Going for gold: A review of Emirates’ new premium economy cabin on the Airbus A380

Dec 15, 2021

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It’s been years in the making, but Emirates’ newest cabin — premium economy — has finally made its grand debut, and I had the chance to experience it flying from New York-JFK to Dubai (DXB) this past week.

Premium economy as a booking category has increased in popularity across the airline industry in recent years thanks to more spacious seats and better amenities than you’ll find in coach at a more economical buy-up than splurging for a lie-flat business-class pod.

Emirates first formally announced its plans to launch premium economy cabins back in 2018. At the time, the airline’s president, Sir Tim Clark, confirmed the long-standing speculation that the carrier would introduce a fourth cabin on its jets (in addition to economy, business class and the airline’s vaunted first class), but did not provide any additional details about the product itself.

Fast-forward to the end of December 2020, when Emirates finally took the wrapping off its new premium economy product, becoming the first (and only) major Gulf carrier to offer these cabins.

Ever since the big reveal, I’ve been keen to try out the new seats and service. Would it become the world’s new best premium economy, much like the airline has done with its “game-changer” first-class cabin? Would it just feel like a slightly upgraded version of coach?

Nearly a year after the first premium economy cabins began flying on Emirates, I finally had the opportunity to put the new product to the test. Here’s what it was like.

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In This Post

Routes and availability

Initially, Emirates planned to install premium economy on just six of its newest Airbus A380s. Citing strong passenger demand, though, the rollout recently got significantly more aggressive.

In mid-November 2021, the airline unveiled plans to retrofit 105 more wide-body jets with the new premium economy cabins. This includes 52 additional Airbus A380 double-deckers, as well as 53 Boeing 777s. (The airline is also “considering” installing a new business-class cabin in a 1-2-1 configuration on its 777s during the premium economy retrofits.)

The retrofits will commence at the end of 2022 and are scheduled to last nearly 18 months.

Until the first batch of planes undergoes that process, however, you’ll find Emirates’ premium economy cabins on just six Airbus A380s with the following registration codes:

  • A6-EVN.
  • A6-EVO.
  • A6-EVP.
  • A6-EVQ.
  • A6-EVR.
  • A6-EVS.
(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

While plans can change at any moment, especially during the pandemic, Emirates is consistently deploying these jets on select frequencies between Dubai and Frankfurt (FRA), London Heathrow (LHR), New York-JFK and Paris (CDG).

To see if your flight will be operated by a plane equipped with premium economy, take a look at the seat map, either through ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) or directly on the Emirates website.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

If you notice a 2-4-2 configuration for rows 33 through 40 on the lower deck, then you’ve identified a flight operated by one of the new A380s with premium economy.

As for booking a seat in this cabin, well, that’s a whole other story.

Booking

For now, snagging a premium economy seat is a bit confusing. Emirates doesn’t currently sell a distinct premium economy fare, so you’ll need to purchase (or redeem miles for) a standard economy ticket, and then upgrade your seat.

In my case, I purchased a one-way coach itinerary from New York-JFK to Dubai for $1,105.60, booked using TPG’s Centurion Business Card from American Express, which offers a 50% rebate on points redeemed toward paid travel.

The information for the Centurion card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

I could’ve redeemed 62,500 Emirates Skywards miles for the same ticket, or used miles with one of Emirates’ partners: 45,000 Qantas Frequent Flyer miles or 27,500 JAL Mileage Bank miles, assuming I had enough miles in either program.

After ticketing the reservation, I immediately went to Emirates.com to manage my booking and browse the seat map.

Premium economy seats were going for $409 each, on top of whatever fare you paid.

(Screenshot courtesy of Emirates)

Interestingly, Emirates sells two different types of premium economy seats: an aisle or window in a couple configuration, or an aisle or middle in the center of the cabin.

For my flight, the prices for each were the exact same — $409 — but I imagine that Emirates could soon start charging more for those on the sides of the plane without any middle seats.

