Published in September 2015 issue

Dubai with its resorts, its shopping malls, and its spectacular skyline dominated by the Burj Khalifa—the highest building in the world—is the perfect destination if you live in Europe and want to relax for a few days. Needless to say, Emirates is the best choice to fly there…

By Matteo Legnani

Having some days off from work, I decided to take a break and spend a long weekend in the UAE, mixing sunbathing with some shopping and visiting. Emirates (EK), the only carrier to fly the route nonstop, was the obvious choice for the six-hour journey from Milan. Alitalia (AZ) used to operate a daily service to Dubai (DXB) with its Boeing 767-300s, but discontinued service in 2008, when it moved its hub operations from Milan Malpensa (MXP) to Rome Fiumicino (FCO).

Milan is a destination of primary importance for the Dubaibased carrier. Two of the three daily services are currently operated with Boeing 777-300(ER)s (77W), while the third flight was upgraded to an Airbus A380 by the end of 2014.

One of these three daily flights stops in Milan and continues to New York (JFK)—the first and only Emirates transatlantic service between Europe and the US. Since June 1, 2015, this ‘fifth freedom’ route is also being operated with the double-decker Airbus, offering more capacity to Milan as that city hosts the 2015 World Expo until October 31, 2015, raising the competition with AZ (an Etihad partner) and other US carriers.

Taking advantage of this mix of equipment, I decided to fly Boeing’s triple-seven one way and the Airbus A380 the other— and test these two workhorses of Emirates’ fleet.

Since I do not like to sleep on airplanes unless I sit up front, I decided to book the airline’s morning flight out of Malpensa. Scheduled at 10:15, flight EK102 (operated by a 77W) guaranteed a 19:20 arrival in DXB, allowing ample time for a dinner at our destination before bed. Booking on the airline website, approximately two weeks before departure, I was able to secure a decent round-trip fare at €563 (US$603), all included. Other carriers, namely a combination of Lufthansa (LH) and Swiss (LX), offered tickets 100 euros cheaper, but with traveling times of approximately 10 hours and a connection through their heavily trafficked hubs.

Exactly 24 hours before departure, an e-mail arrived with an offer to check in online. The operation required just a couple of minutes. The ‘flight reminder’ message featured much more: from a five-day weather forecast for Dubai, to the list of movies and TV shows offered by the in-flight entertainment (IFE) and the menu served in each class onboard EK 102 the following day.

Having checked in online, I avoided the 50-person-long queue in front of the Emirates desks on the day of departure and directly proceeded to the bag drop counter, where I completed the operation in two minutes.

After a long 10-minutes walk to gate B38, where A6-EGN (a 2012-vintage -31HER series) was parked, I rested at MXP’s Pier 3, the newest and most beautiful part of the airport, with its airy and bright steel and glass.

Boarding was very speedy thanks to the twinaisle configuration of the 777. I quickly found my window seat, 29K, on the right side of the plane, and noticed that Economy Class was almost completely full, with just a few seats left in the central part of the 3-4-3 configured cabin.

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The pitch between the seats on Emirates’ triplesevens is an ample 32” (81.5 cm). The problem with these 10-abreast configurations is the width of the seat, which measures only 17” (43.5 cm). The cabin of the three-year-old airliner was immaculate, with white and cream colors and a touch of purple in the seats and in the pillows, which were paired with blankets on every seat. Each seat has an adjustable headrest but no footrest, probably to guarantee more space for the passengers’ legs.

Before departure, the stylish flight attendants (FA) (almost all women) distributed hot towels. Pushback started at 10:12, three minutes before scheduled departure time (SDT), and seven minutes later the big Boeing began its journey to the 12,860ft (3,920m)-long runway 35R, from which we departed at 10:25.

Thirty seconds into the flight, the captain banked right, offering us a spectacular view of the snowcapped Alps. We followed a southern track that took us over Bologna, Florence, and Naples before leaving the Italian boot near Crotone and flying over the Mediterranean Sea. We took a much different route from Europe to the Gulf than do most flights, which usually pass over the former Yugoslavia, Turkey, Iran, and the Persian Gulf. Initial cruising altitude was 33,000ft, then 35,000 over Naples and 37,000 over the Red Sea, before settling at 31,000 in view of Madinah to avoid high-altitude turbulence.

