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What makes a ‘worst flight’? I think of many US mainland flights to Hawaii that can be upwards of 9 hours without even a snack service. Many factors can create a ‘worst,’ from on-time performance to the aircraft.
I just flew AF775 and its my nominee for Air France’s worst.
I have flown Air France a number of times in economy, the longest being the 12-hour Reunion-Paris Orly flight and generally enjoy their flights. I can’t remember having ever flown long-haul business class until today, when no economy award availability pushed me up front.
AF775 operates in a challenging geopolitical and security context. It needs to reach Bangui, Central African Republic in daylight and depart in daylight. Among the security issues are a UN IDP camp abutting the airport and no fences. Those who fly it regularly say if it is running behind and daylight is drifting, the plane diverts to Cameroon.
It departs Paris mid-morning to arrive Bangui mid-afternoon. It makes a quick turn, departing Bangui for nearby Yaounde, Cameroon just before sunset at 17:40. Those bound for Yaounde stay on the plane in Bangui.
The scheduling issue comes with returning onward to Paris. Another quick turn would put the flight in to Paris at around 2 or 3 am.
The result is a 3.5+ hour technical stop in Yaounde. Transit passengers deplane and are shepherded to secure transit lounges without access to the terminal, if there even are any shops or restaurants. Economy is a bare room. Business has huge VIP-style leather couches, a few pastries, and a microwave. The terminal has free wi-fi that works, which is a boost.
Around 22:40 the flight departs for Paris to arrive at 06:00.
This is all a bit inconvenient though reasonable given the circumstances, so what makes it worst?
Let’s give Bangui’s modest airport a pass for at least having a small snack shop (no business lounge), just note that most people have not eaten since lunch and have arrived at the airport around 15:00.
By the time the 1-hour flight to Yaounde is in the air it is 18:00 and dinner time. I don’t know if economy even gets a drink service. In business, there is a drink service but not a single snack. No pack of peanuts, no chocolate, not a scrap or crumb. Leftover menus from the flight down from Paris taunt with their luscious daily specials. Compare to local African airlines that serve a basic meal in economy on such short flights.
Now we get to Yaounde at 19:00 and have a minimum 3-hour wait with the aforementioned limited facilities.
Those frequent travelers say Cameroon’s airports are among the most dysfunctional in Africa and my experience concurs. I already wrote about Doula.
This is one of those that looks like it has never boarded a flight before even though they do it day after day. In our business lounge there were several false starts and then we were led back toward the plane by ground staff. Security intercepted us and decided to run us back around transit and through the security checkpoint for the general waiting hall. This could have been done in the prior 4 hours.
Now we were cutting line in front of unhappy late arrivals. Next the chastened ground staff tried to push us in front of an elderly lady in a wheelchair. The security staff were frowning and making nasty comments to everyone.
This was all in stark contrast to the many friendly, orderly flight experiences I had this month across West Africa. I had plenty of delays, though always with a smile. Air France ground staff had no control of the situation and departure was an hour late due to boarding delays.
Finally around midnight passengers get their first bite of dinner.
Up in my privileged business perch I did like the modified express meal service, where everything but the main is served straightaway on a tray.
The main then comes, here is my steak with Bearnaise sauce which turned out to be catered as lamb with potatoes.
The flight is 6.5 hours which is at the borderline of having a meal and a decent sleep. There is a breakfast service that I slept through and asked to not be awakened. I joked to the inquiring flight attendant, “I love French food, but I do not wake up for French breakfast.” A month of stale baguettes and pastries, and I don’t even smoke to properly appreciate them.
I was surprised at the lack of attentiveness throughout. Those little touches such as offering a pre-arrival drink to late sleeping passengers were all missing. No little chocolate or something to send us off. Also, lots of PA announcements, almost as chatty as Delta.
The highlight, of course, is the in-flight safety video. Fun and so French, that is what is missing from the flight. I would want more PA announcements if she narrates them! Can she do a GPS navigation voice?
AF775 is by design a slog for passengers and Air France gets a failing grade for doing nothing to make it a bit more pleasant. Peanuts, please? Even a stale baguette?