictures of his trip on Facebook. Seeing what seemed like whole new world, I was irrevocably drawn to the idea of visiting Europe. But beyond the idea of “visiting Europe”, I had nothing – nowhere I really wanted to specifically go to – I was resolutely stumped. My destination undecided, my thoughts all over the place, and my desires switching based on my day-to-day fantasies. I’d flirt with idea of going everywhere from Aberdeen to Zagreb. Oh, search for many months I did, but as I scoured through, from amidst the blur came an undeniable clarity. I began to notice a particular pattern: some city-pairs like London-Paris, Amsterdam-Paris were almost always consistently represented with lower fares, and I began to hone in on these cities, and the airline taking me there.

From the offset, I had a myriad of choices ranging from Asian to European carriers. There was Malaysia Airlines with its Airbus A380 flagship to London and Paris, which was certainly enticing. However, reading trip reports (on airliners.net), I discovered that the product – in terms of hard and soft products – were abysmal at best. As an aviation enthusiast, Finnair’s choice of operating aircraft – the Airbus A340 and Embraer 190 – types that I’ve never flown before, was seductive until the air fares suddenly skyrocketed at the eleventh hour. There was even a brief moment when fares to the States were fairly comparable! Alas, I chose to fly AirFrance. The French carrier boasted the best schedules – getting me into Europe just in time for a brand new day, and the return trip leaving Paris at the end of the day, allowing me to maximize my rather “brief” stay. It also helped that I’d get the chance to fly on both the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 777-300ER – the two quintessential long-haul workhorses of airline fleets today.

World Can Be Yours

Fast forward to the eve of Good Friday – the day of my departures – I found my state of mind in a motion of irregular flux. I was to be absent from Singapore for almost two weeks, so I really wanted to finish as much work as I could before I flew. To make sure I didn’t have to stress about work during my vacation, I rushed through the day – speeding through transcribing interviews and formulating it for editorial presentation, through the grocers to purchase my travel essentials, and into the tangy lines of the foreign exchange, before repacking my clothes in preparation for “the European spring”. The only time I had to have a breather was at the airport whilst having my first proper meal at the Chinese fast food restaurant, Ruyi.

One thing I managed to do before all this panic was checking-in online. The AirFrance online check-in function is simple (once you manage to find the link to online check-in) – almost a walk in the park, really. Almost too easy, in fact. It did help that CheapTickets.com, the site which I reserved my tickets, had already allotted me choice seats. I heard that AirFrance doesn’t always honor reserved seats, but I was confident that my seats were confirmed. When I got to the airport, it was just a matter of dropping my bags and collecting my boarding pass. Such seamless procedures certainly made for an oddly discomforting close.

Dinner at Chinese fast food joint, Ruyi. Simple yet satisfying.

Farewell, Red Roos

The eve of Good Friday at Changi Airport’s Terminal 1 looked like any eve of a long weekend. Singaporeans and the like, glorious in their flip-flops, sport-themed berms and misshapen tops jetting off to one of only two probabilities. The first, for a whirlwind shopping expedition – hunting down bargains if only to justify their sense of “individuality”, even if it only ever seemingly adds to their archetype. Oh how I laugh at their march of triumph – celebrating and resplendent in their “cheapness” – euphoric in their victory of self-imagined bargains. The second, to the beach. Many are so caught up in their own stories – completely oblivious to the events that were unfolding on this seemingly ordinary uneventful evening. Unbeknownst to them, history – the kind college kids generations later will read about – was taking place.

This evening, the night of the 28th along Concourse C was a momentous one – an end of an era. Qantas, whose existence has been intertwined with Singapore aviation since its inception – growing to become its second largest carrier, even to the extent of calling it a hub – was packing its bags and heading for the shifting Arabian sands of Dubai. Nowhere was this transition more apparent than to the Qantas crew who were, in an albeit unprofessional but moving showcase of display, filled with contradicting emotions of smile and sorrow – hugging, laughing and smudging their eyeliner, as if in the realization that in a few days, Singapore would no longer be a second home. With my gate set in the middle of this colorful hubris, I couldn’t help but feel emotional at this observation of history in the making – of loss. Like a loved one who’s always been there, never participatory, just by the sidelines, always watching yet faithful in its presence. The reconciliation of this breakup was a little difficult to bear.