As a point of reference, Emirates was charging $150 for an extra-legroom seat in the standard coach cabin and $49 for a preferred seat located toward the front of the coach cabin.

For an additional $259 above an extra-legroom coach seat, I’d say that upgrading to premium economy is a compelling value. There’s more space in the exclusive 56-seat cabin, and I wouldn’t hesitate to make the splurge again.

Of course, Emirates’ revenue management strategy will likely evolve as the airline equips more of its fleet with premium economy cabins. Most major carriers — including the Big Three in the U.S. — offer completely different fares for premium economy, which come with some additional benefits like an expanded checked baggage allowance, priority boarding and mileage-earning bonuses.

For now, premium economy on Emirates confers nothing more than a much better seat than in economy.

Ground experience

My time with Emirates began on a warm winter night at JFK’s Terminal 4.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

The airline’s check-in counters in Row 7 were easy to find thanks to the airline’s signature red branding, which was emblazoned on the display screens.

I quickly approached the counters, only to find that priority access was reserved for those booked in either first or business class, along with the airline’s elite frequent flyers.

Those booked in premium economy needed to wait in the standard coach line. Fortunately, with just eight passengers in front of me, it didn’t take long to process my check-in, which required just a quick glance at my negative PCR results along with my passport.

There were plenty of Emirates-branded plastic luggage tags available at each counter, a nice touch relative to the flimsy paper tags you often find at the airport.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

With my boarding pass in hand, the next task was clearing security. Emirates participates in the TSA PreCheck program, and Clear also has kiosks in Terminal 4, making the security process a breeze with this dynamic duo.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

The line I would’ve otherwise needed to wait in snaked around multiple times, which is par for the course at JFK’s Terminal 4.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Premium economy tickets don’t confer any lounge access (at least not yet). Emirates was selling one-time passes to its JFK lounge for $100 during the online check-in process, but I passed.

(Screenshot courtesy of Emirates)

Instead of heading straight to the gate, I briefly stopped in the American Express Centurion Lounge, which is located just past the security checkpoint on the east side of the concourse.

I reviewed the lounge during my first-look tour, but it made for a very pleasant stop before my flight.

Despite the in-app capacity indicator noting that the lounge was “very busy,” both levels were eerily quiet and downright peaceful — I counted just over 25 people in total.

Bar service was available until 8 p.m., and the buffet closed shortly thereafter at 8:30 p.m., 30 minutes before the lounge closed for the night altogether.

I enjoyed a few bites to eat (the spicy lentil soup was my favorite) and made a stop at the hidden 1850 speakeasy downstairs before making my way to the gate.

I arrived at Gate A6 well before boarding was scheduled to begin at 9:20 p.m. The gate area was well organized, with most passengers waiting comfortably in their seats.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

The four pilots and 24 crew members were huddled around the gate, waiting for our aircraft, a one-year-old Airbus A380 registered A6-EVP, to be tugged to its parking position from the apron. (A late-departing Singapore Airlines Airbus A350 delayed boarding by a few minutes.)

Once the A380 arrived, it didn’t take long for the crew to perform their safety checks — the plane had already been serviced and catered while parked on the apron.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Boarding ultimately began on time. Those embarking at the gate were invited to enter the plane from Door ML1, while those enjoying Emirates’ lounge could board directly onto the upper deck.

Cabin and seat

From the moment I stepped on board, it was immediately clear that Emirates’ premium economy cabin was a cut above the rest.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

I caught my first glimpse of the cabin once I peeked into the plane — the 56 recliners spanned the entire forward cabin on the main deck between the first and second exit doors.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Seats were arranged in an industry-standard 2-4-2 with the first three rows in a 2-2 configuration just on the sides of the aircraft due to the cutout from the staircase (that led to airplane heaven — Emirates first class).

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

The remaining five rows were nearly identical, with a more spacious feeling thanks to the tall ceilings and open layout of the jet’s lower deck. Unlike some business- and first-class cabins, there were overhead bins above every seat.

