Despite my sometimes questionably fierce loyalty to the oneworld alliance, there are occasions where I find myself “sleeping with the enemy”. Those little moments of weakness typically happen when I’m traipsing around southeast Asia and get the urge for a little change of scenery. This area of the globe is filled with one of my favorite airline quirks – fifth freedom flights. With a multitude of unique airlines offering relatively cheap, short flights between major cities within southeast Asia, a fantastic opportunity arises for interested travelers to book tickets on carriers they normally wouldn’t have an opportunity to fly on.
This was the case for yours truly a few months back when I found myself flying into Hong Kong (HKG) on a cheap ticket I’d purchased. While HKG is an amazing, dynamic city to spend a few days in, over the years I’ve ended up spending quite a bit of time there.
Prior to departing on this trip I hopped on to the internet and started looking at some inexpensive options out of HKG. Lo and behold, Emirates (EK) was offering very reasonably priced flights to Bangkok (BKK) on their A380 in business class. While Emirates isn’t a member of the oneworld alliance and there is no opportunity for me to credit the flight back toward my AAdvantage account, the chance to fly on a carrier like Emirates in business class on their much lauded A380 product was too good to pass up, especially at the price point I saw before me.
Before I knew it I had whipped my credit card out and booked myself a one way flight from HKG – BKK on an airline I had heard quite a bit of chatter about but never actually flown.
Having landed the night before from Tokyo on a Japan Airlines flight in economyand catching a much needed night of sleep, accessing the airport was a rather simple five minute walk from the lobby of the attached Regal Airport Hotel.
Luckily I arrived just as the Emirates agents were opening their stations for check-in. I had feared that there might be a substantial line of passengers waiting to check-in for the flight, but it all proved to be unfounded as I was one of the very first passengers to check-in for the flight through the designated business class lane. The agent was efficient though a bit cold. She smiled while asking me where I was headed and tagging my luggage, but I couldn’t help but feel like she was going through the motions a bit. Regardless, I had the golden ticket to EK’s business class cabin in my hand, so the tepid reception I’d received was quickly forgotten.
As I headed toward the security checkpoint I couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief that I had booked a business class ticket as I looked back and saw that a large line had already formed for the economy class check-in, many of whom seemed to have packed their entire house for the trip.
The lounge is located at the top of an escalator near the United and Thai Royal Silk lounges. Checking in was a breeze and the agent was much more friendly than her counterpart who provided me with my boarding pass. I was welcomed into the facility with a big smile and told to enjoy myself. My first thoughts upon entering the lounge? I was struck by how small it was.
Emirates has such a reputation for extravagence that I suppose I was destined to be disappointed by the lounge, regardless of how nicely appointed the space was. No bedazzled belly dancer throwing fistfuls of Cuban cigars from a trapeze bar? No edible liquid gold fountain to dip my cheesecake squares into? No team of muscular men to transport me to my private suite on a golden litter while svelte Russian supermodels throw rose petals in the air? WHERE’S THE GRANDEUR!?
Back in reality, my overall assessment of EK’s HKG lounge is that the space is adequate but rather lackluster. The pictures above pretty much show the entirety of the space. After leaving the check-in desk you make your way through a short hallway and enter the space shown. To your right is an area designed for lounging while having a conversation, watching television, or working on your computer. Chairs arranged around low coffee tables are the name of the game. To the left is a dining area with a hot food buffet and a beverage bar set up against the wall. There are also a few islands positioned off the wall featuring cold food and desserts. In front of the food and beverage area is an open space with dining tables and chairs. At the edge of the lounge overlooking the departure area below was a countertop with chairs, and this is where I settled in.
As I hinted at above, the size of the lounge was adequate for the amount of passengers that seemed to be on this particular flight, but hardly spacious. As I would later learn, my flight to BKK was very lightly booked in business class, so I can only imagine the lounge with a few dozen more passengers. It’s clear that a fully loaded A380 could cause the lounge to become overcrowded and quite uncomfortable. The furniture and decorations around the lounge were in good shape and very clean, though there was hardly anything that stood out in the lounge as distinct or particularly appealing on an aesthetic level.
