Europe Echelon: AIRFRANCE Paris-CDG – Singapore Boeing 777-300ER Voyageur

All dreams come to an end.

I aired the room, I made the bed. I closed the windows, gave the mattress one last pat. I closed the room doors, and bid my farewells to David. Then lifted my luggage, and climbed down the 6 floors of steps. Lit up a cigarette at the courtyard, stubbed it, unlocked the main door, and out into the street, straight for the Paris Metro station. Although my flight was scheduled for 30 to midnight, I intentionally chose to travel to the airport right smack in the middle of rush hour… I know it’s a Sunday, but people are commuting home or to restaurants for dinner and all that. And the reason for that is simple – safety. Some of the neighborhoods along the RER B, which connects Paris’ two airports to the city, are known for their shoddy reputation. While the authorities have introduced dedicated services to skip these stations, the rule for a safer, more secure commute is to avoid empty cars and trains. Sure, there’s always the threat of pickpockets, but nothing spells danger like being alone, cornered with nowhere to go.

On The Road To CDG

Some general ticketing machines now accept notes, but it’s really a game of chance – some do, some don’t. Mine didn’t, but I came prepared, and by prepared, I mean I dragged my suitcase down to the belly of the concourse only to realize it only accepts coins, and worse, the station officer manning the information booth was being a dick about the whole thing (my first and only “French snob” attitude, surprisingly), so I had to carry my bags up, cross the road, drag my weight to the only small town cafe located one block behind that was opened on this Sunday to ask for change. Anyways, beyond the whole “some-don’t-accept-notes” thing, the machine is for the most part, pretty user-friendly. For single and/or return trips, the machine virtually offers you the sale of tickets to virtually any station in France, which is convenient. One ticket is all you need – even though I’d be requiring a transfer of a different train type, from Metro to RER – exiting the system of the former and entering the latter. I take the Metro to Chatelet, exit that station and follow the underground links to Chatelet-Les Halles RER station. I found the layout of that station odd – after the fare gates, you plunge into the depths of the Parisian underground where you’re greeted by escalator and stair access to the various RER lines jutting out at acute angles, which means you’re most likely going to be crossing the path of the transferring commuters.

Despite its sketchy safety record and its age, the RER is in fact, one of the most admired systems in the world. Cities from London to Seoul are emulating the precedent it has set. Commuter railways, which serve the regions beyond the city limits and its suburbs, terminate in the city’s suburban centres. This inadvertently requires passengers, who want to head to the city centre, to squeeze into the often crowded local subway networks – the RER routes these lines right into the city, a revolutionary idea. And while the RER’s concept seems like a no brainer, it has all got to do with cost. The further out the residential district, the less activity it sees, so commuter lines typically have pretty low frequencies of about 25 minutes off-peak. With low ridership and low frequencies, there’s very little incentive to invest in these networks, much less extend them across the city. However, as cities matured and transformed, so did the dynamics of the suburbs and the regions outside the city – a combination of “suburbanization” and globalization made the regions outside the city attractive. The RER, and its direct city access transformed from the network from an inefficient national liability into a fast-paced, high traffic network with frequencies so high, that at peak hour, trains line up as close 10 metres behind each other in the city stations where dwell time is longer. The RER B service taking me from Paris to CDG, skips all successive stops after leaving the city limits before stopping at the stations for Terminal 1 and 3, and finally at Terminal 2.

The AF Experience

To gates K, L, M. Coincidentally, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines is Air France’s mate.

The station, located beside a TGV high-speed rail station is completely integrated to the Air France hub of Terminals 2E and 2F. A couple of escalators later, and I was deposited at the west end of Terminal 2E. This terminal is used by Air France for all its non-Schengen area (outside the European Union) flights, and its partners including a gradual number of SkyTeam alliance members like China Eastern and China Southern Airlines, and Korean Air. In terms of size, the terminal is personable – it doesn’t try to impress with a large, unending departure hall. However, it tries too hard to masquerade as being something else besides being an airport. The dull plywood which engulfs the check-in area in a massive curve from floor to ceiling, along with large balls of passive lighting trying to evoke a more calm, relaxed and lounge feel only manages to accomplish the exact opposite. Underneath all this lies the future of aviation. There are no check-in counters at all: just check-in machines which work easy and fast, allowing you to select your seats, print out your boarding passes and luggage tags. After which you proceed to the baggage drop counters where friendly check-in staff validate your passport and details, weigh your bags (it weighs 25.2kg, but surprisingly, I’m not penalized) and send them off. The beautiful brunette explains that there has been a gate change, and I’d be departing from K30 now (which the self check-in machine already rectified), and that there are three concourses, K, L, and M. I should enter the receiving hall for the K gates, and that travel between all concourses is not allowed. She bids me a cheery “Bon Voyage, Au Revoir”, and I answer in an equally jolly, “Merci”!

