Emirates launched their new 777 First, Business and Economy class products at the Dubai Air Show on Sunday. These products (you can view the full details on their microsite here) will debut on their Brussels and Geneva routes from December 1,2017, and eventually make their way onto the A380s. The proximity of this launch (both in terms of timing and consumer perception) to SQ’s new A380 cabin products means that comparisons will be inevitable, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do. In this post, I’ll talk about Emirates’ new First Class. You can read my thoughts on how Emirates’ new Business Class stacks up to SQ’s here.
Emirates’ New First Class demonstrates a better use of space and more synergy between hard and soft product…
Let’s start with the technical specs of Emirates’ new First class. You can expect a 1-1-1 configuration, with 6 suites per 77W cabin. Each suite is 84 inches long, with doors up to 6 ft 9 inches high. The seat itself is 78 inches long and 30 inches wide, going from an upright position to a full flat bed. The seat can be converted into a “zero gravity” seat setting which apparently was inspired by NASA tech. Whether that’s a real benefit or just a chance to throw in “NASA” in your press release remains to be seen.
In terms of the color tone, I’m relieved that Emirates has abandoned its in-your-face bling of the old 777 first class and replaced it with something more agreeable. As per the press release, the new cabin interior “uses a whole new colour palette of soft greys, cream and champagne, conveying a contemporary, open and airy feel, with quiet and timeless luxury”
Less is more
Emirates has given a prime example of how less can be more. Their new First Class suite (designed, incidentally, by Jacques Pierre Jean Design studio, the same designer of SQ’s new Suites) is roughly 3.7 sq metres, versus 4.6 for SQ.
And yet, it looks like Emirates has actually done useful things with the real estate instead of having space for the sake of space.
There is no separate bed and seat, unlike what SQ has done. However, the interior of the Suite is still roomy, with features like a minibar, baggage storage in the seat arm rest with additional space below the TV. There are two separate screens, the larger one a 32 inch full HD screen and the smaller one 13 inches with controls for the IFE and seat functions.
The airline talked about drawing inspiration from old world luxury train cabins for their new suites, and you can really see that here. The curtains on the windows, the chandelier-style lights, the pull out cocktail table, the full length wardrobe…I mean, heck, the suite even comes with a leather notebook and pen so you can stare out the window and jot down ideas as inspiration strikes, like the writers of old did on trains.
Doors that are more than cosmetic
I have mixed feelings about airline seats with doors. On the one hand, they provide a nice feeling of privacy, and the illusion of being on a private jet. Moreover, they provide a very visible “do not disturb” sign to the crew. On the other, as JPA’s Design Director John Tighe told me during our interview, they can be completely useless from a functional point of view, as anyone of reasonable height who walks by can see over most of the partitions on current gen door-function products (eg Delta One, SQ’s current Suites).
Emirates indeed has a door on their new Suite, but they’ve gone for an entirely-enclosed one, the first attempt by any airline to do this. The door extends from bottom to top, providing an unprecedented level of privacy. The airline even mentions in its press release that you can change your clothes inside your suite, if you were so inclined.
And that to me is a feature that goes beyond just aesthetics or a psychological feeling of privacy. This is privacy privacy, something that SQ’s new suite does not have.
All the…small things
Singapore Airlines has built an entire marketing campaign around the small things. “The lengths we go to” showcases SQ’s care for the finest details, like sourcing its tea from teahouses in Fujian, leather from Glasgow’s oldest tannery, and films direct from the Venice film festival.
So it’s surprising that it’s the small things that were missing from SQ’s launch. Although they announced new amenities kits and PJs, that was the extent of it. The bulk of the time was spent on “look how spacious this new Suite is guys”, with very little emphasis on how the hard product would support better delivery of the soft product. Instead, it’s Emirates that has an impressive array of small features that individually aren’t going to tilt the balance but collectively reinforce the entire experience of flying.
Take, for example, the virtual windows. Emirates is going for a 1-1-1 layout on its 777s, but even if you’re stuck in the middle seat you’re going to have a great view of what’s going on outside. That’s thanks to virtual windows that project the view from the outside of the aircraft using real-time camera technology. This is kind of like what some cruise ships have done for inner cabins with virtual portholes to reduce the feeling of claustrophobia, which I imagine would be an issue if you were in a fully-enclosed Emirates Suite.
If you do have a seat with real windows, each Suite comes with a pair of binoculars so you can examine the scenery below in more detail. Yes, yes. If an SQ spokesperson were to ever dismiss Emirates’ new features as “gimmicks”, this would probably be the most deserving of that title. It is a gimmick. But for me this gimmick works because it ties in so well with the whole theme of old world luxury train travel, where passengers would be given binoculars for the exact same reason.
