Friday 23 August 2019

Comparing airline sister acts in a whistlestop trip out east

Air France business class
Air France business class

Mark Evans

Even before the arrival of direct flights to Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific, there's plenty of stiff competition between Ireland and booming China, with Emirates, Etihad and Qatar through the Middle East, Turkish via Istanbul and Finnair boasting shorter flights over Siberia's icy wastes.

Your columnist had just one problem: a late business invitation to Beijing and no chance of a visa in time to enter the country.

KLM business class
KLM business class

That's where Air France KLM (the two merged in 2004) has a distinct advantage. It's a no-brainer: fly from Ireland into Beijing via Paris with AF, then return via Amsterdam with KLM and a new option comes into play: the 72-hour transit visa.

It has variations, depending on where you're going in China, but basically it applies if you fly in from one country (ie, France) and back to another (ie, the Netherlands).

There's no cost, no waiting time, no hours queueing at the Chinese embassy in Dublin's Ballsbridge, or employing a visa company. The only stipulation in the case of Beijing is that you're back out 72 hours after your flight's scheduled arrival time in the city's Capital Airport.

It's a godsend if you get a late call to visit the country, and entry formalities are the same - or faster - than those of visa-wielding colleagues, as long as you notify your airline in advance that this option is your intention.

It's also a good way to compare the business class services of the sister airlines, in my case outbound via Charles De Gaulle on a Boeing 777, and inbound via Schiphol on board a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner.

At first glance, the cabins are remarkably similar - the seats are virtually identical, bar the colour scheme (shiny white with the French and royal blue with the Dutch).

There's a big advantage over the likes of BA with seat configuration - the 2-2-2 layout, with seats angled inwards, means direct aisle access for every seat.

It doesn't sound a biggie, but it means you don't have to perform somersaults over a fellow traveller to nip to the loo halfway into a nine-and-a-half hour flight.

It's an arrangement that's being copied by other airlines, most notably United, which will be introducing this arrangement in the near future on some Dublin-US routes in its Polaris class cabin. Another plus is storage space - with a mini-cupboard for phones, wallets and toiletries beside your headrest.

In my view, it's a 1-0 to Air France in terms of on-board experience though. In-flight meals, accompanied by fine wines, are designed by Michelin-starred chefs and there's a bit of panache in the details. KLM is up there with any other business class - polite and professional - but the French have that extra frisson of stylish classiness.

Oddly enough, neither is offering on-board connectivity just yet - even though the Dreamliner stickers say it's wifi-enabled.

Up to now the cabin has been a sanctuary from the demands of the drudgery of the office, if only for a few hours. And truth be told, connectivity is patchy over large areas of the east, and you'd be lucky to lash off a few emails or smug mile-high Facebook check-ins.

It looks like the English will be getting their workaholic way, but they're not keen on the idea of people making phone calls ad nauseum and disturbing the aura. It's all about food and sleep - both offering lie flat beds just shy of 6" 5", and even I managed four hours on each leg of the trip.

If you need to stay fresh, the Dreamliner actually does live up to its billing as a tiredness-busting aircraft, thanks to its lower cabin pressure (set at 6,000 feet) and higher humidity in the cabin.

I arrived home without any effects of jet lag, which is pretty miraculous after 72 hours sandwiched between 12,000 miles of flying.

But let's leave it a 1-1 draw - Schiphol is still the preferred option for Irish corporate travellers over Paris (Beijing a key endpoint for many of us), and Amsterdam has that edge, with one terminal - no need for mini-trains to distant satellite gates - that's a cinch to get around.

The trickiest part is actually finding your transit lounge - the airport has a dizzying array between the various airlines at the hub, which handles well over double Dublin's passenger numbers annually.

Either way, given the 72-hour visa, it makes China a place that's doable in a business sense over a long weekend or midweek. Better still, combining the two airlines over and back often works out cheaper for travel managers when booking, so it's a win-win when time and money counts.

Sunday Indo Business

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