Lunch service started one hour and 15 minutes into the flight, preceded by a soft drink and water service accompanied by a small bag of cheese biscuits. Appetizers came next—pasta salad with tuna. Then, a choice between two main courses: grilled chicken served with a creamy red pepper sauce accompanied by sautéed spinach and chunky mashed potatoes, or pan-fried salmon fillet topped with a herb and sundried tomatoes butter sauce and served with a saffron-infused risotto and seasonal vegetables. The dessert was a lemon and vanilla torte.

I chose the salmon plate, which was chromatically very well presented, with the fillet of pink fish dividing the yellow of the risotto from the lush green of the vegetables. The salmon was tasty and not dry at all, while the pasta appetizer was tasteless and also too cold, as was the cake. For drink, I selected an Australian cabernet-merlot.

After a good cup of coffee, I turned my attention to the big screen of the IFE, called ICE (Information, Communication, Entertainment) by Emirates. In 2015, Skytrax named it ‘Best Inflight Entertainment System’ for the 11th straight year. And for good reason: at 12.1” (30.7 cm) of width, the screen is the largest offered in any economy class. The Information section features live flight info, two types of moving maps and two camera images, one forward and one from under the belly of the aircraft. The Communication section enables passengers to plug in USB devices, listen to their favorite music, or view PDF files.

Using the in-seat telephone costs $5 per minute. The SMS and e-mail service were not available. The Entertainment section offers more than 500 movies organized under New Releases, Classics, Disney Classics, Bollywood, Arabic and World Cinema. Live TV features eight channels. The TV shows totaled 236 programs, while the Music & CDs section offered hundreds of songs.

The downside of this magnificent Panasonic Avionics’ eX2 system-powered IFE are the headphones, which don’t isolate from the surrounding noise and offer a very bad sound quality. In fact, it was almost impossible to decently listen to classical or rock music because the noise of the engines was too loud.

The ample seatback pocket contained the Openskies inflight magazine, conveniently stored in a plastic bag to avoid that ‘trash’ effect frequent on most airlines. It was all in English, with articles about fashion and nice places to eat and sleep at EK destinations worldwide, plus the usual route maps and fleet description.

With one hour of the flight remaining, the Fas distributed a cup of vanilla ice-cream along with water and juices. Descent began at 18:36, Dubai time. However, when the flight clock was showing 30 minutes to landing, it suddenly sprang back to 51 minutes. The reason was that we had started to circuit over the Persian Gulf at an altitude of approximately 10,000ft. Arrival time was postponed from 19:09 to 19:25, making the actual flight time a little over six hours.

Twenty minutes later, engines and flaps went down and, at 19:24, we finally put our wheels on runway 12L, before docking at gate A4 of DXB’s Terminal 3, the one entirely dedicated to the home carrier. Despite having to take a train to the passport control and baggage retrieval area, I was aboard the shuttle bus to the hotel just 25 minutes after deplaning.

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Four days later, I was again at DXB’s Terminal 3 to board EK 091, operated by one of the airline’s 60 Airbus A380s. The A gate area is less sumptuous than the older B concourse (Terminal 3 consists of two separate buildings), yet retains the same floor-to-ceiling windows and lots of shopping and dining opportunities.

The scheduled departure time of EK91, set for 15:40, meant a very quiet and uncrowded terminal, with only three other aircraft (to Beirut, Dammam and Mumbai) departing from the A gates between 15:00 and 16:00. A6-EDB, a 2008-vintage Airbus A380-800, was docked at gate A4, the same gate at which I had arrived aboard EK102 four days before.

