Incredible, but with room to improve: Review of Emirates A380 first class, Dubai to LA
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Emirates first-class service won the 2018 TPG Award for Best International First Class Product and although it ceded the 2019 title to Air France’s La Première, it remains one of the top first-class products in the world. Having reviewed Etihad’s Apartment and Cathay Pacific’s first class last year, I flew Emirates with high expectations.
We wanted to start in Dubai to experience the first-class lounge there and fly to the U.S., maximizing time on board by booking the longest flight possible.
Searching ExpertFlyer for availability on Emirates’ longest flights to the U.S. (ExpertFlyer is owned by Red Ventures, the parent company of TPG), we found it on the Dubai to Los Angeles nonstop, clocking in at 16 hours and 15 minutes.
There are quite a few options for booking Emirates first-class awards and they are expensive. The cheapest option for this route currently is Japan Airlines Mileage Bank at 135,000 miles. However, Mileage Bank now passes along hefty carrier-imposed surcharges and there are limited options for accumulating Mileage Bank miles. We opted, instead, to book this award with Alaska Mileage Plan for 150,000 Alaska miles plus just $92 in taxes and fees. Even better, you can search and book these awards right on Alaska’s website:
Although 150,000 Alaska miles is a lot, there’s an easy way to stock up: Buy them. If you’re considering buying Alaska miles for this redemption, make sure to do it when there’s a buy-miles promotion. For example, there’s currently a 40% bonus promotion running through February 16, which drops the purchase price as low as 2.11 cents each. At that rate, you can buy enough Alaska miles to get this redemption for $3,257 ($3,165 for the miles plus $92 in taxes and fees on the award).
That’s not cheap, but the cash price for this one-way flight from Dubai (DXB) to Los Angeles (LAX) cost the equivalent of almost $9,200 at the time I booked it as an award flight.
I experienced several issues when trying to manage my booking on Emirates’ website. Despite having an Emirates booking reference code, I wasn’t able to check in online anytime within the 48-hour window. Also, I wasn’t able to add basic data to my booking, such as my passport or emergency contact number.
I called Emirates and got an agent in under a minute. She dryly suggested that I try online check-in in a few hours (it still didn’t work). While I had her on the phone, I asked about the chauffeur service, which is complimentary as part of a paid Emirates first-class ticket but isn’t included in award tickets. I asked if I could buy the service as an add-on, but she said it wasn’t possible.
So I splurged on an Uber Black to the airport. Even with traffic, the ride in the white Lexus to the large and ad-plastered first-class drop-off area only cost AED 56 (US$15).
Just inside the doors there’s a desk labeled “first & business express check-in,” but U.S.-bound passengers need to head farther into the terminal to find the first-class check-in area for U.S. flights:
After answering security questions, I had to wait just a couple of minutes for one of the two check-in agents to be available. The process was quick but transactional, a bit disappointing compared to other first-class check-in experiences in the Middle East that come with offers of dates and Arabic coffee. But I was able to check my bag and be on my way just four minutes after entering the line.
From the check-in desk, there’s a long hallway to immigration, security and the train to the terminal. I didn’t mind getting some steps in before my flight, but I found it strange that there weren’t carts or escorts provided for first-class passengers.
Business- and first-class passengers are funneled into the same exit immigration and security areas, but the process was quick. It took less than 10 minutes to clear both and join the line for the tram to Terminal 3’s Concourse A, built on purpose for the Airbus A380 double-decker.
Upon reaching Terminal 3, passengers exit the tram and walk across the terminal to take high-capacity elevators up to the main floor.
From there, business- and first-class passengers need to navigate through the economy terminal to escalators that take you up to the lounges. The terminal is well-signed, but it’s not a straightforward path. In all, it took me 25 minutes from arriving at the airport to entering the first-class lounge.
It’s worth the hassle. The lounge stretches across an entire floor of the concourse.
There’s a wide variety of spaces and good signage to help you get around.
There are several different seating areas throughout the lounge, including larger areas at either end.
