Across the Atlantic In An Empty A380: Emirates Economy, New York to Milan
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To The Point
Emirates utilizes the largest passenger jet in the world for its fifth-freedom flight from the US to Europe. Pros: economy seats with lots of legroom, excellent dinner, tons of IFE movies. Cons: inattentive flight crew and an average breakfast.
If you’re considering a trip to Europe, there’s never been a better time to score an inexpensive airline flight. With international low-cost carriers such as Norwegian and WOW driving transatlantic airfares to historical lows, finding a cheap ticket across the pond is easier than it’s ever been. But competitive pressures have also meant a reduction in space and services, even on full service carriers and especially in economy. So just because there are so many cheap flights doesn’t mean you should pick just any cheap flight.
That’s why Emirates’ fifth freedom flight from New York (JFK) to Milan, Italy (MXP) is so intriguing. The airline runs this route as an intended connection in Milan onward to its final destination in Dubai (DXB), but you can purchase and fly just the round-trip between the US and Italy, and often at a competitive price. And with the route currently being served by the airline’s flagship Airbus A380 — the largest commercial passenger plane ever built — we wanted to know whether Emirates economy cabin experience to Europe is better, worse or similar to that of its competitors.
If you can plan in advance, the cash price on this Emirates routes is very reasonable — it’s not unusual to find round-trip deals in the $400s and even as low as the $300s, especially if you can book for you and a companion as the airline often runs companion sales. However, in this case we needed to book a last-minute one way from New York to Milan. The cost for booking about four days before departure was $639, which was also matched by Alitalia on the same day.
Every other airline was charging over $2,500 for a one-way flight, as most of them tack on a large premium for booking one-way instead of round-trip. Also, the $639 one-way price was highly consistent even if we booked further out — even as much as 10 months out — so we didn’t pay a large markup for booking last-minute (though of course we also weren’t able to benefit from a sale which would have driven the price down considerably).
There are also several options for booking this flight with points. Emirates isn’t a member of any of the three major airline alliances, but it has independent partnerships with several frequent flyer programs, including Alaska Mileage Plan, Korean Air SkyPass and JAL Mileage Bank, just to name a few. If you’re booking this route round-trip in economy, you’ll pay only 40,000 points via JAL Mileage Bank, and SPG Starpoints can be transferred to JAL.
But JAL charges round-trip prices even on one-way redemptions, so for this particular itinerary, the best choice would be booking directly with Emirates itself using its Skywards mileage program for a cost of 38,750 miles, which can be transferred from American Express Membership Rewards at a 1:1 ratio.
The round-trip price of JFK-MXP-JFK is only 45,000 Emirates miles, so you’d do better booking a round-trip if your travel plans called for it. However, either way you’d also pay carrier surcharges on top of the mileage cost. For the one-way flight, the cash portion is $182, which means you’ll only be getting about 1.1 cents per mile for the redemption since the cash cost of the entire ticket is just $639. That makes paying with cash the best option in this particular case.
My first indication that I wouldn’t be on a particularly crowded flight was the seat map. On most low-cost economy fares, Emirates doesn’t allow you to select your seats for free until 48 hours ahead of departure, which is incredibly annoying. But in this case, it wasn’t a big deal because 1) we were booking only four days in advance, and; 2) the plane was practically empty.
I picked a seat in a row that had all 10 seats wide open. Because if I had the option, I didn’t want someone crowding me in my row, even from the opposite side of the cabin.
While I was able to complete my check-in via my iPhone, the Emirates app directed me to see the airport agent in order to get a boarding pass. I assume this was so they could inspect my passport and make sure all my documents were in order before the international trip.
Fortunately, when I got to JFK around 7:30pm, there was no line at all at the Emirates desk, and I was able to get a boarding pass in about 90 seconds. The only bad news was that the agent insisted I check my carry-on suitcase because I also had a backpack. On most airlines, a backpack would be considered a personal item and not count as your main carry-on, but Emirates can be very strict about this. The airline also has a 7kg (~15 pounds) weight limit for carry-ons, and others report it can be prickly about that limit as well, so be forewarned.
As an economy passenger, I didn’t have any access to Emirates’ lounge at JFK, but even if I did, it’s currently closed for renovations anyway. Instead, I wanted to see if I could buy a day pass into the Etihad lounge, and more specifically into the Residence VIP room at that lounge, which Etihad just started offering for sale for just $40 for the stay. That would be on top of paying $75 to buy access to the lounge itself.
However, the Etihad agent informed me that I could only purchase access to the lounge if I was flying on Etihad. Booooo. Time to pull my Priority Pass card out of my wallet and head to the Wingtips Lounge.
