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Emirates is a relatively new airline with seemingly endless amounts of cash to invest in high quality service, new planes, and new routes.

They have a deservedly high reputation and provide a refreshingly positive experience on their flights.

 
 
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Emirates Airline Business Class review

Emirates has light spacious and airy business class cabins, with friendly young flight attendants and good food (at least until it runs out...).

 

 

Emirates is one of the world's fastest growing airlines, and clearly it wouldn't be growing if it wasn't providing a good quality product that passengers appreciate and keep coming back for more.

Their planes are nearly new, and equipped with the latest in flight entertainment systems, and their cabin crew is generally young and enthusiastic, although insufficiently trained and inexperienced.

Perhaps as a result of rapid growth, there are some rough edges about their business class service, but overall, they provide a quality product we're pleased to recommend and which compares more closely to other airlines' first class rather than business class products.

This review is based on two business class flights with Emirates in November 2006, flying their new service from New York's JFK airport to Hamburg and return.

Emirates Airlines - an Introduction

Emirates is a privately owned airline (by the government of Dubai) and is based in Dubai.  It started operations on 25 October 1985 with two small planes, and now operates a fleet of 92 planes, with many more on order.

It has grown at an extraordinary rate, consistently doubling in size every 3.5 - 4 years.

For its most recent financial year, ending 31 March 2006, it claims to have earned gross revenues of US$5.1 billion, and to have generated a net profit of US$762 million - an extraordinarily high 15% net profit.  The airline says it has been profitable every year except for its second year, and does not receive any government aid or subsidies.

Their profit for the first six months of the current year (through 30 Sept) is reported to be 29% up on the same time last year, and it is no wonder that Air Transport World rates Emirates as the world's third most profitable airline.

These claims are buttressed by its accounts, which are public record and audited by PricewaterhouseCoopers, but its profitability is in any event a largely irrelevant issue.  All that matters to most of us, as passengers, is a reliable airline offering quality service, and Emirates scores highly on these key measures.

Stop and think about this for a minute, dear reader :  The world's third most profitable airline, and one of the world's largest and most rapidly growing airlines, is achieving these splendid results not by cutting back on service, but by offering better and more services at competitive fares.  Bravo.  Emirates deserves every penny of its profit and every ounce of its success - long may they continue to take the high road and plan to succeed through providing high quality rather than low cost services.

Indeed, the combination of rapid growth, high service standards, and huge profits has caused some detractors to allege Emirates must be enjoying some unfair advantages that its competitors do not have.  We analyze and answer these claims in our article 'Does Emirates Enjoy an Unfair Advantage?'.

A distinctive feature of the airline is its base in Dubai.  It offers flights to/from over 100 cities around the world, but almost all flights are nonstop between Dubai and the final destination.

This need to fly through Dubai is not a problem if Dubai is sensibly on the route between where you are flying from and where you are flying to, but if you are considering flying, for example, between the US and Europe, having to do this via Dubai is clearly not a practical consideration.

However, there are some routes that include an intermediary stop, and in November Emirates added new service from New York to Dubai via Hamburg, and has 'Fifth Freedom' rights making it possible for US residents wishing to go to Europe to fly to Hamburg and then continue their travels within Europe either by connecting flights from Hamburg or by train.

There are also a number of other routes, particularly in Asia and the Pacific, that have intermediate stops and similar operating rights - for example, Emirates offers service between New Zealand and Australia as part of routes that continue on to Dubai, often with additional stops in Bangkok or Singapore.

In the US Emirates currently has only one gateway city - New York (JFK).  Hopefully this may increase in the future.

Emirates operates from four cities in Britain, but with service only to Dubai, and from a number of other cities in Europe, as well as many cities in Asia and the Middle East and Australia/New Zealand.

Pre-Flight Experiences

My journey started in Seattle; I was flying first on American Airlines to JFK and then connecting on to Hamburg with Emirates.

I was able to check my bag all the way to Hamburg from Seattle, and interestingly the AA checkin agent agreed to do this without seeing any proof I was flying on from New York with Emirates.  I asked him about this, and he explained that in these days of E-tickets, he really has to simply trust the passenger when the passenger says they are connecting on to a different airline with a separately booked E-ticket, because there is no way he can otherwise check and confirm this!

My flight to JFK on AA in a middle seat was excruciatingly miserable, but that's not the subject of this review, although after that terrible experience, just about any other airline would have seemed wonderful!

Upon arrival at JFK I took the light rail to the Emirates terminal (terminal 4 - a nice spacious open and airy terminal) and waited until the Emirates counters opened for checkin.  Although my bag was checked all the way from Seattle, I still needed to get a boarding pass from Emirates.

