Flight Review: XL Airways Economy (A330-300) from Paris (CDG) to New York (JFK)

Updated Sept 22nd, 2019: XL Airways is seeking a bailout from Air France (Simple Flying).

Updated Sept 19th, 2019: XL Airways is experiencing temporary financial difficulties and has ceased ticket sales (OMAATForbesAirline Geeks).

XL Airways is a solid, acceptable choice for crossing the ocean. They offer an experience approaching a full-service airline–including a checked bag and at least one hot meal–but often at LCC pricing.

A friend and I took a quick trip to Europe back in December before the holidays, and XL popped up as an option to get home. Sometimes I mix and match one-way long-haul tickets to fulfill an itinerary, and the rise of low-cost, long-haul carriers like Norwegian, Level, and WOW Air have made this sort of last-minute jaunt a lot more accessible.

I first heard of XL in Summer 2015 when I had a similar last-minute need to get home. At the time I took Norwegian instead, but was intrigued by XL. What was it?

XL Airways bills itself as a “French airline specializing in long-haul flights.” With just four aircraft (all A330 variants) and twenty-two destinations, they primarily operate from French cities to vacation destinations both via regularly scheduled service and charter operations for tour companies.

XL Airways List of Destinations. Note: Many of these destinations are seasonal. NYC service for instance, IIRC is offered only in the warmer months and around the winter holidays.

Many of us North American-based travelers may be a bit puzzled by the existence of a small operation like this: in fact, it would seem leisure-only or leisure-oriented airlines are pretty common in Europe. E.g. TUI, the now-defunct Primera, Condor, Thomas Cook, Jet2, Edelweiss, etc. My armchair-hypothesis is that because other countries are more civil in their cultural stance towards vacation, there is enough demand for these carriers to exist.

Flight: SE 30
Route: Paris (CDG) to New York City (JFK)
Time: 7:30pm (Central European Standard, UTC+1) to 9:50pm (Eastern Standard, UTC-5)
Duration: 8hr 20m
Aircraft: Airbus A330-300
Seat: 51F (Economy)
Capacity: 95% Full

1. Purchasing: XL sells through its website and the usual OTAs; they only accept Visa or MasterCard, and do offer 24 hour holds (perhaps with some conditions).

At the time, I was trying to return to the US for the holidays. Because of the time of year and my last-minute planning, most normal carriers were charging $500-600 for a one-way, and the round-trip options weren’t much better.

To my surprise, Google Flights showed that XL had a ~$250 one way back to the US–pretty good for last minute holiday travel. After discovering the complimentary hot meal and free checked bag, I was sold! I didn’t strictly need either of these accouterments, but they were nice to have. I mostly wanted the transportation.

UR-enthusiasts: this ticket was available at the same price on Expedia, and thus the UR portal at about 17k UR points.

I used my Chase Ink Business Preferred Card for its travel benefits, including complimentary trip interruption and trip delay protection. If the flight had been delayed overnight, my accommodation and meals would have been covered by the card. (If you’re interested in this credit card, I very much appreciate you using my referral link!)

Note: To be clear, they offer a meal and a checked bag on even their lowest, base fare.

2. Check-In: Fairly seamless, with few lines. By this I mean that their IT (on the web and at the desks) is stable-enough, and their staffing is sufficient. Cabin bags are tagged as cabin-approved, but probably not weighed unless egregious-looking. Web-check in does yield an electronic boarding pass.

[XL Airways] Boarding Schedule

XL offers both web-check in and regular counter-check in.

  • Web check-in is available from 24 hours before scheduled departure via their website on a computer, tablet, or smartphone. While they don’t have a smartphone app, their website check-in process is pretty straightforward and does yield either a printable PDF, or a smartphone-compatible boarding pass (think iOS wallet). Here are some exceptions to web check-in availability:
    • Web check-in is not available for departures from Cuba (Cayo Coco, Santa Clara, Varadero) or selected departures from the Dominican Republic (Puerto Plata, Samana):
      • Therefore, check-in is counter only.
    • Web check-in is partially available for departures from Mexico (Cancun) and selected departures from the Dominican Republic (Punta Cana):
      • You may check-in online, and if you do… you will collect your boarding pass from the counter.
      • You cannot use an electronic boarding pass.
      • You cannot use a print-at-home boarding pass.
    • Web check-in is partially available for departures from Israel (Tel Aviv):
      • You may check-in online, and if you do… you will collect your boarding pass from the counter OR you may use a printed boarding pass.
      • You cannot use an electronic boarding pass.
  • Counter check-in is always available, and begins 3 hours and 30 minutes before scheduled departure for flights to/from the US, and 3 hours for everything else. Check in closes 60 minutes before scheduled departure.

With this information in mind, I began the four-step check-in process on my phone from XL’s website.

[XL Airways, Check-In] Step 3: Select a seat. I chose an empty row.

[XL Airways, Check-In] Step 4: Receive boarding pass (paper PDF, or digital PKPass). I chose the latter.