The Wingtips Lounge is a third-party lounge utilized by several airlines — it can be found after you clear security at JFK Terminal 4 by immediately turning right instead of going downstairs to the gates level. It’s also the only Priority Pass lounge at Terminal 4. It’s certainly not an exciting lounge — far from the luxury of the Etihad lounge — but it’s got some snacks and cold food to sample, which was replenished on a regular basis while I was there.
You’ll also find breakfast-style foods, such as cereal and a small selection of breads and pastries.
You’re not going to find an enormous well-stocked bar at this lounge, but you’ll have access to the basics when it comes to beer, wine and spirits, all of which are complimentary to lounge guests.
The lounge was roughly half full so there were plenty of seats to choose from. I mixed myself a gin and tonic, found a seat with access to a power outlet and did some work while I awaited my boarding time.
Boarding and Cabin
Boarding was scheduled for 9:20pm, which was a full 60 minutes ahead of our 10:20pm planned departure. Since the A380 can hold up to 399 economy passengers in the long-haul configuration Emirates employs on this route, it was logical to conclude that boarding could take a while. So I left the lounge a little after 9pm and headed down to gate A7, where our A380 was readying for our flight to Milan.
I’ve heard reports in the past of a chaotic boarding process with Emirates, but in this case it was very straightforward, probably because of the light passenger load (very light, as you’ll see in a moment). In any case, the gate agents began boarding the premium cabin exactly at 9:25pm and called the first economy groups just a few minutes after that.
When you’re reviewing a flight, one of the priorities is to try and board as early as possible so you can get clean photos of the cabin before it gets full. For this flight, that was 100% unnecessary, because this is what the economy cabin looked like halfway through boarding:
Keep in mind this is a January flight to Europe, which means winter, which means off season. You’re going to find the plane a lot more crowded in the summer. Pairs of flight attendants are standing ready to assist in each section of the cabin during the entire boarding process (which is a nice touch), and one of them told me that while this was a typical load for a mid-week flight, the plane tends to have more passengers on the weekends. Still, it was almost eerie how empty the huge plane was.
The economy cabin is configured with 10 across seats in a 3x4x3 layout. That’s tight on the smaller Boeing 777, but on the A380 it actually results in a relatively reasonable seat width. Let’s just hope Airbus doesn’t follow through with its proposed 11 across economy cabin layout.
When I arrived at my seat, I found a pillow, blanket and headphones waiting for both me and the two other non-existent people in my row.
Economy seats on the Emirates A380 have 32″ of pitch and are 19″ wide from armrest to armrest (21″ inches if you don’t include the armrests). Even with my backpack underneath the seat in front of me, I had plenty of room for my legs, knees and feet.
Each economy seat features a 13″ in-flight entertainment (IFE) screen in the seat back and wood trim around the large windows, which is congruent with the rest of the Emirates cabin design.
One feature of the economy seats that I really liked was the AC outlet built into the front of the actual seat armrest. I always find it difficult to access the outlet in economy — it tends to be under the seat or in some weird spot — and this is the best placement I’ve seen yet.
Overall, while I’m sure the cabin would feel much less spacious and airy if it had been full, it didn’t feel like you would be jammed into this seat even if all the ones around you were taken. For economy class, it’s a pretty reasonable seat.
Unfortunately before boarding was completed, a few other actual passengers did in fact get on. While this wasn’t the end of the world, they did manage to ruin my plan to be able to look across an entire empty row throughout the entire flight.
With such a light load, we were fully boarded a good 20 minutes before departure time, and the Emirates crew didn’t bother waiting around for any stragglers. The door was closed and we were off the gate at 10:05pm, a good 15 minutes before our scheduled departure time.
Food and Beverage
Before take off, flight attendants handed out a menu to all economy passengers. Most of it was just informative, as the only actual choice there was to make was for the main course — either chicken or fish.
If there was one major surprise for me on this flight — other than how empty it was — it was the lackadaisical service in economy. It was a good 75 minutes after take off before a flight attendant even came by to offer a beverage. And this with a flight that was at best one-third full.
The good news is that when dinner finally arrived, it was shockingly good. I chose the barbecue chicken and it was, dare I say it… delicious?
OK, “delicious” might be too strong, but this was definitely one of the most tasty economy meals I’ve had. The meat was surprisingly tender and the sauce wasn’t overly greasy. The mashed potatoes and spinach were the perfect complements to the main dish, and even the pre-packaged toffee pudding dessert wasn’t half bad. The only item on the plate I didn’t like was the bean salad — I had a few bites and left the rest.