The seats themselves were some of the most visually appealing recliners I’ve seen to date. With cream-colored, textured leather and matching seatbelts to boot, sitting in one felt like I was behind the wheel of a German sports car.

Plus, the ghaf tree (the national tree of the United Arab Emirates) motifs on the bulkhead and the walls of the fuselage and lavatories created a sense of peacefulness throughout the cabin.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

And it wasn’t style over substance, either. These were also the most comfortable premium economy recliners I’ve experienced to date.

Each featured 8 inches of recline — so generous that I needed to play a game of human Tetris to use the restroom when the sleeping person in front of me was reclined to the fullest.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

I measured 38 inches of pitch at my aisle seat (Emirates advertises it as up to 40 inches).

The seat cushion measured 19.5 inches wide, and the seatback was 21 inches at its widest.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Combined with the six-way adjustable winged headrest, getting comfortable in these recliners was a breeze.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

The one downside to cream-colored leather is that it’s prone to staining. Emirates claims that the material is anti-stain, but I found some pen marks on the seat next to me — not exactly the wear-and-tear you want to see on a 1-year-old jet.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

While Emirates added plenty of bells and whistles to its new premium economy cabin, my personal favorite feature was the padded calf rest at each seat that provided excellent support for my legs during the flight.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

The calf rest could be stored and unlocked using the manual control built into the armrest, and it could then be raised or lowered by hand. The one downside to the calf rest was that its maximum height was fixed — I wished that I could’ve raised it maybe 6 more inches to add even more support for my legs.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Each seat (except for those at the bulkhead) also had a retractable metal footrest.

Altogether, these comfort enhancements made it easier to catch some shut-eye during the flight. I definitely didn’t sleep as well as I would’ve on a lie-flat bed on the upper deck — but I didn’t expect to either.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

After all, this product was designed as a middle ground between coach and business. And one thing is for certain: I slept better than I would’ve in coach.

(It also helped that Emirates’ signature starry sky with dark blue mood lighting was illuminated for most of the flight.)

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

While the seats were very comfortable, the biggest drawback in my estimation was the lack of personal storage.

There was a small, shallow cubby built into the armrest, along with an exposed lip underneath the television to store loose belongings, like an AirPods case or a watch.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

There was also a second small cubby underneath the center console, but it wasn’t large enough for anything more than a bottle of water.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

The bi-fold tray table, which measured 16 inches wide and 10 inches long, popped out from the armrest. It was made from polished wood — a nice touch that you might expect to find in business class rather than economy.

The tray table could be moved forward and backward, and it was just large enough for my 13-inch MacBook Pro.

There was also a small 6-inch-by-6-inch cocktail table built into the armrest, which was well positioned for placing a bottle of water during the flight.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

None of the armrests could be raised or lowered (even those at the aisle without a tray table inside), making it a bit harder to get in and out of the seat, especially for those seated in a middle place.

Another business class-like touch was the fancy electronic window shades with wood-grain paneling, which helped add to the luxurious vibe. (I also appreciated that there weren’t any seats missing windows throughout the cabin.)

Due to the plane’s curvature, the window seats weren’t flush with the fuselage. While some people enjoy resting their heads against the cabin walls, it would be nearly impossible to do so in this cabin without needing a massage (or two) when you landed.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

While the bones of each seat were largely identical, some were better than others.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

If you’re looking for the utmost privacy, be sure to select one of the twin seats in the first three rows. Note, however, that the light spillover from the lavatories and cockpit at the front of the plane could be bothersome, especially since there weren’t any cabin dividers in the forward galley.

Additionally, the purser’s office was built into the staircase, and the door was directly adjacent to seat 34C, another possible distraction for those trying to sleep.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

I’d be especially careful about choosing the bulkhead. While there was nearly limitless legroom, these areas were some of the most heavily trafficked by the crew going up and down the stairs, as well as by passengers using the lavatory.

The seatback entertainment monitors were built into the bulkhead wall for the couple seats, and they popped out from between each seat for those in the center bulkhead section.