At this point, check-in was formally complete. Now it was time to add the boarding pass to my phone.

[XL Airways, Boarding Pass] The airline sent an email immediately.

[XL Airways, Boarding Pass]: Inside theemail with boarding pass attached and flight information (left). Gmail automatically picked up the flight information (right).

[XL Airways, Boarding Pass] Add to iOS wallet. Turns out I was in full-fare economy lol.

Then I headed off to CDG’s Terminal 2A to drop off my luggage; as mentioned, XL has one free checked bag, and I was bringing home a “liquid” greater than 3 ounces: a jar of what-a-friend-calls “Swiss Nutella.” (Ovomaltine Spread)

[XL Airways, Luggage Drop-Off] Charles Du Gaulle (CDG) – Terminal 2A. It looked less spooky in real life.

I located my check-in counter on the departure board…

[XL Airways, Luggage Drop-Off] The airline does exist! The XL flight is the fourth entry (flight SE 30).

…and found the check in desk. I was surprised by how short the line was. Maybe because I was arriving on the later-side of the check-in window. Anyways, here’s a data point for an LCC not having humongous lines.

[XL Airways, Luggage Drop-Off] Check-in queues @ CDG-2A

[XL Airways, Luggage Drop-Off] Economy Queue

Note: Unlike certain airlines, and certain country-pairs, I don’t believe you needed to visit the check-in desk if you only had carry-on bags and had already checked-in and obtained a boarding pass.

Note: They did not size or weigh my carry-on luggage, but assume they would have if it looked egregious. They did offer a cabin-approved-tag to attach.

3. Boarding: Process was a little disorganized, but people weren’t fazed. Everyone made it on board without incident via a simplified version of back-to-front boarding.

Since XL does not have multiple cabins-of-service, or elite status, there is a limited notion of a boarding hierarchy. While it is is possible to buy certain seats during the ticket-purchase process (and perhaps after), boarding did not reflect this advantage as they boarded in just two groups: those sitting in the back half, and then those sitting in the front half.

In Paris, XL operates from CDG’s Terminal 2A, and today they were boarding from Gate 37 which is at the very end of the pier. When I arrived ten or so minutes before departure, the gate area was chock-filled with passengers. The interesting thing was it didn’t feel oppressively crowded, yet there were over 400-some odd passengers ready to board. The gate desk was fully staffed and an agent was reading off dozens of names–not just one or two–to be seen at the desk. The reason was never made clear, perhaps for seat assignments.

Here’s an approximate schedule of the boarding experience:

  • At scheduled boarding, nothing happened.
  • At 10 minutes past boarding, the gate screens began flashing boarding, and agents made the first announcement to board. Passengers with special needs and families with small children were invited to board first.
  • At 20 minutes past boarding, I make the unwelcome discovery that the flight is listed as delayed by an hour and eighteen minutes on FlightAware. I’m not entirely surprised as several reviews on TripAdvisor noted this possibility.
  • At 27 minutes past boarding, they announce general boarding: passengers in the back half of the plane are welcome to board. I assume they eventually announced boarding for the front half, but as I was sitting in the back half, I didn’t get to hear this announcement.
  • At 8 minutes past scheduled departure, they announce boarding complete.
  • At 14 minutes past scheduled departure, we push back.
  • At 33 minutes past scheduled departure, we take off.

I was curious what the customer profile for this airline was, on this route. For this near-holiday departure, I spoke to:

  • [American] a mother, returning from visiting her son in France (her son bought the ticket)
  • [French] a 20/30-something professional visiting friends in the US
  • [British] an elderly couple from Malta visiting their son in New York (well-behaved dog in tow)
  • [American] me!

[XL Airways, Boarding] Boarding our A333 from Door #2. XL livery prominent.

4. Seating: Reasonable legroom, pitch, and seats. Better than Southwest’s new slimline-series, and about the same as United international economy. However, seats can be a little narrow. Cabin was clean and well-presented.

XL uses all-economy configurations for its aircraft; this is understandable given that their expected demographic is purely leisure. Their fleet consists of four A330s: one -300 variant with 408 seats and three -200 variants with 361 seats. Here’s a map of their A333; their A332s are similar.

[XL Airways, Seating] Seating map for their A330-300 variant. (Image Source: xl.com)

Some TripAdvisor reviewers have noted that the legroom disappointed them. I didn’t notice that the legroom was particularly small or large:  I want to ballpark it at 30-31″, with a 3″ pitch. To me, it felt a lot like a United economy seat–whether that’s good or bad. Seats were leather (or a leathery material) rather than cloth.

[XL Airways, Seating] A few rows of seats.

[XL Airways, Seating] A few more seats.

It’s worth mentioning that they do nine-abreast on an A330 (see above seating map). I’m not sure there’s a “standard,” but IIRC the typical configuration is eight-abreast on an A330.

