My daughter’s school choir was fortunate enough to go on a tour to Rome between Christmas and New Years! To get there, more than 80 students, parents, and siblings journeyed from Houston to Rome via Paris on Air France. Despite tight connection times at CDG, we had a comfortable and successful trip.
We were told to arrive at Houston Intercontinental Airport’s Terminal D at 1pm for a 4:15pm departure on December 26th on Air France’s flight 639. My immediate family arrived about 12:45, so we had plenty of time... check in did not start until 1pm. It was here that we ran into our first (and fortunately, the biggest, from a air travel point of view) glich: Due to a airport security strike in France, we were asked to keep our carry on baggage to a minimum, and that Air France would wave the one bag checkin allowance. The tour company provided us nice collapsible carryon bags... one for each family member. So after a fair amount of grumbling, we consolidated our essential carry on items into one of the carryons, and our not so essential carry ons items were put into another carryon bag and reluctantly checked. I was concerned about our tight connection time at CDG... only one hour and fifteen minutes. A long security line could throw a monkey wrench into our plans.
After checking in and clearing security, we found ourselves at the gate over 2 ½ hours early. Time to do some reading and exploring! I walked down to the far end of Terminal D’s departure concourse, and found a placard outside the Air France lounge with this information:
Eventually, the afternoon flights from Europe began arriving at Terminal D, including our ride to Paris:
Our AF 777-200 was scheduled to arrive at 2:10pm, but didn’t arrive until almost 3 pm. As a result, our scheduled departure got pushed back from 4:15 pm to 4:30 pm. Our aircraft was ship F-GSPG, which according to planespotters.net, is a Boeing 777-228(ER). General boarding started a little after 4pm. By the time we boarded, it was close to 4:20pm. We were greeted with a friendly “bonjour” from members of the AF flight crew. We settled into our seats... my family had seats in the first and second rows of the regular economy section (Voyager, as AF calls it). Immediately in front of us was the Premium Voyager section, which features clamshell seats that are 8 seats across instead of 10 across used in economy. Other than the larger seats, I believe the meal service was the same in regular Voyager.
Our seats had blankets and pillows on them, which actually made my seat a little crowded, since I use my own neck pillow, and I was in charged of the family’s one now overstuffed carry on bag. We pushed back at 4:37 pm CST, started taxing at 4:42 pm, and finally rolled down the runway at 4:54 pm.
After takeoff, the crew passed out an amenity kit with earphones, earplugs, and eyeshades. After about an hour, the flight crew came through offering an aperitif (pre dinner drinks), including champagne, which of course is what I chose! Next came dinner, with a choice of beef stew or chicken curry, along with rolls, fresh vegetables, and a delicious pasta salad with smoked salmon! Sorry no meal pictures for the flight over, but here's the menu:
Afterwards, the lights were dimmed and I tried to rest as much as I could, with limited success. I did get up a couple of times to get some water from a self serve station at the back of the plane... I passed on the available soft drinks.
About 1 ½ hours before landing, the lights came on, and we were served a breakfast of plain yogurt (yuck), a fruit cup, a blueberry muffin, and some OJ, as well as a small bottle of water. I ended up mixing the some of the fruit with the yogurt to make it edible (I figure I better eat, since our next meal was hours away).
We began our descent into CDG about 8:10 am Paris time, with a touchdown scheduled for 8:32 according to the flight information display at the front the economy section. Since I had an interior seat, it was hard to see out the window, but it looked like there was some low cloud cover. We descended through clouds, then suddenly, thump! we were on the ground. Charles de Gaulle airport was smothered in some of the thickest fog I’ve ever seen! You could see absolutely nothing out the windows... not even the plane’s wing tips! Since we were running late, and had a tight connection, I was hoping this would work to our advantage, since I figured there would probably be delays across the board. After taxing what seemed like forever (in fact, about 20 minutes), the plane finally stopped, evidently at a gate at Terminal 2E(pulled up at 8:52 am). My picture of a foggy CDG goes here, but for some reason, it wouldn't post directly into this report.
