Review: Emirates A380-800 First Class Johannesburg to Dubai

Emirates' A380 First: "You're special, just like everyone else"

Flight: EK 764
Route: JNB-DXB
Date: Feb 2019
Depart 18:50
Arrive 05:05+1
Duration 08:15
Aircraft: Airbus A380-800

Johannesburg is one of the cities Emirates offers complimentary chauffer drive in, but as my plans had only firmed up last minute, I hadn’t booked anything. About 24 hours out I thought I would try my luck and see if it was still possible and before I knew it, I had a confirmed booking (pleasingly, via the chat function on the website, so no extended time on hold).

Kudos to them for that as the policy is you need to book at least 48 hours out, so I appreciated the flexibility. Unfortunately I ended up having to call multiple times when no one showed up at the correct time, and left late because the driver had the wrong address, but I still made the flight so all’s well, I suppose.

Check in was brief and although it’s a busy time at the airport, I was through immigration and lounge-bound in no time. The view from the lounge showed not 1 but 3 other A380’s (2x BA, 1x Air France) around the gate, which, along with a Lufthansa 747-8, is a subtle reminder that Johannesburg is a sizeable market for a number of carriers.  Emirates operates 3x daily frequency and has its own lounge at JNB and it’s styled exactly as the other Emirates outstations I’ve been to.

It was packed and I couldn’t get a seat, which is a shame. In my experience other carriers (like Thai) reserve a few seats for First Class passengers in a combined outstation lounge, but I suppose Emirates is well known for sparse First Class ground service. While I had been on the A380 in First before, it was on the HKG-BKK sector so I didn’t have time to try out the shower and the prospect of ticking off that travel bucket list item kept me excited enough to ignore the minor inconveniences.

At about 45 minutes to boarding I went down to the gate. Boarding is about the only part of the A380 experience that I don’t like, mostly because there is no nice way to get 500+ people into an aircraft (maybe Changi is the only exception to this). This was a Friday evening flight, so suitably packed, and boarding was a mess with queues the length of the gate forming well in advance of boarding being announced.

There was no priority boarding enforced and so the whole process was a bit chaotic, and a far cry from the 7 Series runway transfer from lounge to aircraft on Air France. We boarded to the upper deck, where someone mumbled something with extreme indifference as they checked my boarding pass, and vaguely gesticulated towards First.

Emirates’ A380 has 14 first class suites in a 1-2-1 configuration, all on the upper deck. I had chosen 3K which was the second to last row. When I checked in there were 4 unoccupied suites, but we pushed back with a full cabin so I assume there were some last minute upgrades.

The seat is for the most parts, very similar to the 777-300 version, maybe a bit wider. There is the warm minibar in the armrest, which, despite me ridiculing in the past, I ended up using as the service was very slow (more on that later).

The snack baskets have had an upgrade since I last took note of one. Typically they used to feature things like Lays crisps and Mars Bar chocolates which didn’t really smack of a premium product. They now have much more ‘refined’ sounding things like Gourmet Potato Chips and fruit bars, which I think improves the aesthetic. I also think the ‘Uppy!’ effervescent tablets are a great addition – they’re basically vitamins and re-hydration salts which are actually very useful on a long flight, so kudos to whoever came up with that at Emirates.

Next to the arm rest is the tablet, which allows you to control the seat and the IFE. It’s fine, but hasn’t aged well – it’s heavy and slow and reminiscent of AOL and dialup internet.

You can normally expect to get coffee and date service as a pre-departure beverage, but they gave up halfway through the cabin as we were starting to push back (the photo is from a different trip). Similarly, most airlines manage to get you a menu before take off, but no such thing materialised. On the ground, the Champagne offered was Laurent Perrier which is very tasty, but also their Business Class champagne.

There was a substandard offering of newspapers offered with a “*mumble* evening Mr *mumble* newspaper?”. Somehow they didn’t have the Economist (when Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya Airways can consistently pull this off in Business, surely Emirates can do it in First?).

In the seat was a writing kit…

…and a collection of anonymous potions

I was also given an amenity kit.

I personally find the Emirates Bulgari kits extremely underwhelming. It’s a featureless, shiny gray bag filled with ordinary tack and single use plastic. A cynic might say that it sums up the Emirates ethos well – ‘finesse doesn’t really matter as long as you slap a brand name on it’. This definitely applied to to their onboard product on this flight, where Dom and other expensive brands abounded, but the service was rubbish.

The pajamas and slippers came with the amenity kit, and they were actually really good. The slippers were plush, and the pajamas were light and comfortable.

Special mention to the person in 2E for keeping it classy:

As we pushed back the safety video began to play, and ended with a long, painful video extolling the virtues of Emirates’ IFE (ICE). This seems a bit silly to me – surely you’re preaching to the choir here? I’m literally a captive audience where the only IFE I can use is ICE – why do I need to watch the same long ad trying to convince me to use it at the start of every flight?

After the freakishly quiet take off roll of the A380, we were airborne and the captain announced our flying time of 8:30. My plan was to have a shower, get some dinner and sleep for ~6 hours, however, team EK726 had other plans.