More than anything, I’d recommend avoiding the last row. It reclines directly into the passageway between aisles, and it’s practically next to the exit doors and crew jump seats.

Even though there were galley curtains at the back, the crew barely used them on my flight, making for a decidedly un-premium experience for those in the rear of the cabin due to the noise, light and general activity back there.

Another consideration when selecting your seat is under-seat storage. There was an entertainment box located under each aisle seat along the side of the plane that restricted legroom and storage.

While I’d always try avoiding a middle seat, these ones were particularly tight — there was no divider between the under-seat storage area, and the placement of the foot-support bar greatly restricted legroom and storage as well.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

The premium economy cabin had three lavatories — each with a wood-grain toilet seat, no less — located at the front of the premium economy cabin. Two were next to each other on the starboard side, and one larger one was located just outside the armored cockpit door.

Note that these lavatories weren’t accessible as it required climbing some stairs to reach them.

Thankfully, the airline installed individual air nozzles above each seat so passengers could adjust the temperature to their needs.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

With spacious seats, generous recline and comfortable calf rests, Emirates offers one of, if not the, best “hard” products of any premium economy cabin currently flying.

Food and beverage

The major aspect of the Emirates premium economy experience that did not feel upgraded was the food and beverage service.

Emirates catered the exact same meals in premium economy as it did in the economy cabin. The only difference was that premium economy passengers were served first.

The food itself was above average for what you’d traditionally receive on a long-haul coach flight on a U.S. airline, but it still fell short of being “premium.”

For one, there were no printed menus — the dishes were instead listed on a digital card (warning: PDF) accessible by using the plane’s Wi-Fi network. The portions weren’t any larger than in coach, nor were there additional options for those seated in premium economy.

It was a choice between a meat or vegetarian main for each meal. I selected the latter for both dinner and brunch, and I really enjoyed the flavor of the Indian-style dishes, especially the hearty gobi masala with basmati rice for dinner.

Dinner was served just as we hit our initial cruising altitude of 37,000 feet, and the trays were collected about 30 minutes later.

During the middle of the flight — right as we passed over the U.K. — flight attendants passed through the aisle with a greasy (but delicious) treat, four-cheese pizza.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Finally, brunch was served 90 minutes before landing. I did not enjoy the scrambled cottage cheese with stuffed flatbread and corn-and-potato patties with tomato chutney, but the Greek yogurt with granola was light and filling enough.

All meal services were completed with carts, and everything was served using plasticware, just like in coach.

In between meals, there was a small snack basket in the galley, consisting of 60-calorie packs of Rold Gold pretzels, as well as bite-size Milky Way bars.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Emirates served a full assortment of wines, beers and spirits, as well as Pepsi-branded nonalcoholic drinks during each meal. The options weren’t listed on the menu, nor were there any specialty cocktails or drinks available for those in premium economy. Water bottles weren’t distributed to premium economy passengers either.

 

While the food itself was tasty, Emirates hasn’t yet debuted a tailored culinary experience for this cabin. For now, don’t expect anything more than glorified economy food for your premium economy flight.

Notably, premium economy doesn’t confer access to the onboard bar and lounge at the back of the Emirates A380. That’s reserved for business- and first-class flyers.

Amenities and inflight entertainment

Emirates cabins typically offer some top-notch amenities, and premium economy is no exception.

To start, each seat was equipped with a 13.3-inch high-definition touchscreen entertainment monitor loaded with the airline’s award-winning ICE (information, communication and entertainment) inflight entertainment system.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

The screen itself swiveled upward (but not downward), which was great for taller passengers (and unfortunate for children).

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

I noticed a small hole punch centered at the top of each screen. Turns out, the entertainment monitors were equipped with a selfie camera, though the functionality has been disabled, according to the flight crew.

ICE seems to have something for everyone. Whether you’re looking for a new release or trying to catch up on your favorite TV show, the system offers over 4,500 channels of content.

