Emirates' First and Business Class: The accolades are well-deserved

For the past several years, U.A.E.-based Emirates airline has consistently been named one of the world’s best airlines. Recently, I had the opportunity to experience its service first-hand and agree that the carrier’s excellent reputation is indeed well-deserved.

My Emirates experience involved two ultra-long-haul flights: the first aboard an Airbus A380 from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to Dubai International Airport (DXB), followed three days later by the world's longest scheduled passenger flight from DXB to Auckland, New Zealand (AKL) aboard a Boeing (NYSE:BA) 777-200LR. In both cases, I traveled in Business Class, though I was given access to First Class on the 777 so that I could compare and report.

Business class seat aboard an Emirates A380
A380 business class seat

To a person, the flight attendants on each flight were nothing short of amazing. They welcomed all of us warmly, learned our names quickly and used them just enough that it felt genuine and not forced, tended to our needs and wants, were always easy to find when one of us needed them, and made us feel like valued guests. In my estimation, that is exactly what an airline should do.

First and business class cabins on both planes were beautifully decorated. Accents of wood grain reminiscent of a luxury automobile interior contrasted nicely with the off-white upholstery and cabin walls. Fresh flowers in sconces adorned the bulkheads and flowers in bud vases were in the lavatories.

Noise-cancelling headsets, socks, eye shades, blankets and pillows awaited at each premium class seat. Each enclosed first class suite on both aircraft also had an array of snacks and beverages. Business class seats on the A380 had bottled water and soft drinks in a section next to the seat while business seats on the 777 lacked the liquid refreshment present on the larger aircraft.

First Class enclosed suite aboard Emirates Boeing 777
First class enclosed suite

Upon settling into our seats, each passenger was presented with an amenities kit that included gender-specific Bulgari lotions and other personal items for use during the flights. Lavatories were stocked with more amenity items including combs and kits containing razor and shave cream, and toothbrush and toothpaste. First class passengers could also request pajamas and slippers.

Food and beverage

Premium class passengers on both aircraft had an extensive choice of food and beverages. Pre-flight, I was offered a glass of Moët & Chandon non-vintage champagne; first class passengers could enjoy a 2006 Dom Pérignon.

For my dinner on the A380 bound for Dubai, I chose an assortment of traditional Arabic mezze (small plates) followed by a dessert of a cheese plate and a glass of port. My lunch choices on the 777 heading for Auckland consisted of a creamy mushroom soup with chives, dukkah-coated lamb accompanied by, appropriate for our destination, a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

For dessert on the Triple Seven I again chose a cheese plate and port though Natalia, one of the four flight attendants looking after the 42 business-class passengers, insisted on plying me with Godiva chocolates to accompany my Graham’s 20-year-old tawny port. First class beverage choices included a 40-year-old Taylor tawny port.

While many carriers serve meals at set times during the flight, the crews on both Emirates flights were more accommodating. Passengers who were working, sleeping or just plain weren’t hungry didn’t miss out; they were served when they were ready.

In-flight snacks available in Emirates First Class cabins
First class pantry

Most long-haul flights include a pantry area where passengers can grab snacks for those long stretches between meals and Emirates is no different. On the A380, both business and first class passengers could nibble on gourmet snacks while they sipped their beverages at the in-flight bar at the rear of the aircraft’s upper deck, the bar that (somewhat famously) made an appearance in an Emirates TV commercial featuring Jennifer Aniston.

On the 777, first class passengers had a pantry area at the front of the cabin where they could help themselves to snacks, sandwiches and beverages while business class passengers could do the same in their section’s galley area. Passengers in both classes could also ring their flight attendant call button and their selections from the Light Bites section of the menu would be brought to them.

Although the food on both flights was far better than standard aircraft fare, the service was the star.

Award-winning service

On the A380 flight, there were 12 flight attendants for 72 business class passengers, a ratio of about six passengers per flight attendant. On the 777, there were four F/As for 42 business class passengers, a ratio of about 10 to one. Regardless of the lower ratio, the service was never lacking in any way. In first class, the ratio was even higher. On the 777, there was a dedicated flight attendant, assisted by the purser, looking after passengers in the eight closed suites.

According to the pursers on the flights, there were 22 flight attendants who spoke 15 languages on the LAX-DXB flight and 15 flight attendants who spoke 11 languages on the DXB-AKL route.