In theory, the checkin counters opened four hours prior to checkin, but the staff slowly slouched into view some minutes after that time, and only started checking people in nine minutes after they were supposed to be open.  Sure, there was no rush to make the flight at this early hour, but standing impatiently in line is not a good start to a long flight.

Although there was a separate counter for business class, it took 20 minutes more until I was checked in and by the time I'd been checked in, there were 16 increasingly impatient people waiting behind me in the business class 'express' line - I hate to think how long the 16th person behind me had to wait to be checked in.

You shouldn't have to stand in line for 30+ minutes to be checked in for a flight in coach class, and absolutely should not be treated this poorly when flying in business class.

A nice benefit of flying business class is that Emirates reduces the amount of time you need to check in prior to flight departure down to only one hour (in New York) or 90 minutes (in Hamburg).  This is a very valuable gift of an extra hour or more of time that many businessmen will find can be much better spent at work rather than in the airport.  But if it takes 30+ minutes waiting in the checkin line, these times may not be sufficient.

Limousine Transfers

Business and First Class passengers on Emirates flights are given complementary limousine transfers to and from the airport for their flights.

This applies to most cities they serve, and has some distance limitations for how far they'll pick you up from and drive you to - for example, they will take you up to 25 miles away from Hamburg, and up to 60 miles to/from JFK.

If you qualify, this is a lovely way to start and finish your travel experience and a definite cost saving compared to making your own way to/from the airport.

Lounges in New York and Hamburg

New York

Emirates have their own lounge at JFK, and they allow the all-first class airline that operates between London and New York, Eos, to share their lounge with them.  Johnny Jet describes the Emirates lounge as 'one of the best I've encountered', and he's been in more airline lounges around the world than I'm ever likely to visit.

With my more limited experience, I completely agree with JJ.  The Emirates JFK lounge is definitely one of the nicest I've ever visited as well.  It is spacious and has plenty of seating and services for all the guests.  For example, there were 26 workstations in the business lounge, some complete with computers, and others for people bringing their own laptop with them.  Unlike many other airlines that charge for this, Emirates offered both free Wi-Fi and free Ethernet broadband internet access in their lounge.  Thank you, Emirates.

I was there in the evening and so had a chance to enjoy their dinner buffet.  In a word - wow!  I counted eighteen different hot food items, and plenty of cold items and desserts.  In a second word - yum!  The food was excellent and regularly replaced so it was always hot and fresh.

A nice benefit of the buffet was that it allows one to quickly get and eat food, with no delays caused by slow service.  This enables you to further compress the time you need to be at the airport prior to the flight.

There was a generous range of drinks, including good French champagne.

The lounge also had showers - definitely an appreciated convenience if you'd already spent all day flying across the country, as I had.

Hamburg

Hamburg is a small airport.  This was definitely a benefit when we flew in - it took next to no time to get from the gate to immigration, to be processed through, and our bags were on the conveyor within 25 minutes of us landing.  A short walk took us out of the airport, into our coach, and we were in the city some 15 minutes later.  In total, from touch down to checking in at the hotel - less than an hour.  Amazing.

But being a small airport is not without its downside.  The airport has very limited shopping and food service for departing passengers, and it seems there are only two airline lounges - one for Lufthansa, and the other lounge for all other airlines, including Emirates.

This generic shared lounge was very disappointing and only slightly better than choosing to sit in the regular public waiting areas.  There was almost no food, limited drinks, and the Wi-Fi was not free.

But that is not something that can be blamed on Emirates, and we understand they may be planning to build their own exclusive lounge in Hamburg.

On board

We were traveling on a nearly brand new 777 that had three classes of service - First, Business and Coach.

Coach Class

Because this was one of the very first flights on their new route between New York and Hamburg, there were very few people in coach class in both directions - I'd estimate it was only 15% - 20% full.  This meant people had an entire row of seats to themselves, allowing them to stretch out and lie down, making for a very comfortable ride 'in the back'.  Naturally this situation is unlikely to persist, but for the lucky travelers in early November, it was a definite bonus.

Coach class has ten across seating in a 3 - 4 - 3 configuration.  These days very few airlines have the nine across seating that the 777 was originally designed for, preferring instead to subject passengers to ten across cramped seating rather than nine across spacious seating.

