Superjumbo to Europe: Flying Emirates’ A380 in Economy From New York to Milan
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As my time as TPG’s reviews and travel intern drew to a close, I decided I’d really take advantage of the position I was in to cross off some items on my AvGeek bucket list. At the very top of the list was to fly an Airbus A380. Another: Fly Emirates.
So, I decided to do both at once.
The Dubai-based carrier has made itself into one of the world’s most recognizable brands over the past number of years through aggressive network growth strategies, including the addition of some very interesting fifth-freedom routes from the US.
One such route is its daily New York-JFK–Milan flight, which TPG’s Julian Kheel flew early last year. He lucked out with an empty A380 for the seven-hour journey, but an empty transatlantic flight in the dead of summer is rare — so I knew my experience would be a vastly different one.
Things tend to move very fast here at TPG. As part of the job, I’d become quite accustomed to throwing together last-minute itineraries, but this really took the cake. When the TPG team dug up some great first-class award availability out of Asia, I found myself needing to position across the world with same-day notice.
Around 10am on that Friday, I hopped on Google Flights to find the cheapest way to get to Dubai (DXB) from New York, ideally departing some time that same evening. I was thrilled to see Emirates rise to the top of the search results, offering a reasonable $876 fare on its route from JFK to DXB via Milan (MXP). They were also selling tickets on the 11pm nonstop to Dubai, but those seats were going for over $500 more than the one-stop itinerary.
It’s no secret that the closer you book to departure, the slimmer your chances are at finding decent mileage redemptions. I’ve seen the occasional last-minute award pop-up when booking Emirates flights through Alaska MileagePlan, but this time around we had no such luck.
In the end, we settled on the $876 cash fare and quickly booked the ticket. We placed the purchase on the Platinum Card® from American Express — a charge that yielded 4,380 Membership Rewards points (worth $87), thanks to the 5x bonus when booking airfare directly with airlines.
Prior to arriving at New York-JFK, I had taken advantage of Emirates’ online check-in and was issued a mobile boarding pass, so in theory, I could have proceeded straight to my gate. But as a first-time Emirates flyer, I figured I’d get the full experience starting on the ground. The carrier is among the 30-plus airlines operating out of JFK’s Terminal 4 — one of the better facilities at the airport — which most notably serves as a hub for Delta Air Lines and its transatlantic partners.
Emirates has a fairly significant presence at JFK for an overseas carrier. In fact, it’s the only airline sending three-daily A380 jumbos to the New York airport. Two of these flights operate nonstop to Dubai, one in the morning, one in the evening, and the third operates a one-stop service via Milan.
Economy-class passengers were processed at Row 7 using two check-in lines, the first designated for connecting passengers or those who had previously checked in online, and the second exclusively for passengers who were originating their journey in JFK and still required check-in. Both lines were about equal in length, with a waiting time of roughly 10 minutes.
Once I reached the counter, the agent confirmed my flight details and weighed all of my baggage items. Emirates observes a strict 7-kilogram weight limit for all carry-on baggage, so I was required to check in my small rollaboard, which weighed roughly 10 kilograms.
The counter agent went on to explain the logistics of the one-stop flight for the few passengers, like myself, who would continue through to Dubai. For starters, I’d only be issued a single boarding pass, marked JFK-DXB, so I’d be keeping the same seat throughout the entire journey. The 90-minute stop in Milan would require me to disembark for security purposes, but rather than clearing immigration, transit passengers would be kept in the secure waiting area by the boarding gate.
Bag checked and ticket in hand, I was directed to the security checkpoint for the T4 concourses. I was happy to see that Emirates participates in TSA PreCheck, which allowed me to bypass rather lengthy queues typical of JFK’s evening rush hour.
Just a few minutes later, I was airside and heading down the A Concourse of Terminal 4.
At the very end of the concourse, I reached gates A6 and A7, the pair of A380-enabled gates used by Emirates. (The airplane is so big that it can dock only at dedicated gates.) My flight to Milan was using A6, while the nonstop to Dubai departed from A7 roughly 40 minutes later.
There was plenty of seating available, but naturally, the gates began to fill up as two A380s’ worth of passengers trickled into the area.
Around 9pm, the gate agents made several announcements detailing the zone-based boarding process. I found it strange that there was no mention of premium zones — first or business class — but then it dawned on me: lounge boarding! Gate A6 is unique in that, due to its location immediately below the Emirates lounge, first- and business-class passengers are able to board directly from the lounge and bypass the crowded gate areas.
Families traveling with children were invited to board first, followed by four economy zones, ordered from front-to-back of the aircraft.
I finally got a glimpse of the behemoth A380 that would be carrying a full load of passengers across the Atlantic that night. These jets really are a sight to behold — it still fascinates me how these 400-ton machines manage to get off the ground.
Cabin and Seat
From my first step onboard the A380, I was absolutely amazed by the spaciousness of the cabin. As the world’s largest passenger jet, it’s no surprise these planes also boast the widest cabins in the sky.
The 429 economy-class seats occupied the entire lower deck from nose to tail, arranged in a 3-4-3 configuration, similar to what you’ll find on many Boeing Triple Sevens nowadays.
But here’s the kicker: At 21 feet, 6 inches across, the A380 cabin is over 2 feet wider from wall to wall than the 19-foot, 3-inch cabin width found on the Triple Seven. Said another way: While 3-4-3 is a tight squeeze on the B777, on the A380 it felt more spacious than ever.