There are smaller seating areas near some, but not all, gates.
There’s a well-appointed business center.
If you want to catch some sleep, there’s a large “quiet lounge,” split into semi-private areas by dividers. Flat or angled beds are stocked with a pillow, blanket, eye mask and tissues.
Private shower rooms are available. There was no wait when I asked for one.
The showerhead definitely doesn’t pass the TPG shower test. At 5 foot 11 inches, I barely fit under it. The rooms are stocked with standard amenities, including a hairdryer, but there aren’t next-level amenities like a clothes-pressing service.
For kids, there’s a colorful playroom with toys for tots to teens, including a PlayStation 4 with two controllers and numerous games.
The lounge even has its own duty-free stores selling jewelry, accessories and liquor.
There are several dining options.
The sushi wasn’t the freshest but I appreciated the range of offerings.
There are plenty of sweets.
Passengers disappointed that they did not get dates and Arabic coffee at check-in can get their fill from self-serve stations.
If you have enough time, you might want to enjoy the sit-down, waiter-service restaurant.
One of my go-to orders for judging food is eggs Benedict. I had an incredible dish in Abu Dhabi last year before my Etihad Apartment review and was wondering if Emirates would measure up. I wasn’t disappointed. The eggs were cooked perfectly, the hollandaise sauce was excellent and the English muffin was toasted just right.
If you want a glass of bubbly, the lounge offers self-service Moët & Chandon Imperial — a mid-tier champagne which retails for around $50.
The wines and champagnes are self-serve; liquors are served by attendants. Similar to the champagne, the bars offered mid-tier liquors.
First-class passengers are entitled to a complimentary 15-minute treatment at the Timeless Spa. Passengers have five treatment options: de-stress back massage, reflex therapy for legs and feet, Indian head massage, Thai body stretch or a soothing hand massage. Although I arrived at the lounge hours before my flight, no treatments were available before boarding time.
You can look down on the economy terminal but the view out the windows is muted by designs on the glass.
The lounge’s Wi-Fi was generally excellent, clocking a speedy 114 Mbps download and 93.5 Mbps upload. The sign-in process only required agreeing to terms. However, I ran across a few dead zones in the massive lounge.
One incredible feature: Emirates first-class passengers don’t have to leave the lounge to go to the boarding gate. They can board right from the lounge. My flight departed out of Gate 21, which didn’t have a seating area in the immediate vicinity, so my fellow first-class passengers and I stood to wait for boarding to begin.
This exclusive boarding experience could be a great perk of flying first class, but the process was a disappointment for my flight. Boarding passes and signage at the gate indicated that boarding began at 7:55 a.m., but that time came and went with no sign of a gate agent. A couple of experienced Emirates first-class passengers grumbled to each other about how frustratingly typical this was.
At 8:03 a.m., a security agent and Emirates gate agent arrived and began the boarding process. After our boarding passes were scanned, we were pointed toward an elevator to head down to the upper-deck boarding level and were left to fend for ourselves from there. Upon exiting the elevator, we faced a long line of business-class passengers waiting for U.S. secondary security checks. Without any indications of what to do, we joined the line.
It seemed that almost all of business class had boarded before first class. After being pulled for a secondary security check, I ended up stepping onto the plane at 8:16 a.m. for an 8:30 a.m. departure, seemingly the last passenger to board via the upper deck.
At LAX, where we arrived after 15 hours and 45 minutes in the air, first-class passengers could disembark first, though I stuck around to take photos of the empty first-class cabin. Still, thanks to Global Entry, I cleared immigration and got to baggage claim before the first checked bag dropped.
I waited by the baggage-claim belt for more than 35 minutes until the last bag dropped. As there was no sign of my bag, I figured it was misplaced and approached an Emirates representative. The agent asked if I was a premium passenger. When I said that I was, I was pointed to a nearby area with bags for business- and first-class passengers. Our bags seemingly had bypassed the belt. Although it’s nice in theory to separate premium passengers’ bags for special handling, the lack of signage and communication clearly caused a lot of confusion, judging by the number of unclaimed bags and passengers milling around, looking for their luggage.
