You’ve asked for Wednesday posts to come back, and now they’re going to – in a limited way. Some of you love trip reports while others hate them, so I’m going to designate Wednesday as “trip report day.” If I have a trip, I’ll post the report on Wednesdays. But now I’m opening it up to others who have particularly unique experiences that I think others might like. Today, I’d like to introduce Geoff. He lives for hunting down some of these more exotic experiences, and today he brings you the Emirates A380 in First Class. Let me know what you think.
Many people have a special vice or indulgence – something about which they care far more than the average person and which, quite irrationally, they value well above its objective cost. For some it’s a fancy car, or scoring a prime table at a hip restaurant or having the latest fashion fad. Mine is flying in a premium cabin.
Over the years, with a lot of planning and tactical earning and burning of frequent flier miles, I’ve flown in some fantastically spacious lie-flat beds, gotten free massages in exclusive high-end lounges and raised my champagne tolerance to impressive levels. But Dubai-based Emirates Airlines upped the ante exponentially for travel sybarites like me when they announced their fleet of new Airbus A380 aircraft was going to have showers in First Class.
Found only on the highest-end private aircraft, a shower on a plane is a serious luxury because of the high fuel cost of carrying around all that extra water. So far none of the other carriers that have taken delivery of the A380 have chosen to install them.
Thankfully, not having a reason to go to Dubai nor mega bucks wasn’t an obstacle keeping me from this unique in-flight experience. Emirates flies the A380 on several shorter non-hub routes like Hong Kong to Bangkok and Sydney to Auckland, where First Class tickets can be had for hundreds instead of thousands of dollars.
A rational purchase? Hardly. Worth it for a three hour flight? Maybe not in other circumstances. After all, I’d have to get half way around the world to do it. But come on, a shower on a plane??!! Has to be done at least once I told myself.
And so I was in Hong Kong a few weeks ago, eager to see how Emirates First Class stacked up to others I’ve flown, and if showering on a plane took premium air travel to a whole new level…
Emirates 385 Lv Hong Kong 915p Arr Bangkok 1115p
HKG: Gate 62, Runway 7R, Depart 3m Early
BKK: Gate E4, Runway 19R, Arrive 2m Early
Airbus A380-861, A6-EDI
Seat 2A, 14/14 F Suites Occupied
Flight Time 2h28m
The Emirates airport lounge didn’t open until 6:15, which meant that even though I could check-in early at the HK Airport Express station, I couldn’t start the champagne flowing until then. The train ride out was uneventful and the immigration and security process was quick, despite the lack of a special lane for premium passengers. I got to the lounge early and sure enough the lights were off. So I headed back down to the main level to take advantage of two of HKG’s great features: views of big airplanes and free WiFi. I found an area with comfortable lounge chairs looking out over the busy ramp and a sliver of runway, and kept myself occupied until the lounge opened at 6:15 sharp.
I was welcomed into the spacious facility, where a large staff was still setting up the buffet and other serving areas. I staked out a couch and table and headed over to see what was on offer. The drink station had an ample selection of wine and spirits. I was greeted by an attendant who asked what I would like and then poured me a glass of champagne. I started at the appetizer section of the buffet, helping myself to a ramekin of fancy mixed nuts, some upscale cheese and crackers and some fresh fruit. Soon enough I was back for a refill and the attendant topped up my glass while I perused the entrees which included satay, stir-fried noodles and baked tuna. It was good by lounge food standards and there was a diverse selection to accommodate a broad array of cultural and dietary preferences – important because in looking around it was quite a diverse group of fellow passengers.
One small nit to pick with the set-up is that unlike the nearby United and Singapore Air facilities, there was not a separate area for First Class passengers (Business Class and Emirates top frequent fliers all share the same big space). It wasn’t a huge deal, but the main room did get quite busy and loud as departure time approached.
The attendants did a good job of circulating to pick up used plates and glasses and offering drink refills. I went up thinking I might sample one or two of the several very good looking desserts but exercised some rare self-control. I chatted briefly with the desk agents to confirm the flight was still on time and then ducked in to use the facilities. As I exited, the vigilant bathroom attendant headed inside to straighten up, something I then noticed happen after virtually every occupant.
Though boarding had yet to be announced, I was eager to survey the scene at the gate so I headed down a bit early. Our plane was being fueled and bags were loaded while inside it was as chaotic as you would expect for an aircraft that holds 500 passengers.
At the appointed hour the floodgates were opened, my boarding pass was scanned and I made my way into the jetway, past the door for coach and up the inclined ramp to the upstairs entrance for Business and First Class passengers.
There was a flight attendant waiting at the door and the typical pre-flight flurry of activity in the galleys and aisles. She welcomed me and after seeing my seat assignment in First, had one of her colleagues show me to Suite 2A.
