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Deep pocketed airline, Emirates, has made its new A380 planes about as positive a flying experience as is commercially feasible.

All three classes of service offer a better travel experience, in part due to the underlying enhancements in the A380, and in part due to Emirates adding further value to the plane.

 
 
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Flying on an Airbus A380 Super Jumbo

On board the Emirates A380
 

 

The two on-board showers - Emirates call them 'spas' - have attracted a lot of interest, but they'll only be available for the 14 first class passengers on each plane.

Part 4 of a four part series on the Airbus A380 - please also visit

1.  Airbus A380 antecedents

2.  Differing plans for a 747 successor

3.  A380 completion, configuration, and controversy

4.  Inside an Emirates A380

 

 

 

Who better to showcase the wondrous new delights of the world's largest passenger plane than high quality Emirates Airlines, one of the world's best airlines (as well as one of the world's most rapidly growing and most profitable).

Following on from the high quality cabin layout on A380 launch airline Singapore Airlines, Emirates goes one better by adding shower/spas to the plane, and in total offers an improved level of comfort to passengers in all cabins.

The improved environment of the A380 adds further to the quality of the experience and helps you get to your destination feeling less worn out than would be the case on other planes.

This review is based on a 2 hour demonstration flight from and back to San Francisco in early August, 2008.

The A380 Flight Experience in General

Walking on to the plane, the first sensation - apart from the beaming cabin crew - was the 'new plane smell'.  Yes, new planes, just like new cars, have a distinctive smell, and this plane had less than 50 flying hours on it, and still looked and smelled perfectly new.

Moving beyond the transitory 'new plane smell', the lasting impression that is most apparent about flying on an A380 is actually something that is absent, rather than something that is present.  It is a much quieter plane, with cabin noise reduced to about half the typical level on other planes.

This makes it easier to talk to the person next to you, and reduces a subtle stress on your body that is caused by the ever-present noise (see our series on noise cancelling headphones).  Your body and brain is less tired when it doesn't have to automatically cancel out all the background noise that is otherwise present, and this can have a definitely noticeable effect on a long flight.

Something else that is invisible is that the A380 cabin pressure is greater than on most other planes.  The A380 typically pressurizes its cabin to the equivalent of a 6,000 ft altitude; other planes typically use a 7,000 - 8,000 ft altitude, with less air in the cabin.  The greater air pressure helps reduce dehydration, and means your body doesn't have to work so hard to get the oxygen it needs - two more factors that help contribute to arriving at your destination in better shape and less exhausted.

A high ceiling and nearly vertical rather than inward-curving walls in the main cabin (ie downstairs) makes the plane feel roomier and less claustrophobic.

Another positive feature of the A380 is that the windows are larger than on other planes.

People who have been on longer rides on the A380 and experienced turbulence report that - doubtless due to its much greater weight than any other passenger plane in the sky - the A380 takes a very stately approach to turbulence, moving slowly rather than sharply in response to the external turbulence.  Passengers with sensitive stomachs will doubtless appreciate this.

Most other features of the A380 vary from airline to airline, depending on how each airline chooses to design their cabin layouts and what extra amenities they include in their design.  And so most of the rest of this article relates primarily to the Emirates cabin layout rather than generically to all A380s.

Getting On and Off the A380

The A380 is designed to have up to three jetways connecting it to the gate area.  The upper jetway is for the 90 passengers in business and first class, and the two lower jetways are for the 399 passengers in coach class (ie one jetway per 200 people).

This helps allow for efficient boarding and deplaning, making it as quick and easy (and often quicker and easier) to get on and off an A380 as it is to get on and off any other plane, even a small 737.

 

This picture is at JFK, and shows the three jetways coming out from the terminal.

Of particular interest is the upper jetway, which connects directly to Emirates' lounge in the terminal.

This means the upstairs jetway can only be used for passengers boarding the plane, because when international passengers leave the plane they have to first travel a secure route to and through Immigration and Security, and being routed through the lounge would not be possible.

So at JFK there are three jetways for boarding but two for deplaning.

 

 
 

This shows the three jetways at SFO.

All lead from the terminal/gate area (gate 9 at the international terminal) and so can be used both for boarding and deplaning.