Feeling a bit of hunger, I hopped over to the food and beverage area to survey the offerings. I started to browse the offerings and pulled out my iPhone to snap a few photos when a very polite and apologetic member of staff dashed up to me and told me that photography was not permitted. As a certified goodie two-shoes, I obliged the request and put my phone away. I did get a little rebellious just prior to boarding and snapped a few pictures, hence the rather low quality, blurry pictures of the lounge you see above.
While the furniture and space failed to impress me, the food offerings were definitely a step above what I’ve seen in many other lounges. The food on deck was a nice mix of Asian, Indian, and Middle Eastern cuisine. From the cold food island I ended up walking away with a tabbouleh salad, lo mein noodles, and a chickpea patty topped with shrimp.
The noodles and the chickpea pattie were quite good. It took a few bites into the tabbouleh salad for me to remember that I hate tabbouleh salad and had made an awful decision. If one is a fan of that particular food product, you’re a fool, but I’m sure you’ll find it quite lovely.
I had much better luck with the hot food offerings. I again walked away with a small trio of offerings – a chickpea pattie with harissa, curry chicken, and a stewed ginger beef. All three offerings were flavorful and spiced correctly. For those with a temperamental stomach rest assured that both the harissa and curry sauce where rather mild and friendly for Western palates.
One island near the food and beverage area was devoted entirely to desserts. Normally I’d pole vault over slower lounge patrons on my way to the dessert buffet, but sadly Emirates seems to skew their offerings heavily in favor of chocolate lovers. Considering my rocky relationship with chocolate and the hives it gives me, I decided to steer clear of the whole dessert buffet and sadly cannot give you any thoughts on the quality. If it helps, they looked delicious.
SEAT AND IFE
Boarding was announced in the lounge and soon the great exodus of passengers started. Luckily our flight was departing from a gate that was relatively close to the lounge, so the commute was short and sweet.
By the time I arrived at the gate boarding had already started. There was a bit of a swarm of folks waiting to hop on this behemoth of a bird, but the HKG Emirates staff did a great job of keeping the priority lanes cleared for first and business class passengers. My boarding pass was scanned and I was directed down the jetbridge where an Emirates flight attendant (FA) was waiting to greet me. A quick smile, a hand gesture, and short walk later I was standing in front of the seat I’d occupy for our quick hop to BKK. I looked around and took in the sight of the cabin, and marveled for a bit that I was on the second floor of a double decker airplane. This wasn’t my first time on an A380, but the novelty has yet to wear off on me.
My first impression of the seat? “How the hell do I get into this thing!?”
Let me elaborate….
EK’s business class cabin on the A380 is laid out in a 1-2-1 format, and I had selected a single seat over the wing since I’m a bit of a window-loving freak. Emirates staggers each seat to provide additional space for each passenger, which is a format that has its positives and negatives . For my seat (11K), this meant that my seat was very close to the window and my mini-bar/countertop space was closer to the aisle. The seats directly in front and behind me had the opposite lay out – their seats were close to the aisle and their mini-bar/countertop space was closer to the window.
The picture below does an okay job (still blurry, I know) of showing the alternating mini-bar/seat lay out. As you can see some rows have a seat that’s directly accessible to the aisle, but the row behind it has a mini-bar and tabletop space with the seat recessed into the middle of the plane.
This worked well for me because the set up at 11K allowed me to see out the window with little effort. The difficult part about the seat was that the position of the mini-bar area on the aisle created a very narrow space within which you could manuever in and out of the seat. Despite the narrow space, I was able to get into my seat just fine, but I can imagine an individual who was a bit heavier struggling quite a bit to squeeze in and out of the seat.
I’ve read a few other reports of travelers who’ve experience the Emiratres business class product, and it seems many walk away with a sense that the hard product is a bit gaudy with all the polished wood and gold embellishments. Perhaps that’s more apparent in the first class cabin, but I found the Emirates business cabin on the A380 to be quite nice and far from gaudy.