Cabin lighting

Some airlines completely darken their cabins during the night flights to help passengers sleep - even to the point of turning off any 'no smoking' and 'fasten seatbelt' signs.  But Emirates chose to leave their cabin in a half lit state with side lights on all night long.  On the other hand, they also handed out eye shades, so you could wear one of those as a solution.  I don't like eye shades myself, so did wish they would have darkened their cabin more.

One fancy thing they do is adjust the lighting color in the cabin, and they also have extra lighting effects to create the appearance of stars in the night sky (on the cabin ceiling).  I'm not sure what practical purpose this serves, but it was fun to look at for the few minutes it was on display.

Seating

Business class was nearly full.  The business class cabins have a 2 - 3 - 2 seating configuration, and seats are arranged in rows all facing forwards, with a 47" pitch.

Most of the Emirates planes have traditional type seats that recline back almost a foot, but which don't go all the way to a lie-flat sleeper bed configuration, and these two flights were with this type of seating.

The airline is now starting to fit planes with a newer lie-flat sleeper seat.

The seat - with a fabric rather than leather cover - was perfectly comfortable.  It has an electronically adjustable footrest that extends out the front, although you need to be a bit careful with that - if you have the footrest all the way extended and the person in front reclines their seat as far back as it will go, you can end up with your feet wedged into a rapidly diminishing amount of space.

The seats also have winged headrests that can be extended and raised so as to comfortably cradle your head while sleeping, and I ended up getting a reasonable amount of sleep on the relatively short flight between New York and Hamburg.

Although there is a generous 47" of pitch between rows of seats, if you're in a non-aisle seat you can be somewhat blocked in if the seat between you and the aisle is fully reclined with foot rest extended and the seats in front are also fully reclined, and if the person next to you has their tv monitor extended as well, it becomes very difficult to climb over and get to the aisle.

The seats have two lights, one of which is on a stalk from the top of the seat and has different levels of brightness.

Crew

Emirates recruits its flight attendants from all around the world, and they are typically younger friendly clean cut type people, similar to as you'd expect to see at Disneyland.  Some of their crew are from Dubai, but most are not.  This was reflected in the amazing diversity of languages the crew could speak.  They proudly list all the languages that they can speak at the start of each flight - I lost count on the outbound flight, but for the return, I counted 16 different languages that could be spoken by various crew members.  This is an extraordinary number and vastly better than found on most other international carriers (and better than found on all US carriers).

The friendly service from the personable crew members is a definite distinguishing feature of an Emirates flight.

On the flight over to Hamburg, in flight announcements were tediously offered in three languages - English, German, and some type of Arabic language.  On the flight back, the announcements were only in English and Arabic.

The pilots were unnecessarily obsessive about requiring passengers to fasten their seat belts any time there was even the slightest bit of turbulence, and the announcements in two or three languages came through the headphones at a painfully loud volume (compared to the movie or music volume levels).

Prior to Take Off

The cabin crew patchily helped passengers get settled (no-one offered to take my coat), and offered a range of drinks (alcoholic including real champagne and non-alcoholic), although no nibbles were handed out.

A nice touch was handing out perfumed moist hot towels to freshen up with.  On the flight over, we were given a second round of hot towels shortly prior to landing, although these ones had been insufficiently dampened and were more dry than wet.  Come on, guys - how complicated is it to pour some hot water on a dry towel?

On the return flight we were given three hot towels - upon boarding, after the meal, and prior to arriving in New York.

All passengers were given a pair of socks and eye shade, and gender specific amenity kits were handed out to men and women.  My male kit was well stocked with 12 different things in it, the women's kits had similar but more appropriately female things such as perfumes.  I asked if I could have a female instead of male kit; the flight attendant said 'Oh, why don't you have one of each' which was a very positive response.

Boarding the return flight from Hamburg was an interesting experience.  The outside air temperature was cool to cold (it was mid November after all) but the temperature in the cabin was probably 100 degrees - perhaps to recreate the desert heat of Dubai?  I - and many other passengers - complained about it, and got the usual made up nonsense excuse about why we had to suffer through the intolerable heat.  There was and is, of course, no reason in the world why the cabin needed to be so ridiculously hot, especially when the outside air temperature was in the 30s or 40s; the problem was simply that someone was too lazy to dial in a different temperature to the a/c control panel.

I noticed one of the flight attendants rushing up from the coach cabin and overheard her telling another flight attendant 'We have people about to pass out from the heat back here' and that seemed to magically resolve the problem, and a short while later the temperature plunged, and stayed too cold for most of the rest of the flight.  The 777 has a very sophisticated multi-zone cabin temperature control capability, but no matter how sophisticated this may be, if the person adjusting it has no sense, it won't work satisfactorily, and alas, we suffered from a person with no sense being in charge of the thermostat on our return flight.