 

This shows, albeit slightly unfairly, the relative sizes of the A380 and a 747 - I say 'slightly unfairly' because the A380 is much closer to the camera than the 747.

Note that Qantas - it is a Qantas 747-438 in the background - will also be taking delivery of its first A380 in September, and will be flying to Los Angeles from Australia with the plane from October.

First Class

First class is upstairs at the front of the A380 and comprises 14 'suites' arranged in four rows each of one on either side and three pairs of two in the middle.

The pairs of seats have a privacy divider that can be raised or lowered as you may wish, but the lie-flat beds can't be combined into a single double bed.

The suites are half partitioned off from the aisles with dividers that go up to eye level or slightly above for the people in the suites to give a greater impression of privacy.

In front of the suites is a small bar/lounge area, and further ahead, on either side of the staircase leading down to the lower deck, are the two 'spas' - a fancy name for roomy shower/toilet rooms.

The showers are an extravagance for Emirates to offer its 14 first class passengers.  They provide 1100lbs of extra fresh water for the showers (almost 10 gallons per passenger, and with a typical 2 gallon/minute shower head, this gives a good flow of water for a five minute shower), plus they also have two (not one but two!) extra staff on board as spa attendants, which probably represents another 300lbs of weight.  And then of course there is the weight of the various fittings in the spa rooms, too.

It is interesting to see an airline add 1400+ lbs of extra weight to their planes - this weight (and space) could have been used to add perhaps 7 more seats onto the plane, or to carry more freight in its cavernous lower deck hold, or to add more fuel to fly further.  It is a costly luxury, but when you consider that a first class fare to fly roundtrip between New York and Dubai is $16,069, then the cost of carrying a bit of extra water pales into insignificance.

Each person is allowed to reserve a spa for a 25 minute period during the flight, and during their 25 minutes inside the spa they can have a five minute shower.  After the 25 minute use, the spa is closed for five minutes while one of the attendants cleans it prior to the next person's use.

All seats have mains power plugs to power recharges and computers, and they have universal sized/shaped sockets in them to accept most plugs from most countries.

Of course the seats convert to lie-flat sleeper beds, and even have a built in massage function.

 
 

Looking forward into one of the first class 'suites' showing its huge 23" high definition monitor, and its elegant gold and wood fittings.

 
 

This shows the huge flat panel screen, table, make-up drawer, and, on the right, part of the personal mini-bar.

 
 

The entrance to a first class suite.  The suites have doors that open and close to give a greater feeling of privacy.

 
 

The forward stairway goes straight up, the rear stairway is curved.  Both are wide and luxurious.

At the top of the stairway, the horizontal strips of light show where the 'waterfall' artwork is, and on either side are the two spas.

 

This view inside the 'spa' shows the door into the passenger cabin on the right, the door into the shower on the left, a wash hand basin and padded seating.

In the very foreground is a wc underneath the padded seating.

The spas are very spacious, definitely room for two people (or even more!) but Emirates say that they will only allow one person inside the spa at a time.

 

 

Business Class

The business class section of the A380 is upstairs, behind the first class section.  It comprises 76 seats, laid out with one seat by the window, two in the middle, and one on the other window side, a 1-2-1 layout.

Airlines always struggle, when designing business class seats that can extend all the way to a 'lie flat' situation, to come up with a design that makes best use of the space.  BA adopted a design compromise that has seats paired, facing in opposite directions, so as to put the wide parts of one seat alongside the narrow parts of another seat  (BA business class review here).  Virgin adopted a herring bone approach that has the seats sort of sticking out into the aisle (Virgin business aka upper class review here).

The Emirates 'compromise' is interesting and also problematic.  The far forward part of your seat - that is, the space you'll put the ends of your legs and feet - is actually underneath part of the seat area in front of you.

This is okay and clever, but the problematic part is that in order for this to work, they have to alternate rows, one row with the seat on the outside and the 'space' alongside the seat on the inside, and then opposite on the next row, with the space on the outside and the seat on the inside.  The reason this is problematic is because for some reason it ends up with a varying amount of space for each seat - the outside seats have more space than the inside seats.  The outside seats have a 48" seat pitch and lie down to become a 79" long bed; the inside seats have a 39" pitch and become only a 70" long bed.