Despite the slight difficulty I experienced getting into the seat, I actually quite enjoyed the snug, enclosed feeling provided by the seat. I could see some passengers feeling a bit claustrophobic in that environment, but it suited me just fine. The color palette used around the cabin was pleasing to the eye, and the seats still appeared fresh and clean. The gold accents were minimal in my opinion, and nothing about the product seemed extraordinarily garish or gaudy.
The seat did seem designed for someone a bit taller than me. I’m 5’7″, give or take an inch, and struggled a bit when trying to sit comfortably in the seat and rest my feet on the area provided while parked at the gate. Once we were in the air and I was able to move my seat in to other positions the problem disappeared. The foot well was more than adequate for my feet, and I didn’t feel boxed in or constrained by the space.
The in-flight entertainment system (IFE) was quite impressive. It certainly blew the tiny selection of television shows and movies I typically find on American Airlines out of the water. The Emirates IFE system seemed to be much closer in quality to the Cathay Pacific system that I’m quite enamoured with. A quick run through of the programming revealed a plethora of options – sitcoms, dramas, comedies, talk shows, sci-fi, fantasy, news programming, blockbuster hits, oldies, etc. Programming was also offered in a variety of languages. English, Arabic, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, and Hindi come to mind. I ended up watching 80% of a Bollywood film over the course of my flight.
One of the more unique features of the seat was the stocked mini-bar that created the narrow entrance passage to the seat that I previously mentioned. While in the grand scheme of things it’s a bit useless considering the FAs on Emirates will bring any of these items to your seat at your request, it was nice to know that you could simply reach out at the slightest whim and have access to a variety of products. Sparkling water, VOSS still water, Coca Cola, fruit juice, and a various of salty and sweet snacks were all left at my seat prior to my arrival. Placed on the countertop attached to the mini-bar was a small package with a pair of socks and and an eyemask.
My overall impression of the hard product? I understand the hype. It was certainly a unique seat, one that I have only experienced on Emirates. The tight, enclosed feeling I received while seated was particularly nice for me. I know many travelers enjoy the spaciousness of first class cabins/seats (and trust me, I enjoy them as well!), but for a business class product I really enjoyed that the seat I selected had a clear line of demarcation. Maybe I’m a bit odd, but I like knowing where my space ends and where the public space begins. The narrow entrance to my Emirates seat provided that for me. It’s important to note that the seats that were positioned closer to the aisle with the mini-bar near the window were a bit too open for my taste and I greatly preferred the seats staggered closer to the window.
Immediately after take off I was approached by an FA and handed a menu with a section specifically for the HKG-BKK sector of this flight. Despite the short flight time, Emirates offered what I considered a generous meal service. Photos of the menu are featured below. I’ve included the menu for the flight continuing on to Dubai from BKK for those who are curious:
I wanted to continue the spicy food routine I’d started in the lounge, so I selected the Oriental Lamb Curry for my entree. To start the service, the FA provided the most amazingly scented hot towel I’ve ever experienced while flying through the sky in a giant metal tube. I’m fully aware that a hot towel is an odd thing to elaborate upon, but I have to admit that I was entranced by the scent and ended up not using the towel at all but simply held it and let the aroma envelope me.
After I came out of my hot towel induced haze, the FA dropped off a ramiken of nuts as well as my beverage of choice for the time being – hot jasmine tea.
The mixed nuts were exactly what you would expect. The fairly ubiquitous offering you get on just about any airline that doesn’t really taste all that great but tells your body it’s time to eat some airline food. The hot jasmine tea tasted good (I’m a bit of a tea snob) but was not on the same quality level as the tea offered on my last Cathay Pacific flight.
After I polished off my ramiken of nuts, the FA brought out the tray for my meal. Everything was served on the tray, so no course by course depositing of food. I’m unsure whether this is standard practice for Emirates in business class or if this was simply due to the short flight time between HKG and BKK.
The curry Emirates provided me was actually a very good meal. Unlike the spicy offerings in the HKG Emirates lounge, this dish did have quite a bit of kick to it. While some might find that off-putting, I’m a big fan of super spicy cuisine, so I ended up clearing my plate and using the rather bland bread roll provided to mop up the remnants. The chinese red bean pudding was a good dessert pairing for the fiery curry, offering just a slight touch of sugar to end the meal.