Cabin and Seat
The Emirates A380 first-class cabin is arranged with one window suite on either side of the two aisles and two suites together between the aisles. There are three full rows of this 1-2-1 arrangement; the fourth row only has a window suite on either side. That’s a total of 14 suites, all with direct aisle access.
The plush leather seat measures 22 inches between armrests, just four inches wider than economy. For reference on how narrow this is for a first-class seat, the seat in Etihad’s Apartment is 30 inches wide and the Cathay Pacific first-class seat is 36.
The middle seats are best for those traveling with a companion.
However, if you’re traveling alone and get stuck with a middle seat, there’s a substantial privacy divider that can be raised between the two middle suites.
I’ll never turn down the opportunity to select a window seat with aisle access and I prefer to sit in the back of the cabin during review flights, so I chose suite 4K.
I assumed that this seat would be well ahead of the wing, but you might want to select a suite further forward if you don’t like engines in your photos out the window.
The windows have two sets of shades: a privacy shade and a blackout shade. They are operated with buttons under the windows and under the inflight entertainment tablet. Speaking of windows, suites in rows 1 and 4 each have two each and rows 2 and 3 have three.
There are no overhead bins, so you bring all of your carry-on items into the suite with you. The suite doesn’t have a closet or compartment that can hold a large bag. You can store it under the table in the front of the suite and there’s a shelf above and behind this area that can hold a large purse or camera bag.
Below the windows, there’s a narrow but long and deep (4 x 29 x 9 inches) storage area. It was a convenient storage space for my laptop.
Middle seats don’t have this storage area.
The suite’s massive tray table, 27 inches wide by 19 inches deep, folds out of the compartment in front of the minibar at the press of a button. Once in place, it isn’t adjustable, so you have to adjust the seat for comfort.
Farther back in the suite, there’s another storage bin behind the tablet remote that’s irregularly shaped but convenient for storing wallet, passport, phone, GoPro and other items I wanted close at hand.
Still farther back, there are a couple more small storage areas, good to stow the pillows and other bedding materials.
The aisleside armrest can be raised to reveal another storage compartment. At the front of this armrest, there are four quick-access buttons for setting the seat to dining mode, takeoff/landing mode or bed mode and for closing the suite doors.
In addition to the minibar, there are two more compartments stocked with amenities, including the makeup mirror with Byredo amenities.
There’s a drawer with a notebook and a pen.
There are three lights in the suite: a tableside lamp next to the IFE screen, a light next to the suite door and a reading light over your aisleside shoulder. Each is controlled separately and has two brightness levels.
There are two adjustable air vents in the suite, but not overhead as you might expect. There’s one located under the IFE tablet…
…and another over your aisleside shoulder next to a reading light.
The IFE system controls almost any aspect of the suite, from turning on and off lights to adjusting the seat and setting the Do Not Disturb feature.
The Do Not Disturb option doesn’t automatically switch on when the suite doors are closed and it can be active with the suite doors open. So don’t forget to activate DND before heading to sleep and turn it off when you wake up.
Unlike Emirates’ new 777 first-class suites, the A380 suite doors are far shorter than the ceiling of the cabin but tall enough to provide decent privacy.
When the cabin is set to night mode, the first-class ceiling comes alive with “stars.” It was light outside for my entire flight, so these weren’t as glorious as they would be on an overnight flight, but I appreciated the feature.
When the seat is in bed mode, one of the armrests lowers to the level of the bed. That adds about six inches to the width for a total of 28 inches. However, some larger passengers, as I’ve unfortunately become, may still feel the bed isn’t very wide.
The bed is 75 inches long, good for most passengers, but those taller than 6 feet 3 inches will have to bend their knees.
There are two massive lavatories at the front of the cabin.