Between the shiny wood and chrome and all the bells and whistles in the suite, my first impression was of sensory overload — but in a good way. There was a lot to take in and figure out.
The FA stowed my jacket in the built-in closet, and I was impressed by the vast underseat storage area, fitted with a thoughtful strap that allowed me to stash my rollaboard off to the side standing up, instead of on its side and extending into my legroom. Another flight attendant was by to take my pre-departure drink order as I started to familiarize myself with the seat controls and entertainment system…
…And the mini-bar, and the vanity mirror and built-in amenity kit. And the contents of the Goodie Basket.
Realizing that it’s a lot to process, there’s a hefty “Emirates A380 First Class Suite Guide” booklet to explain how it all works.
For the most part, things were clean and looked new on this less than one-year-old aircraft (delivered May 2010), the one exception being the carpeting inside my suite which showed several stains. The seat itself was comfortable, and the leg room was ample enough for my 6’4” frame, but it wasn’t as wide as others I’ve flown. (According to Seatguru.com it is 23 inches wide, noticeably narrower than the likes of Cathay Pacific, Singapore and even United with seat widths of 30” and up.)
That said, the suite did feel very private; thanks to the high sidewalls and layout the only sign I could see of another passenger in the full cabin was the legs and feet of the person in the middle seat one row ahead of me. That’s a definite plus in my book when traveling solo. I also liked the individual air vents in the suite, allowing the passenger some control over the temperature.
A glass of Dom 2002 arrived. It was nicely chilled, in a proper flute and hit the spot. After a few sips I walked up to the front area to see about reserving an early time slot for my shower, so that I wouldn’t be rushed with dinner. A helpful FA took my seat number and said that the shower attendant would come to get me in flight as soon as it was ready. (Yes, among the 24 FAs that staff an Emirates A380 flight there is one whose primary job is to look after the showers.)
As much as there was to keep me occupied at the seat, FAs were passing through almost non-stop offering magazines and newspapers, then slippers and eyeshades, then a piping hot refreshing towel the size of a large washcloth, and then Arabic coffee and dates. Between that unique touch and the announcements in Arabic (as well as English and Chinese) and the traditional hat and scarf that the female FAs wear, there was no mistaking that this was a Middle Eastern airline.
While I was taking in the scene another FA came by with a champagne refill and a small can of Pringles, to replace the one I had eaten from my Goodie Basket. Definite points for proactive service. Our purser then came by to introduce herself, gave me a warm welcome by name and the menu and wine lists, which were in a heavy, restaurant-style leather binder.
Billed as a “Light Meal”, there was a choice of salmon and caviar or lamb loin appetizer, followed by a salad, a choice of five entrees, a cheese course and dessert. Three of the entrees were Asian dishes and then there was a grilled lamb rack and a steamed veggie plate to round out the offering. None of the choices jumped out at me, but I went with the “Chinese style roast chicken with plum sauce, stir-fried noodles and mixed vegetables” figuring that to be a safe, if not particularly elegant, follow-on to smoked salmon and caviar. The wine list was upscale and diverse though there wasn’t a real high-end Premier or Grand Cru bottle as I’ve seen on other airlines.
I selected the tail camera channel on the Entertainment system and enjoyed that unique view as we pushed back from the gate a few minutes early. I counted at least four cabin crew in the aisles collecting the drink glasses and Goodie Baskets and otherwise preparing the cabin for takeoff.
Having had one previous ride on the A380, I knew to look forward to the takeoff roll, with the immense thrust being put out by the four engines working to get the beast airborne. It’s also longer than you’ll experience on most other aircraft – a full 45 seconds I counted this time before the front wheels left the ground. The seatbelt sign came off 6 minutes out and before I knew it a flight attendant was by to offer some more champagne and to tell me that the shower attendant was setting up for me. I half-jokingly asked if she was sure there was no turbulence coming and was promised a smooth ride.
Not long after came the magic words I’d been waiting for: “Sir, your shower is ready. Please come with me.” I fought to suppress the grin on my face as I was ushered into an airplane bathroom like none I’d seen before.
Many times larger than a standard lavatory, it was trimmed in blond wood with gray suede-like upholstery on the seating surfaces and discreetly covering the toilet.
The interior wall had a huge mirror as well as a monitor showing the moving map channel from the entertainment system. I was given a primer on how the shower worked as well as a safety briefing so that I knew where the oxygen mask would deploy and where the call button was if I needed any assistance. But most important was the “Remaining Time” gauge, which shows how much of your allotted five minutes of shower water is left.
