Monday, October 04, 2021

adding it all up

I confess. As a card-carrying sceptic, I am not often beguiled by advertising hype.

But it does happen.

For four years now, I have read the rave notices of the first-class suites on Emirates. "World's best first class." "A flying resort." "No other airline comes close."

There is a price to pay for such lofty accommodations. If I had had to pay for Tokyo-Dubai-Los Angeles flight I just completed, my savings account would have been depleted by the cost of a used car -- $18,000 (US). Instead, I used my Alaska Airline miles and was treated to the experience afforded Arab sheiks.*

So, was it worth it? Was it worth challenging The Virus Lottery to fly around the world in two days -- just to experience the Emirates treatment? Let's take a look.

First, we need some context. I was flying on an airplane. It was not a resort. It was not a luxury hotel room. It was not a private dining room at Pujol in Mexico City.

Airplanes are designed to get people from A to B. All of the rest is simply to distract passengers that they are hurtling through space in an aluminum tube at just below the speed of sound.

My trip, of course, was not to go from A to B. Mine was a stunt to circle the globe in two days without leaving the confines of an airport or airplane -- and to end up where I started.

It is those "distractions" that make the Emirates experience unusual. There is the suite itself, the bed in the suite, the food, the entertainment, the bathrooms, and the extras. So, let's get started.

The Suite

For several years now first-class cabins on international flights have become more comfortable to loosen up the wallets of people who value ease more than saving up for their children's education. Emirates goes one step further. First-class cabin passengers do not get just a seat; they get a suite.

The doors on both sides of the entry close to give an almost womb-like experience. For me, that is perfect. When I fly, I have no interest in chatting up the person sitting next to me. I usually have to work to do, and the privacy afforded by the suite is a perfect match for me -- especially in the suites along the windows. If a couple is traveling together, the center seats have a partition that can be lowered to make a double suite.

Let me confess to one quibble. The mix of golds and purple were a bit garish. Especially, after just getting off of a Japan Airlines flight with its understated decor. When I sat down,this is what greeted me.

Pleasant enough. But a little gaudy and cluttered for my taste. As I said, it was a quibble.

The leather seat, on the other hand, was Goldilocks perfect. There was nothing particularly outstanding about it. It was simply a chair that did what chairs should do on long-range flights. "Long-range" in this instance was 11 hours from Tokyo to Dubai and 16 hours from Dubai to Los Angeles. 

Some critics have pointed out that the seat is not much wider than a business-class seat, and that the seats on Cathay Pacific are 50% wider. I like the Cathay Pacific seats, but this seat was fine for me. I do not need to do my Edith Anne impression on an airplane.

One nice touch was a soft drink bar on the console next to the enclosure for a very functional table.

It was convenient to have the water and Perrier at hand in the cabin. That kept me from bothering the very attentive flight attendants. (On the Tokyo-Dubai leg, I was the sole passenger in the first-class cabin, so service was no problem. The purser and I had long talks about Indian cooking.)

Emirates has adopted a service policy similar to Cathay Pacific's. The flight attendants do not constantly pester passengers as if they were eating pie in an Edmonton cafe. Passengers who want anything (another blanket, dinner, tea) merely push a service button and a flight attendant appears as quickly as a genie.

The Bed

Because both flights covered a series of time zones, the bed proved to be one of the handiest aspects of the suite. When I was ready to sleep, I rang the above-mentioned service button to request the conversion of my seat into a bed, slipped down the hallway to don my Emirates-provided pajamas, and, when I returned, I was greeted by my new nest.

There was no good way to get a shot of the entire bed because of its length. But here is the other half.

I usually do not sleep on airplanes. I never have been able to do that -- even in first and business class. That was not true on the flight to Japan. Even though we flew through perpetual afternoon (welcome to eternal tomorrowland), I slept for several hours. 

The same was true for the 16-hour Dubai-Los Angeles flight. I slept for seven hours during the day without having the bed made up. I thought I was going to take a short nap. But the bed was so comfortable, I got what for me was a full night's sleep -- of five hours. The ability to sleep was without doubt the best advantage of the suite.

The Food

On most airlines, the food is purposely designed to give passengers something to break the boredom. And the food is no better than meeting that purpose.

International flights in first class have taken a different turn. The airlines have hired executive chefs from some of the best restaurants to design their menus to include foods that travel well from the kitchen to the aircraft and then to the passenger's table.

Let's start with a given. No one flies for the food, though, during the height of The Virus, there were stories of grounded passengers paying hundreds of dollars to enjoy a meal that would usually be served to passengers in first class. I have never been that fond of in-flight meals.

I wrote earlier that the Japan Airlines business-class meal was one of the better efforts I have had in the air. And I will say the same thing for Emirates.

The airline certainly knows how to set a table.

Especially, when the first course is caviar -- on both flights.

The caviar on the Tokyo leg was followed by a bento box of sushi.

You will probably not be surprised to discover that it was not as good as the sushi on the JAL flight.

Perhaps the most pedestrian meal on the flights was a mushroom omelet. But, I am not fond of omelets on the ground.

