I knew Paris well, and fondly, but only through the WWII espionage tales of Alan Furst. His books overlap in Paris just before the war or during occupation, though the protagonists of most of Furst’s books hail from a different country, with a different perspective. ‘The World at Night’, about a B-movie producer in Paris floating around the crème of society, is the exception. It has a sequel, ‘Red Gold’, with the producer on the run, avoiding fancy hotels the Gestapo and SS took for headquarters and interrogations, as guests seldom checked out. Furst’s atmospherics are layered on novel after novel, providing a sense of place and time and day-to-day intrigue I hesitated to disturb.
Then came OpenSkies, an all-business class airline. Invited to join its inaugural flight from Washington to Paris on 3 May, I bid adieu to my carefully constructed mental image of Paris, with its darker tones and betrayals, and prepared to liberate Paris.
The airline takes its name from agreements that liberalise rules for international aviation markets. Any European or American airline can now fly from any EU city to any US city. Though it holds a French charter, OpenSkies is a subsidiary of British Airways. It commenced in the summer of 2008, from New York to Paris, with one plane. The airline now flies to Orly Airport from New Jersey, out of Newark Liberty International Airport, seven days a week, and from Washington Dulles International Airport, five days a week. For connections, Orly isn’t as convenient as Charles De Gaulle. But if your end game is Paris, it’s user-friendly with easy city access, including metro.
The airline’s four planes, all Boeing 757’s, split between the routes and occasional charters to entertainers like Beyonce and their troupes, and teams like the Real Madrid Club de Futbol. Planes are modified with ‘winglets’ on the end of each wing for better fuel use. They are configured for either 64 or 84 passengers, including a set-up for 12 or 24 ‘Biz Beds’, though in the future most flights are likely to carry 12. The beds, with 73” of seat pitch, become fully fl at. They are arranged with two beds facing each other on each side of the plane, with a fan curtain that can be put up, or left down for easy conversation and viewing out of windows. The modular entertainment electronics work well enough. It didn’t appear that people on the window side had any problems navigating out to the aisle. There is an informal atmosphere. Passengers wander easily about to chat with others, and enjoy a good wine selection. My only regret was ‘Shutter Island’, once I put that relentlessly down-beat movie out of my mind, I slept like a rock until breakfast.
Passengers also seemed well-rested in the ‘biz seat’ section, which can be configured from 40 to 72 seats. There are two seats on each side of the aisle, comfortable and roomy. With a 52” seat pitch, they are electronically controlled, reclining 140 degrees. All seats and beds have a universal power outlet, and the multimedia offerings have over 50 hours of programming.
Once finalised, the menu will change every several months. It’s being designed by French-born Chef Michel Richard, the force behind several excellent restaurants, including two in Washington, Citronelle and Central Michel Richard. I just had lunch at the latter, and can report the menu is in capable hands. I met Richard at a prior event. He’s everything you want in a chef – jovial, unpretentious and skilled, with a true desire to make the taste buds quiver.
Flights depart Dulles at 5:45 pm, with a fine dinner getting under way relatively quickly, and land in Orly around 7:40 AM, though we landed a bit sooner. They depart Paris at noon, and land in Dulles at 2:45 PM. The airport lounges, to which OpenSkies passengers have free access, are decent, with good wireless.
A number of the inaugural flight passengers were from the travel industry, handling logistics for law firms and companies, as well as missions of leisure. They were as impressed as I was with the quality of service. After a great day in Paris, staying at Hotel Le Six, a very comfortable boutique hotel in a vibrant Left Bank neighbourhood, they returned the next day.
I left some days later, unable to resist the allure of Paris. One may aspire to the style to which we’d like to become accustomed, but travel these days has many equalizers. A post-flight inspection of a plane from Newark revealed a bird strike. It didn’t go well for the goose, or for the Dulles bound passengers, as our plane was given to the Newark route. Meanwhile, another great equalizer, the volcano in Iceland, returned to a state of indigestion. Had we not lost our plane, we were set to route through Glasgow to refuel and skirt the volcano. Instead, we went through a two-day journey across Paris and eventually to London for a late BA flight to Dulles, coach-plus. My mind returned to the novels of Alan Furst and the suspenseful uncertainties of being on the run in Paris, plotting how to stow away on a freighter in the Mediterranean.
The adventure revealed the airline had some work to do on the ground, particularly with communications with passengers, and training airport staff shared with British Airways, who seemed to view us as a game of hot potato. I’m assured this is well under way. Perhaps it’s the trade-off for a small airline with a handful of planes, though these days large airlines aren’t flush with backup planes and engines. It should be noted that during the April volcanic mayhem, OpenSkies acquitted itself better than most. Flying by Iceland, I watched the mischievous plume pour from the volcano. Taking wistful glances at the business class iron curtain, I reminded myself what travellers often should. Had I been on a small ship from London to Virginia four hundred years ago, it would have taken four and a half months, had lousy entertainment and food, and no EU compensation rules.
Bird strikes aren’t daily events. With luck, the volcano won’t be. OpenSkies presents a class act with a standout feature: it’s considerably less expensive than business class on other airlines. Moreover, those booking on short notice aren’t out of pocket. Despite its size, the airline is catching a good chunk of market share. Once aboard, it feels more egalitarian and guilt-free than biz class on larger planes. Everyone is business class, they’re just not paying through the nose.
Despite the disruption, I was thrilled to linger in Paris, switching hotels every night to enhance my walkabout through Paris neighbourhoods. Three boutique hotels with great design and intriguing neighbourhoods to explore, and a fourth, larger hotel that’s more traditional:
Hotel Le Six
This small but well-appointed hotel, contemporary but with warm colours and textures, is on a side street close to Tour Montparnasse, Bobino and Jardin du Luxembourg. A great neighbourhood for shopping, including many small shops on side streets, and endless cafes and restaurants. Two metro stops are close, and in half an hour to forty-five minutes one can walk to the Louvre, Nortre Dame or the Eiffel Tower. There is an intimate room for small conference meetings.
Hotel Bel Ami
Also on the Left Bank, in the St. Germaine neighbourhood, is Hotel Bel Ami. It’s highly stylized with rotating art exhibits and a great piano bar. Close by are many intriguing private art galleries, closer yet is an excellent jazz and dinner club, Papa Jazz Club (www.papajazzclub.com) one of the few survivors of a vanishing Paris species.
Edouard 7 Hotel
The most over the top room was a very theatrical suite atop this hotel on the Right Bank, a walk from the Seine, with its balcony overlooking the Paris Opera. Edward VII, Prince of Wales, chose this hotel as his hangout while exploring Paris, as well as exploring opera singers and actresses. A royal choice.
Hotel Le Littre
Back to another side street in the Montparnasse neighbourhood, not far from the Latin Quarter and close to Metro – nothing seems very far in Paris – this hotel has a more traditional feel. Its views of Paris rooftops convey a great urban personality.
If in Paris before the end of June, don’t miss the gruesome but thought-provoking ‘Crime and Punishment’ exhibit at the Musee d’Orsay. Walking distance from the four hotels above, the museum is in a former Beaux-Arts railway station. It’s famed for the world’s largest collection of knockout impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces. The museum worked hard to locate a guillotine it could repair. It was finally given one, on condition that it was not returned.
Skip Kaltenheuser is a freelance journalist and writer. He can be contacted at email@example.com
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