With only a maximum of 14 first-class passengers, that yields a solid ratio of a lavatory per seven passengers. Keep in mind that both have a shower, and each passenger can reserve a lavatory for up to a 30-minute shower. That doesn’t count the shower preparation and cleaning time, so you may have to wait for a lavatory during busy periods.
If these lavatories are in use, there’s a smaller bathroom in the galley behind the first-class cabin which appears to be shared with the business-class cabin. A perk of this lavatory: You get a view out the window.
Next to the sinks in the first-class lavatories are Voya hand wash and hand soap as well as Bulgari fragrances.
There are also a couple of drawers packed with amenities.
The shower attendant lays out a tray with additional amenities when preparing the lavatory for passengers to take a shower.
This tray includes a dental kit, a loofah, a shaving kit, a nail file, a brush/comb, cotton pads and cotton buds.
Each passenger gets up to five minutes of water, with an indicator on the wall to show you how much water you have left. But you don’t have to finish your shower in just five minutes. You can turn off the water during the shower to lather up and then turn it back on to rinse.
The shower attendant set up the minibar area between the first-class bathrooms as a spa-like relaxation area. Passengers are invited to enjoy a glass of green tea with lemongrass and ginger before returning to their seats.
Amenities and IFE
The massive and crisp 27-inch screen mounted to the wall in front of the seat is the highlight of the inflight entertainment system.
You can lean forward to use the touchscreen, but there’s a much more convenient nine-inch tablet that you can use to control the system, either while it’s stowed or wirelessly. You press a button to unlatch it.
If the tablet is too big for you, there’s another remote in the inside armrest.
This remote is tethered to the armrest and can also be used as a controller for the games built into the IFE system.
You can also use it to call the galley for “room service.”
Emirates’ “ICE” entertainment system is perhaps the best on a plane. It’s loaded with a whopping 668 movies organized into 65 categories and genres. Likewise, there are 271 TV series spanning 24 different categories and a wide range of topics, including a Kitten TV channel. Some Emirates aircraft have a live TV feed, but the aircraft for my flight wasn’t one of them. It’s safe to say that you won’t get bored, no matter how long your trip.
The system is well-organized and responsive. Movies start with three and a half minutes of advertisements. TV shows also generally start with three minutes of ads.
Among the many IFE options and features is the “next seat share,” which lets you sync your system with a neighbor’s and watch the same selection at the same time.
The IFE system includes two different types of rotating airshows and three outside cameras. Perhaps because the video feed is expanded to fit the 27-inch screen, the cameras’ video quality was disappointing.
Three-prong Bowers & Wilkins noise-canceling headphones were stocked at boarding in the aisle-side literature pocket beneath the inflight entertainment screen. They were excellent, and the flight attendants didn’t collect them before landing. They could be used from gate to gate.
The first-class suite has one universal power outlet located in a concealable compartment under the desk lamp.
There are two USB outlets in the front part of the side console but they don’t provide much juice.
At boarding, the suite’s mirror compartment was stocked with a set of Byredo amenities: facial toner, eye cream, towelette, sleep oil and pillow mist.
Flight attendants handed out Bulgari leather amenity kits.
The array of contents included a brush/comb, tissues, deodorant and body spray, an individually-packaged “refreshing towel,” body lotion, eau de cologne, lip balm, after-shave balm, a dental kit and Gentlemen’s Tonic razor and shaving foam.
But wait, there’s more. After sizing up passengers, flight attendants hand out eye masks, slippers and pajamas:
I’m still going to keep my Japan Airlines eye mask but the Emirates pajamas were very comfortable. There were a couple of noteworthy items missing from the kits: earplugs and socks. If these items are critical to a pleasant flight, make sure to bring your own.
When the flight attendants performed the turndown service, they made the bed with a mattress pad, a blanket and a pillow.
When I pressed the call button to ask for an additional pillow, I had my pillow less than 30 seconds after pressing the button.
When it comes to Wi-Fi, prepare to be disconnected. The Wi-Fi connection was decent at the beginning of the flight, but it became unusably slow for the rest of the time. And no, I don’t mean like ground-based Gogo slow. Even well outside the typical Arctic dead zone, it could take up to 20 minutes to do something as simple as sending a text message via data.