The 18-inch-wide seats offered 32 inches of pitch, which is about standard for long-haul economy-class products.
My window seat felt extra spacious, thanks to a large gap between the seats and the curved fuselage. It was fantastic to have the extra shoulder room, although it’s worth noting the gap makes it difficult to comfortably lean against the window for sleeping — a lifeline for many red-eye flyers, including myself.
Instead, I took advantage of the adjustable headrest which, coupled with a 6-inch recline, was perfectly comfortable for the seven-hour journey.
The seat had a large two-fold tray table roughly 11-by-16 inches wide.
The seatback also featured a small cup holder convenient for the mid-flight beverage services.
The real star of the show was the brilliant 13.3-inch display featured on all Emirates aircraft delivered since 2015. It was almost surreal to see an economy-class seat with such a large screen (for the record, larger than my MacBook laptop, and even surpassing what you’ll find on some business-class products).
The bathrooms were plenty spacious and kept clean throughout the flight. The lower deck was equipped with a whopping 10 lavatories, roughly one for every 42 passengers, so I never had to wait in line to use one.
The facilities featured premium amenities such as lotion, fragrance spray and even a 110V power outlet.
Amenities and IFE
As the operator of some of the world’s longest flights, Emirates does a great job with its onboard amenities and entertainment. At boarding, every seat was stocked with headphones, blanket, and pillow.
The headphones were definitely above average for an economy-class offering. I always prefer traditional headphones over earbuds, as I find them much more comfortable.
The pillow and blanket were fairly run-of-the-mill but did the trick.
Perhaps Emirates’ most famous amenity is the stellar inflight entertainment system, known as ICE, an acronym for Information, Communications and Entertainment.
The entertainment page offered anything from movies to podcasts, games, TV and music.
Emirates holds the distinction for offering more inflight movies than any other airline. The selection was absolutely phenomenal. With over 1,000 titles, there was truly something for everyone.
The airline offered eight channels of live TV, as well several hundred titles of on-demand shows to satisfy all of your binge-watching needs.
The seatbacks were decked out with all sorts of bells and whistles. In addition to the large display, each IFE system featured a touchscreen remote, although mine was broken. The screens were crisp and responsive, though, so I was able to get by perfectly fine.
Below the screen was a handy USB port and dual-prong audio jack.
The one quirk about this economy product was that, bizarrely, not every seat had a full power outlet. Everyone was guaranteed a USB port, but only 60% of passengers had access to a 110V universal power outlet (I wasn’t one of them).
The unlucky seats without power were C, E, G, and K.
It’s not uncommon to see shared outlets on a plane, but the fact that the outlets were located on the personal seatbacks hardly made them feel shared. Had I wanted to borrow my neighbor’s outlet, for example, my charging cords would have been dangling onto his tray table.
It’s less of an issue when traveling in a group, but as a solo traveler, I definitely didn’t want to impose that on a fellow passenger.
Emirates is one of the few airlines in the industry offering free Wi-Fi to all customers onboard. But there’s a catch: The free allotment had a data cap of 20 MB, which typically won’t last you very long.
If you’re looking for more heavy internet usage, the airline offered paid passes that included larger data caps, including an unlimited option for $15.99.
The speeds were quite sluggish, so I imagine most people would find it difficult to be productive. I was able to send and receive messages, but not much else.
Food and Beverage
Shortly after boarding, flight attendants came through the aisles distributing menus detailing the inflight offerings for our transatlantic crossing.
There were two dinner entrees on offer: barbecue chicken with mashed potatoes and spinach, and grilled cod with brown rice and peas.
I decided to go with the chicken, which turned out to be an excellent choice. All dinner entrees were served with a bean salad, bread roll, crackers, cheese and a chocolate cake. I loved to see Emirates use real silverware, a small but classy touch polishing the economy-class experience.
Because of the short flight time under seven hours, we were offered an express breakfast prior to arrival in place of a standard hot meal. The sweet fruit pastry was complemented with a packaged cup of water and an additional beverage of choice. Not a substantial meal, but it was merely 4am in New York, so it was plenty to satisfy a light appetite.
Friendly, professional, diligent.
Emirates employs one of the most diverse group of flight attendants in the industry, collectively representing over 130 countries and speaking over 55 languages. This flight was no exception: During the welcome announcements, the purser introduced her large crew of 24 flight attendants hailing from 13 different nationalities. I had a chance to interact with five or six flight attendants serving the back section of economy, all of whom demonstrated the utmost level of professionalism in their service.
Now, logistically speaking, serving 429 economy-class passengers is no small task, and the speed of the service reflected that. The dinner service didn’t begin until roughly 90 minutes after takeoff, and by the time the trays were cleared over an hour later, we had only four hours of flight remaining. The crew definitely put in a tremendous amount of effort to keep things moving quickly, but slower service seems to be an unfortunate reality when flying on such a large jet, especially when operating at full capacity.
Another related setback in terms of service was that the pre-arrival preparations were conducted a full 75 minutes before landing. Passengers were awoken as the flight attendants came through the aisles collecting headphones and blankets. It seemed a bit hasty, especially since we didn’t even begin our descent into Milan until 45 minutes later.
I definitely enjoyed my first experience on Emirates. The airline has a wonderful economy-class offering that ranks it well ahead of its competition. Its comfortable seats, stellar entertainment, delicious food and professional service all left me with a great first impression. I’m looking forward to my next flight with Dubai’s home carrier.
All photos by the author.
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