Another example of the hard product reinforcing the soft product is the video call screen and service window, through which items like food and drink can be delivered without opening the main door.
Let’s take a step back and ask ourselves: what is the purpose of a Suite with doors? If you answered “for privacy”, then congrats, you’re as smart as an airline executive. With SQ’s current (and new) Suites design, the only way for a crew member to interact with you is to physically open the door. The SOP is to knock before they do this, but I’ve been on a handful of flights where this wasn’t always observed.
Think about the workflow when you have a request in SQ’s suites.
- Ring call button
- Crew appear, open door and take request
- Crew return to galley to fetch item, door may or may not be left open
- Crew return with item, open door again if closed
And consider how it can work with Emirates’ new First Class
- Request item over video call (video is optional)
- Crew come to seat with item, deliver through service window. Door remains closed the entire time
This video call feature isn’t just cool, it makes sense from a service perspective. It means the crew don’t need to walk to the seat to deal with routine questions like “how long is the flight delayed?” or “does this lump on my neck look funny to you?”, and also means that they save a trip because they already know what item you need.
The fact that the door can remain closed throughout the entire flight if need be is another way the hard product supports the delivery of better privacy and less light and noise pollution (soft product). I’m going to state for the record that not having your Suite door opening is a complete and utter first world (first class?) problem, but those are the margins we compete at when we talk about uberluxe products.
Extending the experience to the ground
This is more of a minor point, but I like that Emirates also tweaked some aspects of their ground experience to complement the new inflight experience.
Emirates’ new First Class was designed in conjunction with Mercedes-Benz, which influenced the design of several features such as the mood lighting and control panels. As part of this tie up, First Class passengers who arrive or depart from the UAE will get a chauffeured ride in a Mercedes-Benz S-Class car.
In contrast, SQ’s product launch was all about what goes on in the air. There was no mention of any change to the ground experience.
…however, it’s strictly a solo experience and will see very limited availability
Although on the whole I much prefer the Emirates’ new product over SQ’s, there are two important areas where SQ holds the edge over Emirates.
Table for one please
Emirate’s First Class is decidedly a solo experience. There’s no double bed, companion dining, or even companion seating within the suite.
SQ’s new Suite doesn’t have companion dining in the strictest sense of the word (you can lower the wall between two suites but you’ll still be sitting in your own swivel chair staring at each other from across the bed), but at least it’s still feasible to take a meal with your companion. You will have a double bed though and on the whole it’s a product that is definitely more suited for couples traveling together.
Good luck getting a seat
Emirates currently only has plans to install this new product on at most nine 77Ws by the end of 2019. I mentioned at the start the new product will be installed on the A380, but there’s no firm deadline for when that will happen. There are no plans as of now to refit the existing 777 fleet with the new products (Emirates has placed a bumper order for 150 777-X jets, but those will only start appearing in 2020)
To put those numbers in perspective, nine jets is less than 5% of the Emirates fleet. I just can’t wrap my mind around this, because why would you announce such an amazing new product, get everyone excited and then disappoint them when they find out it’s not plying the route they want to fly? This sort of reminds me of what United has done with its new Polaris business class- announce a big, attention grabbing product and hide in the small print that it won’t be available through the fleet for a long, long time.
Contrast this to SQ, which at least has firm plans to roll out their new A380 cabin products throughout the A380 fleet by 2020. Also, unlike Emirates, SQ has not totally blocked award space on their new Suites product. If you’re willing to pay Suites Standard rates, you are able to find limited award availability on the launch route.
Conclusion- great product, but will you actually get to fly it?
Some people say that First Class is simply a marketing tool you use to sell other cabins, and I can see where they’re coming from.
Let’s get one thing straight- from a pure branding point of view, the new First Class is a slam dunk for Emirates. They have decisively seized the luxury narrative from SQ, whose new Suites looks positively pedestrian and sterile compared to Emirates’. SQ likes to position themselves as an airline that brings back the romance of travel, but it’s Emirates that has a stronger claim to that title, now that their product looks more like a luxury train cabin and SQ’s like a dentist’s chair.
However, the cold hard fact is that this product will be a relative rarity on the Emirates fleet. 9 aircraft in 2 years is really not acceptable for a multi-million dollar project. Unless Emirates steps up the delivery schedule for its new aircraft or starts retrofitting old ones soon, they’re going to have more than a few disappointed customers.
I guess you could argue that both airlines have shot themselves in the foot a bit with their launches- SQ for undelivering on the wow factor, Emirates for overpromising on the availability (not that they promised anything, but you don’t do a big launch like this if only nine aircraft are going to have this in 2 years).
Those are my thoughts on Emirates’ new First Class. How do you think it measures up to SQ’s?