The reason for this slowness is clear: The OnAir connection serves an entire A380’s worth of passengers, and every passenger gets two hours of free text messaging and another 20 MB of free data. Plus, first- and business-class passengers who are members of Emirates’ Skywards program get free internet.
Although I was in first class, I wasn’t able to claim a free internet package. When I tried to log in as a first-class passenger, I received the error that “your Skywards number is not entered for your flight today.” Although I had added my Skywards number to my booking online a couple of days before my flight, it seems the Alaska Mileage Plan mileage number replaced it. I had to pay for Wi-Fi.
There were two data-based Wi-Fi packages available for purchase: $15.99 for up to 500 MB or $9.99 for up to 150 MB. I chose a 500 MB package, but I wasn’t able to use even half of it by the time we were descending into LAX.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
Emirates makes sure that no first-class passenger goes hungry or thirsty. At boarding, a snack basket was on the front table in the suite with chips, gourmet popcorn, coffee-coated licorice, hydration tablets, a nut mix, a white chocolate bar and a packet of mints:
Also stocked and ready at boarding: the suite’s signature minibar. With the push of a button, the minibar emerges from its stored position.
You’re not going to get a buzz from this minibar, but don’t worry, the alcohol is free-flowing onboard. Shortly after I sat down, the flight attendant came over to offer a glass of 2008 Dom Pérignon.
And that was followed up with a selection of dates.
Once in the air, a flight attendant served a bowl of nuts with my choice of a drink. As a fan of scotch, I opted for the Johnnie Walker Blue Label.
The star of the drink menu is the Dom Pérignon Vintage 2002 Plénitude 2. The menu notes, “Emirates has been granted unique access to this limited release and is the only airline to serve it on board.” A bottle of this champagne retails for around $300.
More drinks were just a call button away, but first-class passengers can serve themselves from a nice spread of drinks and snacks in the front galley.
The baskets in this minibar were stocked with grab-and-go sandwiches.
However, I wasn’t going to allocate any stomach space to these sandwiches, given the impressive menu.
Emirates doesn’t offer the option to pre-order meals, but you can download the menu for your flight on Emirates’ website. This flight was an all-day affair leaving Dubai in the morning and getting into LAX in the afternoon local time, and the menu reflected this with a range of options from breakfast to dinner entrees.
Here’s a cropped-together version of the main choices from the eight-page menu on my flight:
Don’t worry if you didn’t download the menu. You’ll get a hard copy of the food and drink menus at boarding.
Emirates invites passengers to “experience fine dining whenever the mood takes you” by offering on-demand dining. Any of the menu options are available at almost any time during the flight. Since I had eaten in the lounge in Dubai, I waited a few hours after takeoff to order lunch.
My appetizer was the easiest choice: caviar, of course.
I asked the flight attendant for a drink recommendation to complement the caviar and accepted his suggestion of Grey Goose vodka and a glass of the incredible Dom Perignon Vintage 2002 Plénitude 2.
However, I have to nitpick, in true first-class fashion. First, I was disappointed to see the caviar dished out onto the plate rather than served in the tin. Also, only metal silverware was provided, which I understand to be a faux pas in serving caviar. For reference, both Cathay Pacific and Etihad serve caviar with a mother-of-pearl spoon. So I asked the flight attendant if there was a special spoon with which to eat the caviar. He noted that other passengers have asked him the same thing over the years and that he has submitted this feedback to the airline. But, he apologized, nothing had changed.
As a test of Emirates’ onboard kitchen, I ordered the beef Wellington as my main dish. The filet was cooked to a perfect medium-rare. That’s how I prefer it, but I hadn’t been asked how I wanted it. If you prefer your meat cooked differently, make sure you say so.
One of the unique features of the Emirates A380 aircraft is the bar in the back of the upper deck, which is reserved for business- and first-class passengers.