Since our next segment left at 9:45 am, I was wondering how this was going to play out. Not to worry... our group was greated by three Air France employees, holding up paper signs stating “ROMA 1504”. They would provide us an escort from Terminal 2E (AF’s international terminal) to Terminal 2F. After all 80 of us were finally off the plane, we started at a brisk pace through the airport. Down an escalator, though some high tech security doors, and then to the Schengen passport control. Fortunately, the line was short, and we were through in about 5 minutes. We then rushed through baggage claim, went along some long moving walkways, up an escalator, and finally to Terminal 2F. We proceeded to the security check for our concourse. I couldn’t believe it... hardly any line at all! Despite the dire warnings about the strike, we breezed right through security. We then rushed though the concourse to our gate, with about 5 minutes to spare. Although as it turned out, the plane didn’t push back until about 10:15am, about half an hour past the scheduled 9:45 am departure. This was fine, so that our large group had plenty of time to get settled.
A word about Charles de Gaulle airport: I thought was clean, modern, and efficient, much better than some reviews I had read online (dirty, rude staff, confusing). Well, I can see that it could be easy to get lost in, but most of the staff we ran in to were courteous.
Our flight to Rome aboard an Airbus 321 rolled down the runway at 10:37 am local time, almost an hour after the schedule departure from the gate. We slept, or at least tried to, most of the way, but we did manage to a good look at some of the Alps from the air:
The flight itself seemed a lot like a Southwest flight in the US. Limited leg room, no first class cabin, and drinks and some package snacks for the inflight service. The interior of the aircraft seemed a lot like a Southwest bird, only with blue seats:
We finally arrived in Rome about 12:30 pm, about 40 minutes past the scheduled 11:50 am arrival time.
The Rome airport seemed old, dingy, and shabby from my perspective. The terminal we arrived in look like it had been built in the 60’s, and hadn’t been updated since. We proceeded to the baggage claim area for luggage originating from outside the Schengen zone, and after a long wait for our luggage, proceeded through “customs”, which consisted of one or two workers standing next to the door marked “goods to declare”. No one was manning the door marked “nothing to declare”. Fortunately, once we left the airport the rest of Italy seem to be running fine. Nothing to reinforce the stereotype of a dirty, rundown, country where things barely work. On the contrary, the streets were clean (except for a fair amount of graffiti), buses and trains ran fine, the highway system is excellent, and the drivers weren’t too crazy (especially compared to Houston!).
After six days of touring Rome, Vatican City, Florence, and Pisa, our trip came to a all too soon end. Our flight from FCO to CDG, AF 2305, was scheduled for departure at 7:20 am, which meant arriving at the airport at 5:20am. Yikes! As it turned out, we needed almost all of that time. We actually checked in at a Alitalia counter, which is a AF SkyTeam partner. Checking in was chaotic. There was a line for people who had boarding passes, and for those who didn’t, and despite a Alitalia staff member directing traffic, no one was quite sure which line was what. There was a row of self checkin kiosks, but half of them weren’t working, or weren’t working for some of us. I tried one machine without success, then waited with my family in the non-moving boarding passes needed line. Since we seemed to going nowhere fast, I left the line to try another kiosk. This time, success! I scanned all of our passports, and received all of our boarding passes. So now we got to move to the “faster” line, which wasn’t much. Finally we got to the front of the line, and discovered one of the rundown looking luggage conveyer belts wasn’t working, although it finally started behaving itself after we got to the front of the line. About an hour after arriving at the airport, we got to the security checkpoint, which turned out to be a breeze... the security officials were quite courteous. About 10 minutes after arriving at the gate, we boarded our Airbus 321 to CDG. We pushed back in some rainy weather at about 7:34 am, and were rolling down the runway at 7:45 am.
At CDG, we arrived at terminal 2D at 9:34 am, which is even farther from the international terminal 2E than 2F was.
We had about an hour to connect to our flight to Houston. Fortunately, we once again had Air France personnel escort our large group through the maze of terminals. I tried taking a few shots of our journey through CDG, but due to the speed at we were rushing through, none came out too well. Once again, the lines at passport control and security were fairly short. We arrived at gate 39E at about 10:15 am:
where we boarded another Boeing 777-228(ER), this time ship F-GSPC. (In the picture, gate 39E is just past 38E. I believe the flight at 38E was headed to Mexico City).