The FA cleared my tray about an hour before landing in BKK and asked me if I’d like anything else for the flight. I asked to have a cup of coffee since I was starting to feel a bit tired and she returned within 5 minutes with a lovely cup of joe.
Despite my best efforts to avoid a nasty allergic reaction back at the lounge, Emirates seemed determined to send me to the hospital and dropped off this lovely gift while I was sipping my cappuccino and enjoying my Bollywood blockbuster.
Looking back on my experience with Emirates, I’d have to say that the friendliest and most service-oriented individual I met on my entire journey was the lounge agent who gave me a genuine smile and invited me to enjoy the facilities. All the other Emirates members of staff I encountered, from the ticket agent who processed my check-in to the FAs on my flight, were efficient but …. cold. The smiles felt forced, the service rather robotic.
I’ve heard others critique EK’s service along similar lines, and have to say that it proved true on this flight. There’s definitely a feeling that you’re being pushed down a conveyor belt of service, a neverending loop of “welcome, drink, food, smile, goodbye” in the eyes of the FAs. The FA who was working with me for the entire flight was Japanese and I commented to her early on in the service that I was half-Japanese and born in Japan. I figured this would be a good conversation starter to break some of the ice between us. It didn’t work quite as well as I had hoped, and it was only after the meal service was over and she was bringing me my cappucino that I felt like she offered me a genuine smile and finally engaged in a bit of small talk with me.
Say what you want about American flight attendants, but I generally find it very easy to built a rapport with them over the length of a flight. Everyone prefers a certain style of service, and I’m certainly not saying that Emirates doesn’t offer a quality product. They do. My experience on this flight left me wishing that my FA had been a bit less rigid and a bit more relaxed though. The conversation we had for three minutes about what I planned to do with my time in Bangkok left me with a much better impression of Emirates than the quiet yet efficient delivery of service I received during boarding and meal service. At first I thought perhaps she was overwhelmed with work, but as I noted earlier the cabin was rather empty and the FAs were congregating around the bar in the back of the business cabin and chatting quite often.
Speaking of the bar, I did manage to snag a few pictures for you to view. While I’ve been on other planes that offered a lounge/bar area for passengers to enjoy during the flight, I have to give credit to Emirates for having what I consider to be the swankest offering. There’s just something about the set up and color scheme that really drew me in.
Despite the novelty of having a bar and lounge on an airplane (at least for modern travelers), it remained empty the entire flight. I kept a close eye on the cabin to see if anyone wandered back toward that area but everyone stayed planted in their seats after the meal service. A little before landing I headed back to get a look and to see the offering for myself. The FAs had put out some snacks and other treats on top of the bar, but there was no bartender on duty. I hung around for a few minutes soaking in the spaciousness of the area when compared to what you traditionally see on many aircraft. The only other people who entered the space were FAs who were busy carting trays and other products to and from the business class cabin.
Flying in a premium cabin on Emirates was a notch on my aviation geek belt; certainly an achievement I’d been seeking for awhile.
The HKG Emirates Lounge was rather uninspired for being in a major city like Hong Kong. The space was adequate and the furnishings nice, but overall the experience didn’t jive with the image EK is known for.
Service was cold and distant, boarding on robotic from many of the Emirates staff I encountered. While I was impressed with the efficiency of the service provided, I didn’t walk away feeling the warmth I do from other carriers I’ve flown.
The quality of catering on the flight and in the lounge was quite high. I was impressed several times with how flavorful many of the dishes were.
EK’s IFE on the A380 was very impressive, offering customers a wide range of entertainment options including television, movies, music, and games. I felt overwhelmed with choices on my short flight, and feel confident I’d have enough to keep me busy if I were to take the A380 on a long haul route.
The enclosed space provided by the staggered seating in the business class cabin really suited me as a solo traveler. Having the mini-bar act as a barrier between the seat and the aisle really helped establish a line of demarcation between my personal area and the public space.