With virtually no money at all, my conscience was reeling in all the imagined scenarios of a disappointed Jeremy and Adibah. If you got something for me, I feel like I have to get something for you, and the fact that I had nothing was just pricking into my conscience. Worse of all, I already had in mind what I thought was the perfect gift for them already. Now, I was going back virtually empty-handed with a shared box of truffles, some of which would’ve found their way to Adibah I suppose, and two silly ole’ inflight magazines for Jeremy. It was pathetic. “I’m pathetic”. I wanted to maintain a certain degree of emotional restraint till the end, but to come back with nothing, just seemed too harsh and cold. Whenever I prance through immigration and customs knowing that I was about to return to Singapore, I always get a little emotional. I’d come back home and to the office, calm and collected, but inside, I’m really picturing hugging everybody while going “I missed you guys so much” and all, but this evening, there was none of those. I knew that with each and every second, I drifted ever closer to my last day, to separation, to having no money and no opportunity to travel. This time, there was truly no reason for me to celebrate my return. Everything was going to change, and I feared that change – it came when I least wanted it. Scrambling every pocket and compartment, scouring for last remaining coins, I summon enough cash to purchase a “Cantonese Fried Rice” for dinner. The cashier must have pitied my counting of coins, and handed me a paper cup. “You must want some water, yes?” the French African spoke in a heavily accent. “Yes, merci Madam”.

My aircraft in the distance.

As the borrowed daylight finally releases its grip on the night, I savor each bite while I peer onto the tarmac. There, K30 in its luminous yellow, my French charriot already awaiting to take me back from whence I came. It’s a Boeing 777-300ER aircraft – white, long, generic as planes come, but more so than the Airbus A380, this beast has fast become the workhorse of so many long-haul fleets. I flew it once, on the short trunk between Shanghai-Pudong and Hong Kong, but I’ve longed for a longer experience – the aircraft defined by noiser-than-life General Electric GE90 engines. So, instead of the Airbus superjumbo which I know I’ll certainly have plenty more chances to fly in future, I opt for the coming-of-age, reliable, trustworthy dame, the 777.

As the darkness finally enshrouds the horizon, the cold wooden cocoon that is Terminal 2E soothes into an atmosphere that inches it closer to its intended vision. The recesses of the wooden ceiling, in its controlled environment, illuminates the terminal below with an intensity that evokes the picturesque sun rays of a Spring morning, transforming the general area into a lounge of sorts. Along the seating lounges, adequate reading material and unobtrusive water dispensers and discrete vending machines well stocked with snacks creates a relaxing atmosphere. The fact that flights from Hong Kong to Tokyo, Mexico City to Singapore are all scheduled to depart at the same time means that there’s little to no activity till then. The K gates are no spotter’s paradise, though. Convex soundproof glass makes viewing virtually impossible except from afar, unintended, when an aircraft taxis pass – planes taxi far faster here than in Asia, and the sight of something so big moving so fast “so near” the terminal does strike the attention even of the most uninterested.

Timelapse from 8pm to 9pm. Air France A319 taxing in new colors.

CityJet for some UK destination. CityJet is an Irish based carrier owned by Air France-KLM and operates flights from the UK to France and the Netherlands.

Flybe Embraer 195 to the UK. Paris-CDG is a gateway for flights to the UK destinations outside of London.

Flybe Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 coming in from some destination in the UK.

Another Flybe Embraer 175 heading to the UK.

Air France A318 coming in from some destination within the EU.

Printed boarding passes.