I thought it was acceptable, made further so by clinching an empty-row for hobo-business class. ^_^

[XL Airways, Seating] Packaged blanket! Better than United’s, but only slightly (sorry for the potato quality).

[XL Airways, Seating] Bright modern reading lights, but no individual vent. To be fair, old UA wide-bodies do not always have individual vents.

[XL Airways, Seating] Instructions for connecting to streaming entertainment. (More on this later.)

5. Staffing: Flight attendants were nice-enough, but detached and brisk.

I guess there isn’t much to say: the staff were fine. They weren’t incredibly friendly, but spoke good English and of course plenty of French. They were brisk in their service, and did seem to accommodate requests if asked. E.g. An elderly couple asked for different seats on account of their cabin-pet, and was allowed to reseat themselves to an empty row.

6. Entertainment and Power: No IFE, stream to device only. Middling app and limited free media-selection; better media-selection via buy-up. Power outlets readily available but not all work. No internet. Plenty of nice magazines and duty-free booklets. I wasn’t bothered by the IFE situation as my plan was to eat dinner, then lie down and go to sleep.

This part may throw some people for a loop, but there was no IFE screen on this international flight. It was stream to device only via a proprietary app (kind of like Southwest’s method), with just a few monitors sprinkled throughout the cabin to show the in-flight map. To be fair, I’ve flown an AA 757 TATL and it had no IFE (sighhh… but why, AA?).

Interestingly though, they had the equipment to suggest they once might have had IFEs.

[XL Airways, Entertainment] Armrest-remote (sorry for the potato quality).

They had a few monitors sprinkled through-out the cabin where you could see a moving flight map.

[XL Airways, Entertainment] In-Flight Map on overhead monitor (sorry about the potato quality).

And there was, a bevy of reading material. Idk, I read this stuff sometimes. ^_^

[XL Airways, Entertainment] Decent in-flight magazine, buy-on-board menu, safety card, and two duty-free booklets. (This picture might appear rotated on a mobile browser, soz.)

The streaming app felt very clunky, despite being built by an outside company which seemed to specialize in this sort of thing, and would probably offer it to multiple airlines. The selection was also very limited. A few recent movies and shows, but the truly good ones required a buy-up of 9.95 EUR. This is an arguably reasonable cost to pay for a flight of eight hours but given how clunky the app was, I am not confident any of the buy-up content would have worked once you transacted.

I don’t blame XL for the limited entertainment, I think they’re a smaller airline with a unique operating profile and resources.

Anyways, this is how the IFE interface/flow worked.

From here, I’ll show you three examples of what you can do: (a) entertainment, (b) passenger chat, and (c) flight map. I think they actually had quite a wide variety of shows, but most required the 9.95 EUR buy-up.

[XL Airways, IFE App] (a) Entertainment Selection, Part 1

[XL Airways, IFE App] (a) Entertainment Selection, Part 2

[XL Airways, IFE App] (b) Passenger Chat

[XL Airways, IFE App] (c) Flight Map and Information

To be clear, there is no internet connectivity. Even though you connect through Wi-Fi to get to the entertainment, this connects you to the plane’s entertainment servers, and nothing more. I didn’t expect any on a leisure carrier, but thought this was worth mentioning as some people really like having internet in-flight. :)

Ultimately the lack of a traditional IFE didn’t bother me. Travel always screws up my sleep schedule so on this 8’ish hour flight, my plan was to eat dinner, and then sleep.

7. Food and Drink: Very reasonable and sufficiently tasty. Beverage service very limited.

Despite being a semi-LCC carrier, XL serves complimentary meals. On this medium-length TATL flight, that meant just dinner and no pre-arrival snack. The entree was noticeably better than United international economy. I’d say a 7.75 out of 10. IIRC, there was only one meal choice but I was satisfied.

[XL Airways, Food] Herbed pasta and chicken stew. Squash salad, bread and butter, and some dessert-thing. Also a cup of water.

Drinks are limited to water. You must buy-up for sodas, wine-beer-spirits, and maybe even coffee-tea. Honestly I think this is fine for a medium-length TATL flight. As mentioned, I was rather satisfied by the meal.

8. Bathroom: I’ve noticed some peoples’ flight reviews include a trip to the bathroom. Apparently I remembered to take a peek on this flight. Fwiw, the bathroom was fine and clean and such.

[XL Airways, Bathroom] Sink was fine. (This picture might appear rotated on a mobile browser, soz.)

9. Arrival: Descending into JFK, was seriously the smoothest landing I’ve experienced in recent memory. No bounce, no thud: just the sound of the wheels on the runway. Maybe I had too many bumpy landings recently.

[XL Airways, Arrival] Cabin monitors displayed a little goodbye-message (sorry for the potato quality).

10. Conclusion: My experience was very, very decent, but I acknowledge the validity of others’ negative experiences (seating, possibility of IRROPs). I offer this review as another take on XL; in my case, it turned out to be a very pleasant flight. If the price is right, I would be ready to take them again.

What do you think? Would you include XL in your basket of TATL options?

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