I was very impressed by how clean everything seemed. There was not a scrap of paper on the floor or anything out of place. The glass surfaces were all gleaming. The shower itself was nicer than many I have used in airport lounges, not to mention some hotels. The towel provided was big, white and fluffy and there was every type of bath gel and lotion you could need.
I hung up my clothes on the provided hanger and gingerly stepped in. A sensor requires the shower door to be fully closed to start the water, which makes plenty of sense but puts you in the awkward position of being inside at first spray, without knowing what temperature to expect. Huddled close to the wall, I hit the magic “on” button and hoped not to be scalded. Unlike my shower at home it was pleasantly warm right off the bat. The water pressure was also great. I took a few moments just getting my bearings but then remembered I was working against the clock.
By the time I hit the off button, I was in the red zone with just over a minute of water left. I didn’t wash my hair, but if I hadn’t been messing around taking pictures I probably would have had enough time. I got out, dried myself off and saw the altitude reading on the monitor of 11,500 meters. Dude, I just took a shower at 37,000 feet! A pretty darn good shower at that.
Duly refreshed, I decided it was only fitting to check out one of the other unique features of the plane: the bar/lounge at the back of Business Class. It took a bit of hopping around service carts and FAs to get all the way to the back. The large area included couches on both sides by the windows and several standing areas in the middle where multi-tiered trays of finger food were set out. The alcohol was fairly upscale, as was the vibe. Seatbelts were tucked into the couches, enabling you to ride out turbulence without having to be antisocial and go back to your seat.
The bartender looked happy to see me as she had only one other passenger to look after. She fixed me a drink, very carefully measuring and pouring out a single shot. There was a fair bit of clamor coming from the rear galley where several FAs were stowing dinner items and sending out dessert and coffee to a constant stream of their colleagues working the aisles. The three of us chatted and I think the surreal-ness of showering and then drinking at the bar on the plane finally began to hit me. (Or was it the vodka?) In another Rare Moment of Self Control I turned down a drink refill, and went back to my seat for dinner.
My dutiful flight attendant must have seen me come back as she swooped in with a linen tablecloth to get me set for dinner. The tray table is massive – which is cool in one sense, but unless I missed something the design doesn’t leave you a way to get up from the seat when it is deployed. (On other airlines the tray slides or pivots, or the aisle-side armrest slides down allowing you to get up.)
She was then back with a food tray… and some bad news. Somehow despite my having ordered the caviar appetizer, they were now out of it and only the lamb choice was left. She was apologetic and nice enough about it, even offering a double helping of the lamb if I wanted it. I declined and then was offered an ample bread basket and chose garlic bread, which was served warm.
The tray was crammed with a lot of stuff, including a bread plate, a small side salad, and various accoutrements. It was a nice presentation, but it always feels classier to me when they bring and place the items individually instead of serving them all at once on a tray.
But that was not to be my biggest gripe with the meal. The lamb was tough, the salad was… just a salad. The chicken with noodles entree was so lame I asked for more garlic bread. It made the lounge food seem great by contrast. Admittedly it is a short flight so maybe they scale back on the catering budget. All I know is that I’d be very disappointed if this is what they serve on longer flights.
It did at least end on a high note, with a mousse cake and a nice glass of Sauternes. Following that was the most elegant coffee service I’ve ever had on a plane, featuring a big proper coffee pot with accompaniments that included a plate of ginger cookies. I also had my arm twisted into sampling the Glenfiddich 21 year single malt.
The cabin lighting was turned down, revealing a cool feature on the ceiling resembling stars in the night sky. I could have dozed, but wanted to fully enjoy what remained of my time. I turned on the in-seat massage function but then quickly turned it off because it was so loud and vigorous.
I also had to try the seat in bed mode, and found it comfortable and long enough for me to sleep without having to curl up. The finishing touch was closing the doors to my suite, sealing me off from the cabin in my own cocoon. I must admit it created a unique sense of privacy and would no doubt help me stay asleep on a long flight.
As the engines spooled back to signal the start of our descent, I took stock of the day’s adventure. While there were a few on-board elements that could have used improvement, I give Emirates a lot of credit for raising the bar on First Class by installing the showers and operating them with such high standards. The actual shower on a plane was better than I expected. (The fun of telling people I took a shower on a plane wasn’t bad either.)
Although the best part of taking a shower on a plane isn’t taking the shower – it’s feeling (and smelling) good afterward, unlike pretty much everyone else coming off of airplanes. While less of an issue on this short flight, it is a big deal on overnight flights, especially for travelers going to straight to work at their destination.
Getting off the plane feeling decidedly invigorated, I wondered if the rival airline execs who chose not to put showers on their A380s have ever tried one.
Geoff Fischer is an aviation and travel enthusiast currently living in Seattle who embraces his inner sybarite and enjoys the comforts of flying in a premium cabin