But the accompaniments were fine. And the other breakfast (a beef stir-fry) helped redeem the omelet experience.

For me, the home run meal was a combination plate of Mahshi (eggplant and cabbage stuffed with ground lamb) and grilled lamb. I enjoy lamb, but it can be a disaster if not prepared properly.

I have eaten Mahshi only once before. But it has plenty of cousin cuisines. Think stuffed cabbage. For all of the ways this dish could have been a miss, it was quite good.

"Quite good" is high praise where airplane food is concerned. After all, Alain Ducasse may be the executive chef, but he is not in the galley with the flight attendants acting as sous-chefs while he whips up each individual dish.

The food is cooked on land and then warmed-up on the airplane. It is essentially left-overs. The fact that some of it can be "quite good" is actually a huge compliment for the people who have to plan out how to make the meal acceptable under the circumstances. Throw in the added effect that eating in a pressurized cabin at high altitudes has on taste buds, it is a wonder the operation works at all.

The Entertainment

Some people are enthralled of the entertainment systems on aircraft. Movies. Music. Television programs. I seldom indulge. I can never find a movie I want to watch, and it is periodically overridden by in-flight announcements. The audio quality of the music is painful. I abandoned television 30 years ago.

But I do use the entertainment system. The first option I look for is the flight information map. Emirates system was picture perfect.

I suppose it is the aged pilot in me. But I like to pretend that I am watching the instruments as we fly along. In truth, I just like maps.

On the Dubai-Los Angeles trip, we flew a polar route that took us over Iran and Russia. I did not bother watching for missiles. What would be the purpose?

The shot I took here is the moment we crossed directly over the north pole. I did not see Santa. But, then, I did not see Ayatollah Khamenei or President Putin, either. But I knew they were there.

The Bathroom

Most people would list their airplane bathroom experiences on their Horrors of My Life list. Not so, on Emirates. 

The Tokyo-Dubai leg was on a Boeing 777. The leg to Los Angeles was on an Airbus 380. The distinction is important.

The bathrooms on the 777 were fine. But the bathrooms on the 380 are something to write home about. Or to write to you about.

First, they were as well-appointed as anything you would expect to find in a Palm Springs country club.

But they were far more than that. Think spa-size.

The room is so cleverly-designed, it took me a moment to find the subtly-designed toilet.

But it is the other half of the room that is the prize feature.

Yup. A shower. It is possible to book the bathroom for a shower. The room is yours for 30 minutes and you can take a shower of 5 minutes. That was plenty of time for me. I used about 3 minutes -- just as if I were at home.

Showers are not unique to Emirates. They are also on Cathay Pacific trans-Pacific flights. That does not take away from the fact that it is a great amenity. Arriving refreshed after a 16-hour flight is a luxury.

Speaking of luxuries, Emirates has several nice touches for their first-class passengers.

A waterfall greets them as they enter the first-class section of the 380 -- offering a zen moment. The fight staff change the arrangement during the flight.

Orchids are placed strategically around the cabin. At the waterfall. In the bathrooms. At each seat.

If a passenger feels the need to refresh makeup or to just check out the ravages of life's scars left on the face, there is a vanity mirror with special creams.

Speaking of amenities, Emirates gives a bag of assorted doodads to each first-class passenger. And I mean lots.

Of which, I used none.

Nor did I use the provided Bowers and Wilkins headphones. See my earlier comment about the audio quality of the music provided onboard. The headphones are very good. The problem is that even the best headphones cannot make up for highly-compressed digital audio. 

And, if you are so inclined to write notes (as I was), Emirates provides a complimentary leather-bound notebook with a free pen that does not work after 12 seconds. Does any free pen last long?

And, of course, first-class passengers are entitled to use any of the Emirates First-Class Lounges. The one in Dubai is not only huge (it fills the upper half of the terminal), but it is filled with spaces where passengers can escape the hubbub of the terminal.

Because of The Virus, the lounge at Narita was closed. I missed its refuge.

So, there you have it. Eleven hours flying from Los Angeles to Tokyo to experience flying first-class on Emirates.

Was it worth the effort? Did Emirates live up to the hype?

I guess I do not know the answer to that question. I started this journey to have a travel adventure. And I did have one. Going around the world in two days is something not everyone has done.

And, frankly, if I were to whinge about my hours flying with Emirates on this trip, I would expect to be labeled as a First-world whiner. And I would deserve the label. 

My bottom line is that I had a great time. I can now say that I have flown in one of Emirates' suites.

Would I do it again? I know I will not be able to use my Alaska air miles because Emirates is not a OneWorld alliance partner with Alaska. That means if I wanted to fly that same route again, I would pay $18,000 (US). I doubt I will do that soon.

But, if you have the opportunity to fly on one of its routes, Emirates offers an experience you will long remember.

Now, for those of you who are concerned about flying to Mexico because of The Virus, I just flew around the world and was in three of the hottest virus spots. I survived. The chances are you will as well.

Get back into those airline seats. The world is waiting with adventures on offer. 

*-- Actually, that comparison is dated. Most wealthy Arabs these days fly in their own or chartered executive jets, leaving the rest of us to imagine we are something we are not. 

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