You can even preview what’s loaded on the system before your flight on Emirates’ website, but this aviation enthusiast has a one-track mind; for me, it’s all about the tail-mounted camera and the Voyager 3D airshow.

While Emirates claims that ICE on the new A380 features Bluetooth connectivity (to pair with AirPods and other wireless headphones), I couldn’t find that option anywhere on the menu — perhaps it’s still in beta testing.

Instead, I needed to use the flimsy two-pronged headphones that Emirates provided (the same as you’d find in coach) to enjoy the content.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

The most notable amenity upgrade was the connectivity boost on Emirates’ new A380. The airline has long offered Wi-Fi internet access on its jets, but it’s historically been slow and borderline unusable at times, at least from my experience.

The enhanced OnAir network installed on the new A380s with premium economy delivered on the promise of “higher speeds.” I measured upload and download speeds of nearly 1 Mbps and 9 Mbps, respectively.

I also appreciated that Emirates charged for internet based on time, without a data cap. A full-flight pass cost $19.99 — a good value for a 12-hour flight. (It’d be great if the airline considered adding discounts for premium economy passengers going forward.)

(Screenshot courtesy of Emirates)

To keep my devices charged, I used the USB-A and USB-C ports located at the bottom left corner of the ICE entertainment screen.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Most puzzling, however, was that Emirates decided to install only one universal AC outlet for every two premium economy seats. For a brand-new product designed in recent years, this move had me scratching my head.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Flight attendants passed through the cabin handing out essentials kits to passengers during boarding. They contained flimsy eye masks, disposable socks, toothbrushes and earplugs, as well as packs of stickers to indicate if you wanted to be woken up for meals or whether you’d prefer to sleep.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Waiting at each seat during boarding was a pillow and light blanket, both of which were larger (and more comfortable) than the ones found in coach.

The only other amenities on offer were a plastic-wrapped surgical mask and a 25-milliliter bottle of hand sanitizer, which were distributed along with the essentials kit.

Until Emirates formally rolls out an enhanced amenity offering for premium economy, those seated in the fancy recliners will just receive many of the same goods as those in coach.

Service

The Emirates premium economy experience didn’t include any additional luxuries compared to coach — but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The flight attendants serving the premium economy cabin were the same as those serving the passengers in economy.

While the airline could stand to differentiate its premium economy catering from the offerings in coach, the flight attendants themselves were some of the friendliest I’ve had to date. Perhaps that was due to the light load upfront — just 18 of the 56 recliners were occupied, even after three last-minute onboard upgrades were processed.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

When there are unsold seats, Emirates usually offers upgrades on the plane. On my flight, the airline was selling premium economy seats for 1,500 United Arab Emirates dirhams, or $409 — the same cost as if you purchased the seat before the flight. In contrast, business-class upgrades were going for $2,080.

When the crew noticed me taking lots of pictures, they didn’t ask me to stop – rather, they offered to show me around the aircraft and take my picture throughout the flight.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Additionally, the crew continually refreshed the lavatories and answered the flight attendant call button in no more than two minutes.

While it’d be great for Emirates to offer additional service and “soft” touches for premium economy passengers, including hot towels and real glassware, at least the flight attendants were some of the warmest and most diligent I’ve had on a flight to date.

Bottom line

Emirates’ new premium economy cabin has officially debuted on six of the airline’s newest Airbus A380s.

Thanks to spacious seats with high-end finishes, ergonomic touches like calf rests and a generous recline, the new premium economy seats are some of the best that I’ve experienced.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

While the “hard” product is a very compelling upgrade compared to economy for a much more reasonable cost than business, Emirates shouldn’t rest on its laurels.

If it wants to win the title of “world’s best premium economy,” Emirates needs to design a service concept that’s uniquely premium, whether that means investing in additional food and beverage options, fancy table settings with glassware or an upgraded amenity kit.

The good news is that, along with the upcoming retrofit program, the airline has already promised that premium economy will become “a distinctive Emirates experience that is unmatched in the industry.”

Whatever that means, I’ll be interested to find out.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy.

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