A 48" seat pitch and 79" bed is good, a 39" seat pitch is poor and a 70" bed is unacceptable other than for short people - perhaps people less than 5'6".

The middle seats also alternate between being next to each other (when they are both on the 'inside') or relatively far apart (when they are both on the 'outside').  If you are traveling with a friend, you would probably prefer to be in two seats close together and would be disappointed if you were in seats far apart (harder to talk in flight).

So some of the business class seats are better than others, but Emirates sells them all at the same price, so be sure to get the seating you prefer preassigned to you before your flight.

Like first class, every seat has a power outlet.  The high definition screen for the entertainment system is midway in size between the 10.5" screen in coach class and the huge 17" screen in first class.

If you wish to enjoy the luxury of business class travel on the Emirates' flights between New York and Dubai, the current cost is $10,499.
 

 
 

This view shows the layout of the business class cabin, looking from the back, forwards.  Rows of seats alternate between being on the outside, close to the aisle, and being on the inside, with the storage space next to the aisle instead.

This makes for some issues and problems - read the discussion in the text above.

 
 

This view looks in the opposite direction, giving another perspective of the alternating layout of the seats.

 

At the top of the rear curved staircase is this bar and lounge area, with seating around the outsides.  Both first and business class passengers can enjoy this area.

There's not a lot of space - you couldn't have all 90 business and first class passengers in the bar/lounge for sure, but our experience on Virgin flights with their small bar is that very few of the passengers choose to use the bar, so the space here is probably sufficient for real world usage.

 

 

This shows the storage area alongside each business class seat.  The small screen is a wireless remote control device that can be removed from its cradle and used to control the entertainment system - this is useful when you're lying back.

The remote control unit is also to be found in the first class suites.


Premium Economy

Just joking.  Emirates has yet to embrace the concept of a premium economy cabin and say that while they've looked at it from time to time, they have no current plans to add this halfway between economy and business type of category.

With such a huge gap in price and quality of travel experience between business and coach classes, there would seem to be an opportunity to add a premium economy cabin, but it is hard to argue against what Emirates currently chooses to do in light of their massive success and profitability.  This is one time I guess I have to concede 'the airline knows best'.

Economy Class

Economy cabin seating fills the entire lower deck, and is in a typical 747 type 3-4-3 configuration, with a total of 399 seats.

Seats have a 32" - 33" pitch, and recline back 6".  When you recline the seat, the seat cushion also slides forward - this is only a moderately good idea, however, because it moves your knees forward and closer to the seat in front of you.

While 33" is a generous seat pitch for coach class, with the seat in front of you reclined and your seat cushion moved forward, your knees are going to be close to or in contact with the seat in front of you.

Seats are 18" wide - about an inch wider than seats on most other planes.  An inch might not sound like much, but with most of us filling most of the width of a seat, an extra inch can make all the difference between 'too tight' and 'comfortable'.

A clever little touch is a cup holder on gimbals that allows you to put your drink in the holder and have it stay level, even if the plane is moving about and banking and turning.

Emirates chooses to provide individual air outlets in the ceiling for each seat, unlike some airlines and airplanes which no longer offer this.

Massive 10.5" high definition screens make watching movies a very pleasant experience.  Each row of seats share a couple of power adapters for the three or four people seated there.

If you want to fly from New York to Dubai on an Emirates flight in coach class, you'll be paying something slightly under $1600 for the pleasure (including all taxes).

 

If you look carefully at this small picture you'll notice the outside walls are vertical - they go straight up, unlike the inward curving walls of just about any other plane. 

This 'opens up' the cabin considerably, giving a greater feeling of spaciousness.  On the other hand, the vertical wall is more distant from the window seat and makes it less comfortable to lean against the wall when sleeping.

 

 

Looking at the seating in coach class from the other end gives you a good view of the large monitors in the back of every seat.