The carrier has consistently ranked among the top five World’s 100 Best Airlines as rated by air travelers in the annual SKYTRAX World Airline Awards. Emirates was named the World’s Best Airline 2013 and has ranked in the top five in succeeding years. It has also consistently received accolades for its ICE in-flight entertainment system, its first and business classes in general and its first and business class comfort amenities.

Air travelers who have only flown U.S.-flagged carriers have not experienced anything remotely close to the level of service on Emirates. And that is not just my opinion. The highest-ranked U.S. carrier in World’s 100 Best Airlines was Virgin America (NASDAQ:VA) at No. 26. The best of the three legacy U.S. carriers was Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) at No. 45 followed by United Airlines (NYSE:UAL) at No. 60, Seattle-headquartered Alaska Airlines (NYSE:ALK) at No. 65, Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) at No. 67 and American Airlines (NASDAQ:AAL) at No. 79. Each is a long way from the top five.

The aircraft

The service, food and general outfitting of the aircraft were comparable. First class on both planes offered enclosed suites that the flight crew confirmed were essentially identical between the two planes, though first class passengers on the A380 also have access to an on-board shower suite, which was also hinted at in Aniston’s commercial. There is no comparable facility on the 777.

There were also some differences between the planes’ business class sections that are worth noting.

Business class seat on Emirates Boeing 777
Business class seat on the 777

The business class seats aboard the A380 were a bit narrower than those aboard the 777. According to SeatGuru.com the Airbus seats were 18.5 inches wide compared to 20.5 inches wide on the Boeing jet. However, the A380’s seats have a flat table-like area to the side of the seats while the 777 has side pockets for stowing gear. Those pockets reduce the available elbow room compared to what is available on the A380 so, even though the seats themselves are actually wider on the Triple Seven, the side consoles reduce the usable space a bit.

In addition, the 777 has angle-flat seats while the A380 has lie-flat seats. Mattress pads were provided on both flights to provide extra cushioning while sleeping and, though they were not exactly Westin Heavenly Beds, they did make the seats significantly more comfortable. Still, the combination of the slight angle of the seat and the restrictions of the side pockets made it more difficult to sleep on the 777 than on the A380.

Business class seats on the A380 are configured 1-2-1, meaning that no business class passenger has to climb over another to get into or out of their seat. The 777’s business class seats are in a 2-3-2 configuration, which does not provide the same ease of access.

All seats on both aircraft – first, business and economy – have screens with access to Emirates’ award-winning ICE entertainment system. Calling it an entertainment system is actually a slight misnomer as “ICE” stands for Information, Communications and Entertainment and it offers over 2,500 channels of entertainment.

ICE control panel and power outlets aboard Emirates jetliners
ICE controls and power outlets

On each aircraft, there were three ways to control the ICE system: a handset, a tablet, or directly from the 17-inch diagonal touch screen. Using the handset, passengers are also able to make air-to-ground phone calls or to a passenger in another seat aboard the airplane. The system also has a function called FlightView which allows passengers to choose an en route map, or look outside the airplane via mounted cameras. The A380 has three outward-looking cameras while the 777 has two.

Both planes had in-flight Wi-Fi but I was only able to actually get on-line on the 777. The challenge to connecting while in the air is that there is only a single pipeline from the aircraft to the ground. The more people sharing that pipeline, the slower the connectivity will be. The A380 carries nearly 500 passengers; that’s a lot of sharing. The 777 was better, with a 290 passenger capacity.

Emirates provides its premium class passengers with "express arrival" cards which gains them access to express lanes for customs and immigration where available. It also offers premium class passengers complimentary transportation to and from their departure and arrival airports via its chauffeur drive service. Details about that service are available here.

Finally, passengers in all classes of service will notice the Emirates logo is on virtually everything, from the amenities kits to the cloth hand towels in the business-class lavatories to the bottle of balsamic vinegar and olive oil dressing served with dinner to the silverware and even the salt and pepper shakers. About the only thing I spotted that did NOT have an Emirates logo with the in-flight “waste” bag, better known as the air sickness bag.

Emirates provided my flights so that I could experience the A380, the world's longest passenger flight aboard the 777, and various aspects of its service. Having done so, I have to agree with so many travelers who consistently cite the carrier’s service as among the best in the world. I can’t wait to experience it again.

Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

Photos by Carl Dombek
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