Normally I like to fly anonymously, so as to get as realistic as possible an experience of the airline's service.  Unfortunately, this time I was part of a small group of journalists, and to my horror the pr agency woman accompanying us went and ostentatiously briefed the cabin crew about how very important we were and how they must give us their very best service.

However, very best service or not, problems remained, and one has to wonder if problems occurred when the crew had been exhorted to give their very best service, what would happen to regular passengers?

Food and Drink

Even though the pr person traveling with us had asked the crew to give us super special service, it took 45 minutes from when the flight took off until when the crew finally came to serve us a drink on the return back to New York.  The first five minutes were during the steep initial climb, but there was no apparent reason why drinks were not offered for the next 40 minutes.

I was looking forward to a nice beer before dinner, but was disappointed to find they only offered Heineken or Budweiser.  Fortunately the Emirates wine list was excellent, and I settled on champagne instead of beer - hardly the worst outcome!

Problems with coffee service

The short (about seven) hour flight from New York to Hamburg in theory had a breakfast service as well as serving a dinner, but for some strange reason the cabin crew didn't offer it to five of the six people in the group I was traveling with, and indeed refused to make coffee when others in our group asked for it, saying there was no longer any time to make and serve a coffee.

If that was truly the case, surely it is their fault for not offering it to us sooner, rather than requiring us, in desperation, to plead for a cup when it finally became apparent none would be offered voluntarily.  For many of us, being woken up at what was, by our time zone, still the middle of the night, and not even being given a cup of coffee to start our engines was close to a cruel and unusual punishment and for sure not something we'd expect in business class on an airline that promises a high degree of service.

Astonishingly, the situation re-occurred on the return flight, too, although the excuse was different.  This time, the crew said they couldn't serve us coffee because there was too much turbulence and we might spill the coffee on ourselves.  In fact, the turbulence was very mild, and certainly didn't prevent the crew from moving around the cabin and serving food, and we'd have happily accepted half a cup of coffee and/or signed any sort of formal indemnity waiver in return for a coffee.

So much for the promise on their menu :  'Espresso or Cappuccino coffee will be available at any time during the flight'.

Wonderful meals

Dinner on the flight over started with Lobster Confit or Grilled Chicken as an appetizer, followed by a salad, then a choice of four entrees (Lamb Shoulder, Chicken Tikka, Veal Rib Eye Steak or Pan Seared Grouper), then Tiramisu or Apple and Berry Crumble for dessert, a cheeseboard, a selection of fresh fruits, and tea or coffee with chocolates.  Prior to the dinner service, fresh canaps were also handed out, so all in all, it was a huge meal (especially after I ate too much at the splendid buffet in the lounge!).

This meal puts a BA business class meal to shame, and is much closer to what you'd find in their first class cabin.

The eight hour daytime flight from Hamburg back to New York had a massive 8 course lunch, and a snack service later in the flight.

The crew served me about half way through their business class cabin meal service, and even though they were only half way through the cabin, they'd already run out of one of the four entree choices.  This is disappointing in coach class, and completely unacceptable in business class.

To be fair, the crew did cobble up a similar meal using leftovers from the first class cabin.  That was a well meant gesture, and so I didn't feel it would have been appropriate to have pointed out that the potatoes were cold and only half cooked.

Other than for the cold uncooked potatoes, the rest of the food quality was good.  Food was attractively plated, and we had real metal knives and forks to eat with.  It would have been a nice touch to have had a pepper grinder rather than a pre-ground pepper shaker, but that was a minor omission.

In Flight Entertainment System

Get ready to be amazed.  Every passenger has their own individual in-flight entertainment (IFE) system that has 600 channels of different content.  A huge selection of movies, games, and music.

In addition to the regular channels, there is an Airshow channel that shows the computerized map of where the plane is, what its route is, and information on height, speed, arrival time, etc.  This information alternated between English and Arabic, and some of the time had advertisements, and would also be interrupted for what I presumed was information about when Muslims should pray and what direction Mecca was to pray towards.

Two other channels are worth a mention - one featured a video camera looking directly down to whatever was below the plane, and the other featured a forward looking video camera giving you a view as seen by the pilots in the cockpit.

The downward looking camera was interesting during the daytime and when there was no cloud cover.  The forward looking camera was great during take-off and landing, and occasionally during the flight depending on cloud cover and where the sun was.

