Once you go Emirates First Class you can’t go back
Being naked at 39,000 feet is a first for me. I’ve flown first class before, I’m used to traveling in the comfy seats at the front of the plane, but this, well, this is a whole new level of unusual.
I should, perhaps, explain. In the ever-escalating battle between the airlines of the middle and far easts to provide the most luxurious in-flight experience, Emirates Airline’s first-class offering now includes a mid-air shower. But even this is only part of the Emirates First experience.
After a glass or two of Moët et Chandon in the Emirates Lounge (one should never, simply never, turn down a glass of Champagne) I make my way to my aeroplane. The announcements in the lounge aren’t wrong — the walk takes a good ten minutes. Blame the plane — the Airbus A380, the double-decker behemoth that will take me from Auckland to Sydney this afternoon is so immense that the only boarding gates which can accommodate it are at the very end of the terminal. And Emirates sends three of them from Auckland to Dubai every afternoon — my flight will continue from Sydney to Dubai, while two others will fly from Auckland via Melbourne and Brisbane. Auckland is the only place outside Dubai that has three of the Emirates’ fleet of 53 — they have another 89 on order — on the ground at once, and two of them are parked side-by-side as I arrive at gate 16.
I walk up the first- and business-class boarding jetway. Emirates seat all of their upper-class customers upstairs; economy class occupies the entire of the downstairs of the aircraft, but needn’t occupy any more of our attention right now. Arriving at the door of the plane, I’m greeted by name and escorted to my suite — not seat, but suite — by Tony. Business-class passengers, poor buggers, are simply pointed toward the back of the plane.
Tony takes my jacket and hangs it in a tiny wardrobe at the front of my suite, and then shows me my accommodations for the next three and a half hours. The Emirates First Suite is…sweet. A pleasingly comfortable leather-upholstered armchair sits behind a pair of sliding doors that can be closed off to provide complete privacy. There’s a huge video screen at the front of the suite, with a small writing desk in front of it, and below it more legroom than I’ve ever known on a plane. Even with my carry-on bag on the floor, I still have more room to stretch out than even my six-foot-four frame needs.
On the desk there’s a lamp, in case I want to use the writing kit — a cardboard box with a handful of Emirates stationery in it, should I find myself in a letter-writing mood, unlikely unless the inflight WiFi fails. The pen in the writing kit is useful, though — a pen is such a basic necessity for an international flight, and it’s shocking how few airlines think to provide one as standard. There’s also a pop-up compartment containing assorted skin lotions and unctions, with a mirror on the inside of the lid. To my elbow is a pop-up mini-bar with a bottle of Perrier, a can of Pepsi — all non-alcoholic, all unchilled.
I shan’t bother. But why would I, when one of the flight attendants, Tony, offers me a glass of Dom Pérignon ’04?It’d be rude not to accept. One of his colleagues brings me a bowl of warm nuts, and another tongs me a damp towel so hot it burns my fingertips..
Tony’s back with the dinner menu. It’s remarkably similar in content to Emirates’ business-class menu, but, this being first class, it’s presented in a leatherette folder. The duck sounds good; the salmon’s tempting. But I order the lamb loin. I’m told that, due to the shortness of the flight, I’ll be getting fed shortly after take-off; on their longer flights, Emirates offer their first-class passengers dining on demand. I’ll make do.
In case I get peckish, which really hardly seems likely at this stage, a basket of snacks appears on the table at the front of my suite. There’s Swiss chocolate, Australian pretzels. I set the chocolate aside, thinking I’ll enjoy it after dinner. As I start to jot a few notes about the service, Tony appears again to remove the snack basket — we’re taxiing for take-off.
I realize that we are, in fact, moving. Maybe it’s because I’m in row A, maybe it’s because I’m upstairs. Perhaps it’s because the A380 is an extremely well-engineered machine. But whatever the reason, I’m not even aware that the four enormous engines have started up.
As we taxi, I enjoy one of my favourite features of the A380 — the tailcam. Airbus have equipped the plane with cameras in the tail and in the nose, and passengers can enjoy the same view that the flight crew see from the cockpit window. As we accelerate down 23-left, there’s a little barely-noticeable rumbling; as we climb out over Manukau Harbour, I can either see the airport disappear underneath us through one of the suite’s three windows or watch the Manukau Heads slip below the nose of the plane on the screen in front of me. The screen, Tony tells me later, is a 23” touchscreen — the largest in the air, apparently.