I find my solace, not in the seating galleries, but at the end of the terminal. These little known oases (see, it pays to watch the YouTube videos that Air France puts up) are little sanctuaries of calm, with ergonomic lie-flat seats that offer views of the tarmac activity outside. It’s a temple of exhaustion, except a mid-aged Mainland Chinese couple. “Must be for the Guangzhou flight”, I presumed. Armed with a DSLR and fitted with the best lenses in the market, they were shooting planes like pros. What invigorated me most about them, was the fact that both husband and wife seemed equally passionate about plane spotting and aviation.

是法航380,拍好点儿。

快点。您为何这么慢? 飞机走的这么快。

好,好。我慢。你来拍吧。

All in all, it was really sweet and impressive, the enthusiasm and the knowledge of their discussion on the passing aircraft established them beyond amateurs in the field. From the complimentary nature of British low-cost regional carrier’s fleet of Bombardier turboprop and Embraer regional jets, to the sustainability of Emirates’ mega plane orders (which they lament the missed opportunity of shooting the Arab airline’s A380 as it approached the runway). Behind me, beyond the ascending tiers, gate agents busy set up the lines for boarding. To maximize the revenue opportunities available, Air France will offer a 303-seat 4-class Boeing 777-300ER for service to Singapore with La Premiere (First), Affaires (Business), Premium Voyageur (Premium Economy) and Voyageur (Economy).

Look at how many flights are departing within a 15 minute period! After that, the K gates closes for the day.

One thing I really love about CDG airport are these flight information screens. They tell you important information. Of course, I only chose to shoot those in French.

Look, the Aeromexico flight bound for Mexico City at K31 is also boarding. These screnes are also good to help passengers locate toilets and buffet bar on the aircraft.

For the aviation enthusiast at heart.

Team In The Sky

Airline: Air France
Flight: AF 256
Registration: F-GZNC
Route: Paris-Charles De Gaulle to Singapore-Changi
Scheduled Time of Departure: 11.20pm
Scheduled Time of Arrival: 06.15pm +1Actual Time of Arrival: 06.18pm +1

Boarding.

I love how the aerobridges in Paris are transparent. Look at the size of that massive engine! Note the L gates behind.

Yupe, Boeing 777-300ER alright.

While Premium Economy was established as early as in the mid 1990s, it’s only now that airlines are taking this greatly misunderstood class of travel seriously. The 2008 Great Financial Crisis forced the corporate world to evaluate its spending in all aspects, from medical benefits to corporate travel. A lot of questions were asked, but the question, “Do company employees in general from the lowly staff to CEOs really need to fly Business Class?” really frightened the airlines. And to their horror, they discovered that the corporate world moved completely into Economy Class and low-cost carriers for short and medium-haul flights, while much of the corporate hierarchy moved one class back. Overnight, First Class cabins became relics of the old world order, literally. To stem this loss of revenue, airlines introduced a buffer zone of sorts – it’s not Business, but it’s not quite Economy, it’s in the middle.

With Air France the leader of the SkyTeam alliance, frequent flyers are viewed in high regard when it comes to boarding. There were separate boarding lines in the form of the Sky Priority lines which afforded first concern to Le Premiere and Affaires passengers, as well as any SkyTeam Elite status passengers flying on any class including those not called. Now, I feel that status is exclusive, and if everybody’s rich, then nobody is. The SkyTeam alliance knows this, and recently, it has made mileage accrual and redemption useful only to those who fly a lot. Still, the Sky Priority line takes up more than half of the 303-passengers who’ll be flying Air France flight AF 256 to Singapore today. This aircraft, registered F-GZNC is the third B777-300ER out of a total of 37 that the French carrier operates, and is coincidentally, the third B777-300ER to enter commercial service in May 2008. F-GZNC is an occasional visitor on the Paris CDG – Singapore route, operating the service every 11 days on average. It is rotated throughout the network rather frequently, calling at Atlanta, Dubai, Hong Kong, Sao Paulo, Seoul, Tokyo, Washington before it’s put to work on what is essentially, Air France’s longest nonstop route from Paris: Singapore. Seeing as the majority of the passengers having boarded, Voyageur passengers who weren’t SkyTeam Elites could board at their own leisure.