La Petit Jumbo

Airline: AirFrance
Flight: AF 257
Registration: F-HPJA
Route: Singapore-Changi to Paris-Charles De Gaulle
Scheduled Time of Departure: 11.00pm
Actual Time of Departure: 11:40pm (40 minutes late)
Scheduled Time of Arrival: 06:00am
Actual Time of Arrival: 05:58am (2 minutes early)
Duration: 13 hours 18 mins

Once a long-haul but thin route, passenger numbers between Singapore and Paris have ballooned. However, an archaic air services agreement has kept the maximum allowable frequencies to a little more than a daily service from each side. To combat this, the two operators, Air France and Singapore Airlines have up-gauged their operating aircraft. From the days of 250-seater Airbus A340s and Boeing 777s in the late 1990s, both carriers now operate their flagship aircraft between Singapore Changi and Paris’ Charles De Gaulle. Singapore Airlines operates a daily 499-seater Airbus A380 service while Air France plied its 4-class 303-seater Boeing 777-300ER (Extended Range). Continuous growth has since prompted the airline to introduce its 525-seater Airbus A380 aircraft, joining an exclusive select of Air France destinations including Tokyo-Narita, Washington-Dulles, New York-JFK and Johannesburg whose flights are operated by the new flagship. When I saw the Airbus A380 at my gate, I wasn’t surprised, but anticipating it – it was probably the biggest pull-factor in my selection for Air France to take me to Europe.

I usually try to come to the airport early, to settle myself down – sip a cup of Starbucks or two, use the free internet stations, charge my phone, and even do a little plane spotting. However, as I passed by my gate (which is not too far away from a Starbucks cafe), I noticed that boarding was already in the midst of taking place – nearly an hour before departure. It wasn’t just a case of typical Changi’s “gate open” status where they trick you into thinking that boarding is already taking place only to have you trapped in the gate hold area for half-an-hour or so, but the actual boarding process was in progress! I assume this is in order to accommodate the Airbus A380’s larger carrying capacity, but seeing the gate emptying so fast kicked my senses into overdrive, and I do not get the chance to do what I usually do before I fly.

Security checks are performed at the gate, as is the protocol at Changi. In recent times, I’ve felt a deterioration in service standards at the airport – the security officers keep getting more rude and rougher with me and my personal belongings. I wouldn’t have a problem with strict security, but increasingly, they take arms with the most trivial of objects and choices. Why was it an issue that I chose to fly Air France, and not Singapore Airlines? As if a verbalized rhetorical question, they don’t wait for an answer (I don’t bother answering them either) before handing my passport and boarding pass back to me. As usual, rows are called out after the airline and the countless ground staff (most of which are curiously Korean) are assured that the airline’s frequent flyer base are tucked in comfortably. I’m seated at seat 45C, but I board at my own leisure, after deciding that the light for photo opportunities wasn’t going to get better. From the gate holding area, you do not get the sense of how huge the Airbus A380 is due to the distance between the nose of the aircraft and the terminal – it just seems small looking, if I’m being honest.

For some reason, it just seems so small.

As I walk down the aerobridge, the anticipation of finally flying on an Airbus A380 was palpable. I had a rare chance to “visit” (when I say visit, it was more of a very quick walk-through) the Emirates’ Airbus A380 as part of the type’s inaugural service to Singapore, but that was it. Even friends and acquaintances who weren’t aviation enthusiasts know about the A380, and have previously flown it before, so to finally have the chance was very exciting for me.

“Bonjour, Monsieur”.

“Bonjour”, I replied.

“Your seat’s this way, down the back. Welcome”, in bright humane smiles as the three French flight attendants beamed.

“What was going on”, I thought to myself. “Wasn’t Air France known for its rude crews?” As I make my long stroll down the seemingly endless belly of the behemoth, I’m showered with cheery smiles that I wasn’t quite prepared for. As I lose myself into the Voyageur (that’s what Air France calls its Economy Class; First Class is Le Premiere; Business Class is Affaires; and Premium Economy is Premium Voyageur… sounds classy, isn’t it?) cabin, the illusion of space is very apparent. The convex curved side walls on the lower deck, never breaking in character, exaggerates the sense of immense width. I find my seat, at the first row of the last Voyageur cabin. This break, presents the cabin into a more humane, comfortable, homely mini-cabin. Admittedly, the dark navy Voyageur seats against the backdrop of white walls with W Hotel-esque purple accented LED lights across the ceiling evokes a contemporary and artist chic vibe, but it isn’t as pleasing, warm and comforting as say, the Singapore Airlines or Emirates’ A380 cabin. The discreet red accents, along with the red pillows breaks the monotony of the imposing navy and injects a little soul into the cabin. The seat, ergonomic, with comfortable back lumbar support, portrays a fine balance of form functionality. The inflight entertainment’s remote, as is typical of Thales inflight entertainment systems, breaks the formal look. They feel plastic, almost abject, but French design, as I’ll note whilst in Paris, seems occasionally intertwined with brief but intentional moments of intentional irregularity – the Thalys trains for example, looks opulent in its maroon velvet laced interior, but they’d be spliced with accents of deep red acrylic glass. Nevertheless, the remote is designed with practicality in mind – easy and pleasant to hold.