Once we’ve leveled off, Tony returns the snack basket. The chocolate’s been replaced. He also brings a plate of warm nuts. There’s very little danger of going hungry on this flight. Dinner service begins soon after take-off — poached shrimp to start with, and a rather excellent selection of breads. I have a definite weakness for a good sourdough, and this is a very good sourdough. The lamb’s served with rich olive roulade. The meat’s surprisingly tasty, but a tad chewy.
But it’s not just the food that impresses. The quality of the service is remarkable. From next to the minibar opens out a dining table on which Tony spreads a brilliant-white starched-cotton tablecloth; after taking away my dinner plate, he notices a spot on the cloth where a blip of turbulence had knocked some olive onto the cotton, and the tablecloth is replaced in time for — highlight of the meal — the cheeseboard. My glass isn’t allowed to run dry. More Dom with dinner? No, thanks, the Château Malartic Lagraviere 2011 sounds quite pleasant. Tony is polite enough not to question my choice of a white wine with my lamb, but instead offers to pour me a taste. Not necessary, I’m sure; I’ll trust them. And I’m right. It’s crisp, fresh, rather pleasant. But not, let’s be fair, even close to being as excellent as the port, a 38-year-old tawny, that accompanies the cheese. Now that’s a superb drop.
Dinner ends with a couple of Godiva chocolates and a glass of scotch. This being Emirates, this being their top-end product, it’s not just any scotch. It’s 21-year-old Glenfiddich single malt. It’s a good whisky, to be fair, and an expensive one, but it’s not the very best. It’s the scotch you choose if you want to impress but you don’t know much about whisky. There are many, many distilleries around the highlands and isles of Scotland producing more exciting, more characterful, single malts than this, but few carry a heftier price tag.
Dinner finished, before I walk back to the business-class bar, it’s time for my shower. I let Tony know. He brings me my amenity kit, a leather-effect Bulgari shaving kit, and he tells the two shower attendants, cabin crew whose sole job is to make sure the two showers at the front of the first-class cabin are spotless. The on-board bathroom is bigger than the bathroom in the first house I lived in after leaving home. I could, should I choose, lie down flat on the floor. Sitting on the loo, I have more legroom, I suspect, than most folk downstairs in economy.
And so I undress. It’s a truly peculiar sensation, being quite naked at altitude. What does one do in the event of turbulence? I don’t have occasion to find out. I’ve flown plenty before now, as a passenger and as a pilot, and I was sure, until now, that there would be nothing left to surprise me. But as I stand in the shower stall, my five minutes of water rinsing off the soap and shampoo, I realize that there’s plenty more left for me to to experience. This is new. And, I have to say, it’s quite agreeable. While there’s a certain novelty, but not too much need, for a shower on an evening hop across the Tasman, I can imagine that, were I flying all the way back to my hometown of Manchester, this would be the most delightful bonus. But even on the way to Sydney, this is a quite pleasant addition.
I return to my seat in my clean undies, and Tony offers me another glass of whatever takes my fancy. I ask for a little more port — it really is quite outstanding. Tony asks me where I’m from, and when I mention Manchester, he tells me it’s his favorite city to fly to. That’s quite the coincidence — last time I flew on Emirates, I was served dinner by another flight attendant whose favorite city was Manchester. He gave me a deck of Emirates playing cards as as souvenir, too.
There’s half an hour before we start to descend into Sydney, so I visit the business-class bar at the back of the plane. Yelena from Serbia is serving the drinks tonight, and I have a couple of glasses of business-class port. Tony’s concerned that he can’t find me in the first-class cabin. He finds me at the bar, and reminds me that there is a slightly better drinks menu for first-class passengers. Yelana’s keeping my glass full back here; I’m happy. There are snacks set out around the horseshoe of the bar, and I’ve eaten plenty already and decline.
As Yelena and her colleagues start packing the bar up for landing, I return to my suite. It’s a wonderfully comfortable way to travel, but I realize that I’m less impressed with the décor. The attention to detail is superb — there’s a little tray by my right elbow, by the remote control for the entertainment and the seat, and it’s lined with fabric where plastic would have been entirely acceptable. But sometimes the Emirates color palette can be just a little overwhelming — there’s barely a surface that’s not covered in either polished walnut (We’ll pretend it’s real walnut. It’s not, of course, it’s paint, but it looks convincing enough.) or gold paint or both. The orchid on the suite wall by the door is a lovely detail, though.
We’re about to descend. A touch of the remote-control puts my seat flat. I lie back, perfectly relaxed from the wines, the shower and the dinner. I close my eyes, and for a moment I believe that from now on this is how I’ll always fly.