In Flight Entertainment System

One of the most wonderful improvements to long flights in recent years has been the transformation of onboard entertainment.  It is only a few years back when this was limited to an occasional movie shown from a projector onto a screen at the front of each cabin - people close to the screen were too close, people far from the screen were too distant, and people at the right distance had their view obscured by passengers in front of them.  The color and quality of picture was always poor and often washed out by cabin or outside light spilling onto the screen, and if the movie wasn't to your liking, that was your bad luck.

The first big step forward was individual seat back videos, offering a limited range of perhaps a dozen movies that played in a rotating schedule.  If you timed it right, you could get to watch a movie from its start to its finish, but most of the time, you'd end up watching a movie from somewhere in the middle.

Nowadays, the latest versions of individual 'In Flight Entertainment' systems (IFE) are even more enormously improved, offering many more movies to choose from, and featuring AVOD capabilities - Audio Video On Demand.  This means you can make your choice of movie start whenever you want it to start - you can pause it, even fast forward or rewind it.  It is the same as having your own DVD player and a library of DVDs to choose from.

It is now easy to fill even the longest flight with a mix of eating, drinking, sleeping, reading, listening to music and watching movies and tv shows, and even playing video games through the IFE system.  More than once I've found myself regretting that a long flight is coming to an end, because there was another movie that I still wanted to watch.

The Emirates AVOD IFE system is one of the very best in the skies today.  It offers over 1,000 channels of movies and other programming.  Plus it gives you access to the moving map display of where the plane is flying and statistics about when it will arrive, how fast it is going, etc.

And - unique to the A380 - it also gives you access to three external cameras on the plane - one pointing straight forward from the nose of the plane, one mounted on the tail looking forward and angled slightly down, and one underneath the plane looking directly down.  These three cameras are fascinating when taking off and landing, and when flying at lower altitudes, but once you get up high, it all starts to look the same.

You can also make phone calls, both to people in other seats on the plane and to people on the ground, and you can even send SMS text messages to people too.

Other features include a USB input so if you want to, and if you have the right cables, you could connect your camera to the system and look through the pictures you've taken and have stored in your camera.  You can also route music and video from your own personal music/video players into the system.

In addition to movies and music, there are also news channels, destination information, and even duty free shopping information on the system.

And, for the younger travelers, and those still young at heart, there are over 100 different games to play.  Nineteen of the games are multi-player games to be played with a seatmate.

The individual seat power outlets - one per seat in business and first class, and one between every two seats (ie 2 per block of 3 and 3 for a block of 4) in coach class offer 110V 60Hz power, with a carefully designed set of sockets to accept just about every sort of power plug - US, UK, EU, NZ, Australian, etc.  But we were unable to get the one next to our seat working.  A flight attendant advised that there was only enough power on the plane to power ten sockets simultaneously, and said we'd have to 'wait our turn in queue' until the ten people using their sockets stopped using them, and anyone in queue before us had also had their turn.  On a plane with 489 passengers, this could mean never getting access to power at all during a long flight.

An Emirates executive disputed the attendant's 'only ten users at a time' story, and said he believed everyone could use their plugs simultaneously.  We're not sure he is correct - with 370 outlets for passengers, and some extra amount of power for crew and cabin services, and if we say that every outlet was indeed being used simultaneously, this could represent a load of over 20kW just for passenger power, and we're somewhat skeptical that the plane would support that heavy a load just for passenger at-seat power requirements.  Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle, but for us, the bottom line was no power, whatever the reason.

 

One of the three outside camera views - this one from on top of the tail, looking forward and slightly down.  It makes for fascinating viewing while the plane is taxiing, taking off and landing.

Summary

I've never seen a prouder and more positive crew than on this plane.  The pride of the Emirates staff - from most junior flight attendant to the airline's Chief Pilot and Senior VP's - was obvious, even at a glance and from a distance.

And, happily, they have very good reason to be proud.  The A380 is a lovely plane, and Emirates have done a great job of fitting out the cabin to give a positive travel experience to their customers in all classes of service.

Part 4 of a four part series on the Airbus A380 - please also visit

1.  Airbus A380 antecedents

2.  Differing plans for a 747 successor

3.  A380 completion, configuration, and controversy

4.  Inside an Emirates A380

 

Thanks to Johnny Jet for four of the pictures above.  His review of the A380 can be seen here.

 

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Originally published 15 Aug 2008, 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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