Once on board, there was another problem: Unlike the previous week’s trip to CDG, the seat assignments for our group were seemingly at random... families were scattered throughout the cabin. This did not go over too well, especially those families with young children, or in some cases, elderly grandparents. Fortunately, an extremely gracious flight attendant helped to move us around so that group members were able to sit near family members. He was an older fellow who has probably worked for Air France for many years. He was quite calm in a tense situation, and genuinely wanted to help his customers the best he could. He wasn’t able to sort out the seating perfectly, but children and elders who needed a little extra care were able to be seated with the family members that were looking after them. I made sure to give this flight attendant a big complement.
Although we were scheduled to be pushed back at 10:30 am, the plane didn’t start moving until 10:44 am, even though a few passengers were still not seated (including one of my family members). I didn’t hear the “Flight attendants, prepare for departure” announcement or its French equivalent. We started taxiing at 10:51 am, but took a rather leisurely trip to the runway, where we waited for a heavy or two to take off. We finally stated our roll at 11:13 am.
Once in the air, we could see the Paris skyline to the left of the aircraft. How frustrating... Paris was so close (I secretly was hoping that we might be stranded at CDG or a day or two so that I could finally see Paris in person). We headed northwest, and soon were flying over the UK. I was one seat from the window, and unfortunately did not have control of the window shade (why are so many so quick to close the window shades, when they could be enjoying seeing the world at 30,000 feet?). Once again, we were handed an amenity kit with earphones, earplugs, and eyeshades. I started investigating the video system. Each seat had its own 5 inch or so touch video display, with a menu available in both English and Francois. The touch screen, however, was not terribly responsive (sometimes, I had to push on an icon hard and more than once), and the sound over the headphones had issues competing with the background noise of the aircraft.
The meal service started about 45 minutes or so after takeoff.
Once again, I had champagne for an aperitif, along with a small appetizer:
(this time, I remembered to take pictures of our meals).
For the main meal, I chose lamb stew, while my wife had salmon and pollock. The entree was served with cheese slices, bottled water, a chicken pasta salad, an orange, and chocolate mousse (as well as a fresh roll that was served separately):
I also had an airline size bottle of red wine with the meal:
One of the best airline meals I’ve ever had! The wine enabled me to take a nice little nap afterwards.
After I woke up, I checked out the movie selection. A fair number of choices, but like cable tv these days, not very many movies to keep my attention. I settled on a movie that had a French woman bring her American boyfriend to France to meet her family. The boyfriend was such an pompas ugly American that it kept my attention. The dialog switched between English and French (with subtitles). Plenty of adult language. I also started to watch the recent American flick “Bad Teacher”, but the movie was pretty bad too. It did have a scene with some upper body female nudity, though. Yes, we were definitely flying a French airline... I don’t you’d see or hear anything like this on a US airline! I also listened to the jazz channel when I decided to take a break from the movies.
During the middle of the flight, tuna sandwiches and Haggen-Das ice cream bars were made available in the galley, along with self service soft drinks and water. A view of the main cabin during one of my breaks:
We also flew over some spectacular scenery... over both Iceland and Greenland! I took a picture of Greenland... didn't turn out too well, but at least I can say I was there:
About an hour before landing, we were served a “Chilled Dinner”, with a small veggie salad with cheese, and a custard like dessert. Not bad:
Finally, it was time to descend into IAH. We were about 15 minutes behind schedule (we pushed back 14 minutes late in Paris). We were scheduled to arrive at 2:10 pm, but we touched down at 2:19pm CST, and after a fairly short trip to the gate, pulled up to the jetway at 2:24pm, 14 minutes late! Before leaving my seat, I managed to get a shot of Singapore Airline’s 777 that traveled from Singapore via Moscow, and was being prepared for the trip back, along with the tail of a Lufthansa 747 and a United Express jet (probably arriving from Mexico) :
All in all, Air France’s overseas service to and from Paris was very enjoyable. Great food and friendly staff... although you may want to bring your iPad for a better in flight movie experience.