The boarding area of the gate was crowded, yet the boarding itself was fast and disciplined. They called Economy Class passengers according to the different areas onboard: C, D, F, and E. Being in the E area of the plane (as indicated on my boarding pass), I was one of the last to board. Emirates has dedicated the whole upper deck of its A380s to the higher classes, with 14 First Class suites and 76 Business Class fully-flat seats. Economy Class, with 399 (or 427) seats, is on the ‘ground floor.’ That’s where I found my 59K window seat on the right side of the 10-abreast cabin (3-4-3).

The first thing that strikes you if you are in a window row of the A380 is the distance between the seat and the wall of the cabin, very unusual on today’s aircraft. The gap is so wide that it is impossible to use the wall as a support when trying to sleep. Unlike most planes, the wall doesn’t loom over you, but ‘spreads away’, as the largest part of the fuselage is actually located between the two decks. Another peculiarity is the separation between the Plexiglas inside window (very large indeed) and the actual pressurized glass window outside, which gives a somewhat unpleasant ‘periscope’ perception. The window blinds are so huge that substantial force is necessary to open or close them.

At 18” (45.7cm), the seat, was noticeably wider than that on the 777, a consequence of the two-foot wider cabin of the A380 with the same 10-abreast rows.

Pushback, preceded by the distribution of hot, perfumed towels, occurred at 15:39. Engine startup was imperceptible from inside the cabin, confirming the double-decker Airbus’s reputation for being the ‘quietest aircraft in the world’. Six minutes later, EK91 started taxiing to runway 30L, takeoffs being scheduled in a south-to-north direction. The takeoff push was so smooth and the engine noise so low that you actually had to look outside to be sure that the takeoff roll was actually going on. With a very gradual acceleration, the Super Airbus lifted off gracefully a little after the halfway point of the 14,600ft (4,450m)-long runway, heading north over the Persian Gulf and Iran.

Menus were distributed 20 minutes after takeoff, promising a prawn salad as starter, followed by a choice between mustard chicken breast with roasted potatoes, red peppers and green peas; and lamb biryani with rice, fried cashew nuts, raisins and onions; plus a raspberry and chocolate cake with crème anglaise as dessert. This time I selected the chicken, which was very tasty and tender, accompanied by a merlot from California’s Livermore Valley.

We reached our promised cruising altitude of 40,000 feet over central Iran. Speed was 564 mph (907kmh), through 90mph-strong adverse winds.

The ride was quite bumpy, even aboard such a giant aircraft. The captain left the ‘fasten seat belt’ sign on for almost two hours into the flight, on one occasion suggesting that the cabin crew suspend lunch service and take their seats.

The flight proceeded over eastern Turkey and the Black Sea before entering Bulgaria, north of Varna. Bucharest, Belgrade, and Zagreb followed. An hour and a half before landing, the FAs offered a drink service with a cup of vanilla ice-cream, then concluded their service by handing out hot scented towels. With the sun starting to set behind us, mood lighting kicked in, first with a ‘star show’ on the ceiling of the cabin over the corridors, and then with a series of pink and orange tones that prepared passengers for landing.

After flying over the Adriatic Sea and Venice, we started to descend a little before Padua. The landing gear went down at 3,500 feet and 15 miles south of Malpensa, where we touched down on runway 35L at 19:11, 24 minutes ahead of schedule. Docking occurred at gate B38, the same one from which I had departed four days before on EK102, and one of the two gates at MXP capable of accommodating the A380 and its three boarding bridges on two different levels.

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Whatever the type of aircraft, Emirates is a great way to fly, even in Economy Class.

The ambiance and cleanliness of the cabin are unmatched and the service is impeccable. For these reasons, it is hard to say who is the winner of this ‘777 vs. A380’ matchup.

For sure, while many airlines offer a nine-abreast configuration on their triple sevens, comfort on Emirates’ Boeings is strongly penalized by the 10-abreast seating, which noticeably reduces seat width.

The giant Airbus is, in any case, a better aircraft for long-haul flights, thanks to its excellent cabin noise insulation, its high cabin ceiling and smooth movements, both on the ground and in the air.

For these very reasons, the true aviation enthusiast will, on the contrary, prefer the 777, with its more vivid flight sensations.