Sunday, March 18, 2012

Voyaging on Air France: Champagne is a good start

Airlines represent national culture, some more consciously than others. Continental's front of the plane was called BusinessFirst; on Air France, you have Affaires.

On my way to Chablis, where I'm about to take a nap rather than a stroll in the Sunday afternoon rain, I had no Affaire: coach all the way.

Air France has apparently made a corporate decision that Champagne in coach class will be one of its major selling points. You get a single plastic cup of Champagne, only as an aperitif; forget about trying to have more with your meal.

Still, compare that to how you begin your confinement in coach on any other airplane these days. The last time I flew Air France we got Charles Heidseick. This time we got a Champagne I hadn't heard of, Charles Lafitte, which must excite Chinese travelers; maybe that's why it's on the plane. It was earthy and complex and put me in the right mood from the beginning of the trip, which is of course Champagne's reason for existence.

Air France has other Gallic touches: it still serves Cognac as a digestif (Camus VSOP) if you ask for it. I flew TAP Air Portugal last month and was distressed to learn there's no more Port in coach. You'd think the Port industry would get together and draw straws to have somebody sell TAP some excess Ruby Port as a marketing tool.

While the food probably should be better, Air France compensates with the best movie selection of any airline, always forcing me to watch serious interpersonal relationship drama, character building stuff, on a 2-inch by 4-inch screen. Believe that? Ha. The screen size is true, but actually I watch French gangster movies all the way over the Atlantic so by the time I arrive I'm ready to stick up a bank. This is the French character too: they care about cinema.

The service can also be very French, for better and worse. This time everyone was nice, but I have never gotten over the time Air France insisted on listing my last name as Blakegray, one word, and refused to correct it. When I tried to check in to return home, the woman behind the counter pushed my passport back to me and said, "Give me your correct passport." Oh, sorry, obviously I handed you the fake one I use when escaping to Marrakech after sticking up a bank in Marseille.

Anyway, about the national character of airlines: Lufthansa is clean and efficient. On KLM, if you want privileges of any kind -- an aisle seat, even -- you pay extra. Alitalia is rarely on time. Iberia, at least before it was purchased, had somewhat shy service and simple but excellent food and wine. TAP is like Iberia's poor relation.

Which raises the obvious question: Do US airlines accurately represent our culture?

If so, better strap in, there's austere times ahead. But not for me -- I'll be waking up to dinner in Chablis!

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