The other side feels so far away…

45C is an aisle seat, located at the first row of the furthest Voyageur cabin. In many respects, it’s a great seat: there’s no seat in front to encroach into my legroom, and unlike my neighbors, there’s no bulkhead wall in front of me either. The galley’s in front, but well designed curtains block out any creeping light, and the snack bar isn’t on the portside of the aircraft, which means hardly anybody is going to walk by. The only problem was my neighbors – babies! To my left was a young Spanish couple returning home after a lovely holiday in Singapore, and across the aisle, a French Vietnamese-Singaporean couple with an infant in arms returning home to France. As if sensing my distress, the Air France crew came to reassure me, “Don’t worry, once we’re cruising, they’ll be quiet.” In the mean time, it was hell on Earth, but it was through these babies that I witnessed an even softer side of the Air France crew – interacting with the two parents and their children – delighting the toddler with an Air France kid’s goodie bag, and coddling the screaming baby when the parents felt their most helpless. Fortunately, the combined efforts of the parents and crew were not in vain, and it turned out to be a very peaceful flight.

“…as we are refueling, for safety reasons, please do not fasten your seat-belt…”, the safety liaison reminds us.

Look at how big the windows are.

We wait, and wait. The safety liaison, a maternal matriarch in her librarian specs, blonde hair and blue eyes with a very Anglo-Saxon look, repeats her announcements in a regular fashion. Nothing’s happening, and we aren’t pushing back either. We don’t hear anything from the cabin crew, nor from the cockpit. I switch on my phone once again, and continue texting on What’s App, bidding my last farewells to conversations that I ended abruptly before boarding. Almost half-an-hour later, as stealthily as the delay began creeping, we started pushing back. The Airbus A380 is so massive that it was only when I looked out of the windows in the distance that I knew we were, indeed, pushing back. Faintly, the four Engine Alliance turbofans began to spool… try as they might, it’s a bare murmur. Airbus, more than Boeing, places heavy emphasis of sound-proofing its cabin – the concept has people lauding, but it does have its detractors. Some passengers have alleged that the cabin is now so soft, that it’s now possible to hear passengers snoring from across the cabin.

Our taxi, as I’ve come to expect in Singapore, is long and arduous. For a moment, I wondered if we were going to taxi to Paris. For an airport that was now handling in excess of 51 million passengers, Changi’s use of runways is inefficient – using one solely for arrivals, and the other solely for departures. This means at any one point of time, half of the flights will be subjected to excessively long taxis (and thus, delays), taxiing from one side of the airport to the other – traveling no less than 3 kilometres to the runway (the length of the runways in Changi is 4000 metres). 40 minutes after our scheduled departure time, the Airbus A380 rumbles into action, if only for a moment, diving back into the depths of the stratosphere, taking it like a duck to water. The ascend and acceleration is hardly noticeable – the flight information displays saying otherwise. So, that was it. An anti-climax of a take-off.

This is what I see, sitting at my seat.

As we climb, the cockpit phones in an update – explaining our route, and apologizing for the delay (which as usual, is blamed on the congestion in Changi airport). Our immediate ascend takes us southwest from Changi Airport, but we circumnavigate above Changi East, over Tekong, towards Kota Tingi and up the spine of Peninsula Malaysia, before crossing the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal just south of Phuket. For those who’re interested in the eventual route, we make landfall south of Kolkata, over Delhi, Lahore and Kabul. We sail above Turkmenistan, across the Caspian Sea, to the Black Sea via Azerbaijan and Georgia, before finally reaching the European continent. We connect the dots from Bucharest, Budapest, Vienna, Frankfurt before descending west straight into Charles De Gaulle airport.

As soon as it was safe (for the cabin crew, not safe enough for us, apparently, because the seat-belt sign was still switched on), the crew came down distributing the headsets, or “reduced amenity kit” as I call it. As bare as it was, it had all the essentials – headsets that was far better than whatever Cathay Pacific gives its passengers, a wet tissue, and an eye-mask (which turned out to be not only useful, but one of the few which blocked out the light completely). They also went down the aisle distributing menus – nothing fancy, but something passengers can take home with them as a little memento without breaking the bank.

Reading various trip reports prior to my departure, one thing that consistently stood out with Air France was the catering in Voyageur, so when the crews started pushing out the trolleys, I was eagerly anticipating my first meal. As they came out, there appeared to be an intrinsic system which largely depended on the passenger understanding the workings of French dining, and I’m not talking about fine dining even. Even if you don’t, reading the menu would’ve given some clues.

“Bonjour Monsieur, what would you like to have?”

“The beef please. Merci”, and the flight attendant proceeds to place the tray on my table.

“And what would you like to drink?”

“Red wine, please”, she looks over the trolley, reaches out for a red wine bottle and places it on a transparent plastic cup, and hands it to me.