Peeking into Premium Voyageur.

For a 5 year-old aircraft, the premium cabin certainly looked its age. The demoded brown of the Affaires lie-flat seats looked outdated and outworn in the musty cabin lights. The Voyageur and Premium Voyageur cabins in contrast, was time-honoring, current and kosher, which I thought was very surprising. The disparity between the front and back was so subvert that there was nary a shed of envy for anybody in Le Premiere and Affaires. My comfortable cabin seemed fine, comfortable even. The ten-abreast Voyageur is nominally acceptable – the slender frames of the predominantly French demographic fits perfectly although I’d have to admit that anyone far bigger, could have some issues about comfort. Intent on making a good impression, I’m seated on the first row of Voyageur. It’s a good row, a comfortable one – there are two less seats on this row, which makes it really very luxurious. The only problem? The traytable’s in the armrest, which is not really an issue since I’m flying alone anyways. With the aerobridge still attached, and the loading bay doors still opened, the safety purser repeatedly reminds us “not to fasten our seatbelts”, which most are happy to comply. Most of the SkyTeam Elite passengers (who boarded first) are already fast asleep, blanket over their body with the seatbelt over the quilt.

The cabin gradually comes to a silence with the APU shuts off as the signature General Electric GE90 engine starts its very pronounced startup, like a Goliath rising to the call of its captain, a slow but firm murmur that gradually builds into a resilient melody of readiness. The second one begins as well. As we pushback, I see through the windows that our aircraft, and the airline’s sister planes are engaged in a synchronized dance of pushback. At the captain’s whistle, the GE90s are called to task, generating power to push the aircraft into taxi. It’s long despite the speed of our motion, but I’ve come to expect it from CDG. I track our progress on the personal television screens, faithfully plotting every turn, every aircraft, every way. The captain informs the cabin crew to return to their seats for takeoff as the cabin darkens into a near pitch black… I surmise, it’s in French. Before that, he updates on the routing, which is pretty much the same way we came except for one difference – we’d be facing mild turbulence throughout the flight. Then without warning, a flood of beams strobe through the aircraft, I look out in the distance, I suppose, to presumably visually warn pilots not to takeoff from the taxiway between the close parallel runways. If only Taoyuan airport had a similar idea, perhaps the crash of Singapore Airlines SQ 006 wouldn’t have happened, and perhaps Singapore Airlines wouldn’t be so superstitious and weary about painting its planes in colorful liveries.

The engines spool to full power, and we thunder down the runway, gaining speed – you feel the nose angles up and we’re off… except for solitary lights, the ground’s pitch black after the airport – beet fields I suppose, we fly over. The inflight map showing us speeding angrily eastwards towards Germany. No sooner than five minutes during our ascend, we get the first of many bumps. I’d akin the turbulence as being like riding on a car on a very bumpy road for twelve hours. Nothing really took you off the edge, at least that’s the feeling I got sitting by the aisle, although I did catch a glimpse of our altitude varying greatly in a short span of time during cruise. It became like a constant rocking (like those baby rocking contraptions), and even before the first movie, I was fighting to stay awake. The crew wasn’t as genuinely happy and cheery as my earlier flight to Paris, but they were always eager to help as their duty calls on them to. Perhaps they were dreading the weather by the Equator. The weather reports of Singapore and the general Southeast Asia region while I was in Europe described an unbearingly hellish region – sunny hot, dry winds and slightly hazy in excess of 35 and 37 degrees Celsius. Indeed, I do fall seriously ill the moment I return.

The cabin crew came down the cabin, asking passengers to shut the window shades. In order to reset my body clock back to Singapore time, I had to keep myself awake throughout the entire flight – something which the consistent rocking of the mild turbulence was coaxing me against. So, to keep myself awake, I did the thing that people do when they want to stay awake: watch movies. And so I did, Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey, Wreck-It-Ralph, Django Unchained.

Menus were handed out, the cover classically marketing their service to Seoul.

Meal Service

Vegetable salad with beans and lentils, mango vinagrette

Choice of main course
Chinese specialty: sweet and sour pork, rice
-or-
Chicken, Espelette chili pepper sauce, pearl pasta and quinoa

Camembert Cheese
Pineapple
Chocolate Brownie
Coffee and tea

We apologize if your choice is not available.
Air France will serve ice cream during the flight.A selection of beverages and snacks, as well as an offering of hot soup, will also be available between meals.