To go with dinner, I asked for both a red wine and a soda. The wine was a L’Ostal Cazes Estibals Minervois from 2015, which is far from anything special, but was adequate with this economy meal. Coffee and tea options were offered during both the dinner and breakfast services.
After dinner, the cabin lights were dimmed and I proceeded to use all the extra economy seats around me to build my very own “Emirates Economy Suite” in order to get some shut eye. You can read step-by-step instructions on how to build your own economy suite in my detailed story “Flying to Europe With an Entire Economy Row to Yourself.”
About 90 minutes before landing, the flight attendants started to deliver breakfast trays, which I had with a glass of apple juice.
Unlike dinner, this meal was just okay. The croissant was fine — the jelly preserve was sweet and I liked the flavor — and the fruit was fresh, but the yogurt was bland (yes, I know yogurt is often bland). To some degree, this is a personal preference issue — I like a hot breakfast, not just cold fruit and yogurt, while others might lean toward this simple breakfast. However, I think it’s great when an airline has an egg dish option like an omelet, even if it’s pre-packaged and just heated up in flight.
In Flight Entertainment
As I alluded to earlier, Emirates provides a set of headphones for its IFE system, which are bulky and not particularly effective. The headphones have a three-prong adapter which fits into the jack on the front of the armrest, but you can use your own headphones as well. Also provided with the headphones is a set of tabs you can use to indicate to the flight attendants whether you want to be woken for meals, which is a cute idea though I didn’t see any passengers actually using them.
The IFE system itself is relatively modern, providing both touch screen control and a removable physical controller as well, which is cradled in the seat back just below the screen.
The responsiveness of the touch screen was poor in my experience — it had a heavy lag and I had great difficulty getting it to do what I wanted it to do. Using the controller instead was somewhat better, though still sluggish. And with so many options on the controller, it took me a few moments to figure out which buttons to push to navigate.
But the navigation issues aside, the IFE system itself is robust, with an enormous selection of movies from various nations and in multiple languages. I counted approximately 540 available movies, ranging from recent Hollywood box office hits to documentaries, foreign films from Europe, Africa and Bollywood, and an understandably large selection of features in Arabic (nearly 50 movies).
Emirates offers Wi-Fi services on its A380 aircraft, with a free 20MB option for up to two hours of flight. If you just want to check your email or read your Twitter timeline, this is likely all you’ll need. Otherwise, you can choose from two other options with varying prices, lengths and megabytes.
Regardless of which option I chose, the Wi-Fi speed was painfully slow. In fact, it was so slow that I couldn’t even get a speed test to work on my laptop. I managed to finally coax a reading out of my phone, which confirmed just how bad the Wi-Fi was.
If you’re expecting to get significant work done online during your Emirates flight, you may want to rethink that plan. Instead, download whatever you need to your physical hard drive while you’re on the ground before you depart.
In this long-haul configuration, the Emirates A380 has plentiful lavatories — 10 in all on the lower economy deck. The bathrooms feature the same wood trim as the rest of the Emirates cabin, and a comfortable amount of space to move around in. I checked several restrooms and found them all to be clean and well stocked.
One of the neat features of the A380 itself is the cabin lighting. It can be changed from regular white light to warm mood lighting during various phases of the flight, and when the light is completely off, a “starry night” appears in the cabin ceiling to help you drift off to sleep.
I was also pleasantly surprised at how quiet the A380 is. In such a large four-engine aircraft, I expected the cabin to be louder, even with Airbus’ modern noise-reduction techniques. But once we were in the air and the landing gear retracted, it was immediately noticeable how little sound penetrated the cabin from the roaring engines.
I’ve flown at least half a million miles in the last 10 years, and yet somehow this was my very first trip on an A380. And I have to say, I wasn’t disappointed in the aircraft one bit. She’s a beauty. The view out the large cabin window as the plane’s long wing dipped to the right and we turned to descend toward Milan managed to hold my attention for a good long while.
As airlines are fond of saying, you have many choices when you fly, and while the Emirates economy experience isn’t perfect, it’s pretty darn solid. I would have preferred a somewhat more attentive cabin crew, even in economy, and while one of my two meals was a smash hit, the other was just meh. Of course, it also massively helps to have a row all to yourself, which you can never guarantee. But even Emirates’ normal A380 economy seat is well apportioned with a decent amount of pitch, width and legroom for the long-haul flight.
Overall, if you’re heading to Europe in an economy seat, this is definitely one of the better ones to choose from. With US airlines cramming more and more passengers into the back of the bus, you’re better off getting on the largest plane in the world and having a little more room, especially when you can get the ticket at a very competitive price.
Feature photo by Alberto Riva. All accompanying photos by the author.
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