“And for your aperitif, Monsieur?” I look a little stumped, and puzzled, to be honest. I do have a sizeable bottle of red wine on my tray.

“Monsieur, would you like a little cognac, whiskey or champagne before your meal?”

“Oh. Erm. Champagne, please. Merci”

“Enjoy”

“Merci”

I’m just about to start unwrapping my contents of my meal, but I’m gestured to hold on. I’m offered a basket of croissant, which I assume I’ve to take (in addition to the mini baguette already on my tray). Only then, does the trolley move on.

It doesn’t seem like much, but overall, the meal turned out to be really substantial. I dug into what seemed to be the heaviest component first, the main. The quality wasn’t unlike my Air China red-eye meal, which was also a pepper beef rice – decent, alright, and the broccoli still had a tad of crunch in it, which means it’s not overcooked – always a good thing. The beef, tender and still deliciously edible. The red wine was well paired with the heavy flavored Asian dish. It was only after finishing the main did I realize that it was just one of the many things I still had on my tray. The coleslaw with apples was nicely done. Coleslaw is one of those things which is easy to satisfy, and I’m glad they didn’t go the easy way with this – it was a well-tossed salad with apples drizzled with enough (but not too much) sauce. Then, the breads. The croissant and the baguette, whilst not warmed up, were still immaculate in their quality, which was to me, quite surprising. Pairing it with butter, and a bit of cheese (I mostly paired the cheese with the fruits, actually), it was just the simplest yet most satisfying thing. I would’ve had more, but I was finding myself becoming really full by then. I finished up with a cup of comforting straight tea.

After the bustle of the meals (and the toilet breaks), the cabin lights gradually dimmed from a resplendent orangey “sunset” atmosphere, to a bluish purple glow… From my seat, I see the flight attendants setting up the snack bar, and before the cabin light go dark completely, they shut the curtains, and it’s almost pitch black. I manage just one film, watching The Dark Knight Rises before calling it a night. I put on the well-fitted eye-mask, and doze off.

According to my camera log (I decided to shoot a picture of the air show feature each time I woke up), I manage three naps, rising if only to walk to the snack bar to keep myself hydrated and grab a little bite. Early on, it was just hot and cold drinks (and liquor on request), French biscuits, French chocolates and French chips, but as the flight wore on, it was stocked with “heavier” foods like ice cream (which turned out to be very popular amongst the passengers, maybe it was some popular French brand), dessert canapes (a bite-sized chocolate brownie and apple pie) and sandwiches. In between naps, the A380’s endless Voyageur cabin throughout much of the lower deck and a small portion of the upper deck allowed me to stretch my legs a little. Of course, one couldn’t brisk walk, much less jog, but the freedom to be able to walk around was certainly unique.

Where are we now?

It’s a lot darker than it looks, actually.

We’ve moved, haven’t we?

Before I knew it, nine, ten, eleven hours had passed… and the cabin began to stir once again. You could tell by just how many were using the inflight entertainment: no more than a handful were using in the first two-thirds of the flight, but eleven hours in, almost everybody was watching something. And there was a prevailing aroma of caffeine and hot chocolate permeating through the cabin… from the snack bar. The cabin lights slowly illuminated from pitch blackness, and the trolleys were pushed out once more.

I know that there might be some travelers, particularly those of the Asian persuasion, who are not favorable towards cold meals, but in this case, I didn’t quite mind it. That’s kind of the reason why I always seek to fly the airline of my destination, if not, similar region – the service, food and people becomes your very first initiation into the country you’re visiting. The distributing of the cold breakfast seemed a little rushed, if only because the flight was well into its twelfth hour. There were no choices offered, but frankly, after such a filling dinner, and a subsequently extensive spread on the snack bar, I wasn’t really in a position to complain. Besides, the cold breakfast’s cold cuts this morning was Roast Beef, which might be common to the predominantly British community aboard this flight, but novel to this one of only a handful of Asians. Once more, although unheated, the breads were better than average.

It was only in the thirteenth hour did I start to feel a cramped in my butt, and frankly, a tad restless. But no matter, for our descent into Paris had begun…

It was surreal watching the airshow watching our aircraft moving “live” on the map – on a westerly direction dead ahead for “Paris”, passing Reims, Charly-sur-Marne… Then it switched back to the tail camera, allowing passengers to observe the actual landing in real time.

I. Am. In. Paris. Now.

Paris’ Charles De Gaulle airport is quite a large property. Although there are officially 3 terminals, the complex is in fact, made up of nine mini-terminals. We touchdown at the runway closest to Terminal 1, which means it’s a long taxi to the Air France hub at Terminals 2E and 2F. After what seemed like forever, we finally park at Terminal 2E’s Concourse M, perhaps more famously known as the Satellite S4.

Last shot of my plane at home in Paris-CDG.

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