(And no, the bar isn’t self-serve. I just caught a photo while the bartender stepped away.)
As with the snack bar in the front of first class, there are sandwiches and snacks available in the bar area as well.
Again, I would recommend skipping these options and ordering from the first-class menu. But, for research, I asked for the sushi. The small plate contained just two pieces, making it a nice light bite.
When I returned from my shower, the flight attendants had left a plate of fresh fruit in my suite.
The fruit was a nice touch, but what I really needed was a latte to wake me up. Thankfully, the Emirates A380 has an espresso machine and milk frother and the flight attendant was able to make me a latte, which was served with biscotti.
For my arrival meal, I opted to have another item from the dinner menu: paneer tikka masala. The wonderfully spiced Indian dish was a tasty way to conclude a long day of eating and drinking.
Service was excellent throughout this flight. I was greeted at the boarding door by a flight attendant and shown to my seat. I was addressed by name throughout the flight. And, while remaining professional, my primary flight attendant seamlessly adjusted his service to be more friendly than formal, as I prefer.
In part thanks to my location in the back of the cabin, flight attendants responded immediately to the call button. I clocked the response to one call at just five seconds.
The crew was communicative during the delay at the gate, announcing that some passengers didn’t make the flight and we would be delayed while their bags were removed.
Shortly after takeoff, the purser stopped by my suite to introduce himself. During the conversation, he asked, “You normally fly Qatar, right?” I was puzzled, but he wasn’t wrong; clearly he had researched his passengers’ social media. I’m an American Airlines elite member, so I have flown Qatar, which is American’s partner, frequently.
My primary flight attendant noted that I should let him know what I wanted to drink before going back to the bar in the back of the plane. When I seemed confused, he clarified that the 2002 Dom Pérignon, wines and certain spirits were for first-class passengers only. They want to make these drinks available to first-class passengers at the bar as well, but they need to be specially delivered to the bartender.
When I was ready to visit the bar, I told him I’d like to continue enjoying the Johnnie Walker Blue Label. He collected the nearly-full bottle, which had seemingly only been served to me so far, and followed me back to the bar.
Before heading back up, he confirmed that this would be a good time for him to turn down my bed. I returned to a suite set up for a nap.
Emirates first class is an amazing experience, yet I left both satisfied and a tad disappointed. My overall impression might be summed up best by my response to the survey that popped up on the IFE screen on arrival.
From the first-class lounge in Dubai that takes up an entire terminal floor to an enclosed, gilded suite on board, Emirates first class is as glitzy as it gets. Along with the Etihad Residence and Etihad Apartments, it’s one of just three products that offer a shower in the sky. Emirates’ onboard bar is an experience like no other.
However, some aspects were disappointing.
Measuring just 22 inches between armrests, the Emirates A380 first-class seat is barely wider than the economy seats in the same aircraft. Emirates packs four suites and two aisles into the A380 upper deck, compared with Etihad and Singapore’s new suites that only have one aisle with a suite on each side. The lack of space on Emirates is noticeable.
Also, some soft touches fell flat. The experience of arriving at the airport and taking 25 minutes to get to the lounge didn’t measure up to the level of luxury in the first-class lounge and on board. Further, first-class passengers should be given the option of boarding first or last. I should not have been trying to board at the start of boarding time and end up being the last passenger to arrive on the upper deck.
And yes, I’m going to bring up the caviar again. Although it’s truly a first-class problem, Emirates should know better than to serve caviar with a metal spoon. It’s concerning to hear from a flight attendant that he’s passed along requests from other first-class passengers but nothing has changed.
Some travelers are happy to completely disconnect in flight, but there are other passengers who either need to stay connected or want to work on a long flight to or from the Middle East. With the Wi-Fi on this flight unusable for long times, these passengers are going to be very frustrated. Emirates needs to improve the Wi-Fi connection.
With all that said, Emirates first class is a truly incredible experience and one that I’d recommend to anyone who has the miles or cash to try for themselves.
All photos by the author.
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