Although there was a huge number of movies on offer as part of the 600 channels of entertainment, and all were 'on demand' movies that you could start, pause, and stop whenever you wished rather than having to follow a plane-wide schedule, there was surprisingly no movie listing that actually told you anything about the movies other than their names.  Sure, some movies you'll recognize by their name, but many others are total mysteries (at least to me) and it would have been very helpful for the print listing to include a description of what the movie was about, who was starring in it, etc.

One drawback to the movies was that all the movies came complete with mandatory Arabic subtitles.  Some people can sort of tune that out of their vision, other people find strange squiggly subtitles interfere with their enjoyment of the movie.  With so many channels to play with, I'd have preferred fewer movies, but with a choice of either with or without the subtitles.

In addition to movies, there were a huge number of different audio programs.  One of my favorites was the year by year programs that had each year's number one hits (as per British hit charts), week by week, for the year, dating back to 1952.  I found it fascinating to find what the number one song was for the week I was born, and to then see what the number one song was for various other significant times in my life.

There were also over 40 different games that could be played, and even audio books.

The IFE programming is the best I've ever experienced.  It is extraordinarily diverse and comprehensive, and has more than enough to keep anyone interested and entertained, no matter how long the flight.

Unfortunately, the IFE system is managed by a control freak on board who feels the need to force everyone on board to watch certain programs, whether they may wish to or not.  For example, prior to arrival back into the US, this control freak decided that everyone on the plane had to watch a video about US arrival formalities.  Many of us didn't need to watch this video, and many of those who did need to watch the video would have found it puzzling rather than helpful, because it was in Arabic.

Why couldn't passengers have been given a choice of watching this video or continuing to watch/listen to whatever other programming they preferred?  This is a particularly annoying thing when there is so much that one wishes to listen to and/or watch.

Emirates provides its business class passengers with noise reducing headphones.  These headphones don't work anywhere near as well as the Solitude or Bose headphones, but if you don't have your own noise reducing headphones, they are an improvement on ordinary headphones.

The video screens in business class are big (about 10" diagonal screen) and of good quality.  The screens are slightly smaller in coach class.

Although there were an amazing range of channels and choices, it was very easy to understand how to navigate around the system, with well laid out menus and navigational options (much better than the confusing systems on some other airlines) and a great booklet listing the channels.

However, the IFE control sets had one problem - accidentally bumping some of the buttons on them would cause your movie to stop and reset, and who among us hasn't accidentally bumped the buttons on the handset control units?  To get back to the same place in the movie was a difficult and time consuming thing, involving restarting the movie then fast-forwarding to where you thought you were.

Luggage

In theory, business class passengers get priority luggage tags on their bags.  Like many other airlines, Emirates doesn't intercept and re-tag bags that are being through-checked from another airline, and so my bags from American Airlines never got priority tags added for the outbound journey to Hamburg.  Fortunately this wasn't a problem, and the bags were on the carousel within 25 minutes of the plane landing.

Strangely, the return flight from Hamburg back to New York, which had me checking in at an Emirates checkin desk in Hamburg, also did not get my bag priority labeled, and the wait for bags at JFK seemed considerably longer than the 25 minutes in Hamburg.  There was no reason why my bag shouldn't have been priority tagged on the return flight.

Frequent Flier Program

Emirates has resisted the temptation to join one of the major airline alliances, and you would think this makes their frequent flier program not as strong as would be the case with an airline that can give you access to awards and mileage accrual opportunities with many other major carriers.

But the Emirates Skywards program does tie in with a good range of carriers, including Continental, Delta, JAL, KAL, SAA and United.

Cost

If you were to buy a business class fare for travel between New York and Hamburg on a regular US carrier such as Northwest or Delta, or with an international carrier such as BA or Air France, you'd be paying about $6800 - $7000.  This would be for an itinerary requiring you to stop and change planes en route.

The fare for a quality of service that is probably much better, and nonstop, using Emirates is as little as half that - a mere $3500 (this is for a ticket with some limitations and restrictions, they also have unrestricted fares at the same level as the other carriers).

Guess which option I'm recommending you choose!

Astonishingly, the world's third most profitable airline, with a superior service, is able to offer fares at half those of competing carriers.

Summary

Emirates is an up and coming airline that is growing at a rate of 20% a year and doubling in size every three to four years.  It also may be the world's third most profitable airline, even though it offers competitive and sometimes substantially lower fares.

Although there were some disappointments to some aspects of the overall experience, overall, Emirates provide a very good (and generally better) quality service compared to their competitors and are recommended for your consideration accordingly.

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Originally published 8 Dec 2006, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 

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