Depending on the flight, we will serve breakfast or a light meal before arrival.

The crew were very amiable at meal time: insisting that passengers have an Aperitif. “Sir, you must have an Aperitif before your meal. Champagne or whisky, maybe?” I opted for the chicken meal and champagne (in addition to a white wine. It was really lovely, and it hit the right note with the Espelette chili pepper sauce), but I was glad that most of the Caucasian clientelle opted for the sweet and sour pork, which I found was daring and nice. The champagne was thoughtfully chosen, and it opened up my palette quite a bit. The pearl pasta was quite novel, and I thought it tasted like cous cous actually. During the meal, they crew went up and down, offering more drinks and of course, more bread. They also did several hot drink runs. The female flight attendant knew exactly how to please, and insisted me on having more tea. “Monsieur, you seem to enjoy our tea. You drank it so fast. Would you like more?”, she chirped. I couldn’t resist. She did, constantly knock onto my shoulder and was repeatedly apologetic about it. To be fair, I was leaning out into the aisle so I could angle myself a little to stretch my legs inwards a little (my seatmate was intent on putting his legs onto the bulkhead in front, so it was a comfortable arrangement).

So much food and drinks.

Every so often, the seatbelt sign would light up in advance for turbulence ahead, and the usual announcements repeated. But I have to say that the 12-hours went by in a flash, and before long, we were crossing the Bay of Bengal, over Phuket and across the spine of Peninsula Malaysia. It felt so brief that I only visited the snack bar once – stuffing myself with some dessert canapes, a barely passable mushroom soup (it was a tad diluted, but I prefer mine creamy so maybe it was a taste preference issue), an ice cream, several cups of juices and a cup of Coke Lite before bringing a small bottle of mineral water back to my seat to continue my movie marathon.

Breakfast was quite the mystery. It was weird, knowing that I was having breakfast at what was really afternoon tea, but on retrospect, it was appropriate too. It seemed to be a bit of a ritual for Air France to serve breakfast so late into the flight – we were well past Phuket, and approaching Malaysia already. Previously, we were served breakfast roughly just over Munich, which in my experience, was a little late. However, the offset of that is that once everything’s collected, it’s a little under 30 minutes to landing. The main was obvious enough, but the compote and the yoghurt was absolutely baffling. I tried, but achieved only a brave three scoops before surrendering. We land in Changi, just three minutes late, as I recall, but given the turbulence all the way, it was certainly surprising.

At the baggage claim area, I notice a crowd building up around what seemed to my belt for AF 256. The bags hadn’t come out yet, and it wouldn’t, for another thirty minutes. When they do, what materialized was a stunning catastrophe of the reputation for efficiency that the airport had been known for. The first twenty or so bags that came out rolled onto the belt, and were collected by airport staff and assembled neatly… for the crew! Only when the last of the cabin crew’s luggage had come out (they were all carrying numerous and rather large bags, so I’m guessing they’d be staying in Singapore for quite a while), did the SkyTeam priority bags come out. I really couldn’t afford Air France for this, because firstly and mostly, thirty-frakking-minutes! We parked at the second closest parking stand to the immigration counters, and the bags took not 10 or 20, but 30 minutes to arrive. Standing there amongst the passengers who came from all around the globe, apparently. I saw tags from Buenos Aires, New York-JFK, Paris, Edinburgh, Rome and Milan… passengers obviously tired and ready to retire to their hotels (I spotted a hippie looking French guy holding out his reservation for some hotel called… I think it was “Gallery Hotel”), and the world’s best airport takes 30 minutes to deliver the first bags. I was embarrassed, and fuming, to be honest. I made a mental note to keep myself busy window shopping at duty free for at least twenty minutes the next time I arrive in Changi.

This picture perfectly captures which carrier I’m aiming to fly next. I’ll give you a clue: it’s European, too.

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One thought on “Europe Echelon: AIRFRANCE Paris-CDG – Singapore Boeing 777-300ER Voyageur

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