Once we had climbed through 10,000 feet, the crew began their service. I was given a drinks list:

and a menu:

However, it was easily another 20 minutes before anyone came to take orders. Once again it seemed rushed, and a little harsh. More ‘what do you want?’ and recording things than a pleasant, human interaction. In contrast to Turkish (Business), where a chef will walk you through the menu and chat with you about your various choices and offer to customise things for you, or Qatar (Business) with dine on demand,  Emirates was more like ordering at a McDonald’s drive-thru.

I opted for the caviar, pea soup and ostrich fillet and skipped pudding, finishing with a cheese board and some port. I derive an odd amount of satisfaction from being able to eat ostrich on a flight. It seems to be unique to JNB, but I’ve had it across multiple carriers in F and J, and I think it holds up better to reheating than beef.

Meal service only began about 1:45 into the flight which was odd for a service where you’d expect most people to want to sleep as much as possible.

The caviar was a bit ‘gloopy’, and had a very ‘fishy’ taste. This, combined with a lackluster, almost brown colour meant it was a pass for me.

The pea soup was phenomenal. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The ostrich was both tender, and not overdone. Polenta was a pleasant accompaniment to the dish, and I think the only thing missing was some fresher, greener veg. Overall the dish was a win. Emirates should also get points for their wine selection. I (a wine heathen) opted for the Charmes Chambertin Grand Cru 1997 and it was out of this world. So much so that I thought I’d try and get some on the ground, however the $200-ish price tag quickly put an end to that silly thought.

The cheese board was fairly unremarkable, and missing chutney. While the Graham’s port in business is much younger than first (40 years vs 21), I still prefer it but both were delicious.

Next up was a shower. This is a big ticket item for many people, and, bar Etihad’s Residence, not something you can do on any other airline. I was surprised to find that there are actually 2 showers on board, which is great.

They’re located at the front of the cabin, which also has its own bar, with drinks not available to the other upper deck hoi polloi (aka Business class). Eagle eyed readers will notice the $800+ Hennesy Paradis cognac there, alongside some mediocre, but expensive whiskys (Chivas Regal Royal Salute and Johnnie Walker Blue).

Between the showers is the staircase down to economy. More than once, I’ve looked longingly up at the staircase, with my high row numbered economy boarding pass firmly in hand, and wondered what magical things went on up there. It turns out the answers to that are ‘showers, expensive alcohol and slow service’.

The showers are in palatial bathrooms, another plus of the A380

There are all sorts of branded potions and hand washes, which I largely ignored. It felt a bit odd to get my kit off in an aeroplane, almost like I was streaking, but I soon got over it and hopped in.

The shower has a timer, letting you know how much water remains and it switches off automatically at the start of the ‘red’ zone on the gauge so that you have to switch it back on knowing you’re nearly out. I found that there was loads of time, and I think you’d have to take a pretty long shower to max it out.

Being able to shower mid flight really is a phenomenal experience and the whole thing seemed so other-worldly decadent. I emerged from the whole experience feeling much more positive about Emirates then when I went in.

By the time the meal and shower were done, we only had 4:30 remaining in the flight. Once you take off 40 minutes for descent (and really more like an hour with air traffic at DXB in the morning), there isn’t much time to sleep. Given this flight lands around 5am in Dubai, that seems like a strange setup. The zombie like crew made my bed, and I managed to get to sleep quite quickly. This was despite the warm cabin and the air vents in my seat not working, which was also a shame.

Another minor issue with the seat was that the footrest didn’t come up to a ‘flat’ position with the rest of the bed, so my feet were angled downwards. This meant it was a first class suite, it also had an angled flat bed.

I woke to the Captian’s announcement that descent would be starting soon, and managed to get in an espresso to try and compensate for the mere ~3 hours sleep I’d had. It came with 2 limp biscotti. After some air traffic delays and holding patterns, we finally descended into DXB and I was one step closer to the new First.

So, my final thoughts on EK’s A380:

Emirates ads make their First Class look like a tranquil, calming place (where one might plausibly run into Jennifer Anniston). In reality it felt like a military HQ during an airstrike, and the chaotic boarding portended what was set to be a chaotic flight. All of the crew that I interacted with had a look of blind panic in their eyes as they desperately tried to finish whatever they were doing. Interactions were rushed, clumsy, and stripped of any humanity at all. It exclusively felt like they were ‘going through the motions’ and really, was a far cry from the tranquil haven the ads make it out to be.

This raises a broader point about the A380 – I think it somehow merges the best and worst of Emirates – yes you can have a shower and 2 bars and a staircase, but if its full, the crew cannot deliver high quality service to 14 passengers, and the result is a fairly pedestrian experience (for First). The scale of their operations mean that crew can’t really deviate from script to customize anything (try getting a drink refill when it’s dishing up time), meaning that it all feels quite like a factory line. Overall I think it’s a shame as Emirates has great brand recognition, a dated but enjoyable hard product and insta-worthy brands for the conspicuous consumer.

That’s all undercut by weak service which ultimately negates most of the positives. Ironically, service (compared to hard product) is probably the easiest and cheapest part of the experience to change, but it’s also impacted most by cost cutting measures. Overall, it’s good, but it could be so much better.

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