It has been almost 30 years since Emirates flight EK600 took off from Dubai bound for Pakistan’s Karachi International airport. This small, Middle Eastern upstart had just signed a one-year lease with Pakistan International Airlines for a Boeing 737-300 and an Airbus A300. And according to their chairman at the time, Sheik Ahmad bin Saeed al Maktoum, the company planned to purchase a further nine aircraft over the next four years for Asian, European, and Middle East routes. Dubai itself was a sleepy Gulf city in the 1980s and the airline went largely unnoticed by the mega-carriers that dominated commercial aviation at the time. Oh my, how times have changed!
Fast-forward to today and Emirates has become one of the worlds largest and, by many industry metrics, leading airlines. It is easily the largest in terms of international scheduled passengers, with a staggering 235.5 billion kilometers flown in 2014 alone (more than three times that of second place Delta). In 2013, Emirates took home the coveted World’s Best Airline Award and its inflight entertainment (IFE) system ICE is consistently ranked as the best in the skies.
Perhaps most impressive of all is that Emirates has reached the top 200 of the world’s biggest brands for the first time, according to the 2015 Brand Finance Global 500 report (the airline also retains its long standing position as the most valuable brand in the Middle East, and the most valuable airline brand overall). While marketing and sponsorships have undoubtedly been important in this regard, it’s the airlines’ unwavering focus on product innovation and service delivery that truly underpin the brand. This is especially the case in the premium cabins, where fully lie-flat seats have become a minimum requirement in an industry where competition to lure premium-paying customers is fierce.
So, how does a behemoth like Emirates, which is experiencing breakneck growth, deliver the goods with such remarkable consistency? What does this company do differently that seems to bring customers back time and time again? AirwaysNews correspondent, Mike Slattery, went to Dubai to find out. Here, we present Part I of his report.
Not A Wrinkle In The Linen
My quest to unearth the recipe behind Emirates’ success began with a trip in Business Class on their flagship A380 from Dallas/Fort Worth to Dubai. The airline is currently the largest operator of the A380 with a fleet of 60 flying to 35 destinations at the time of this writing. And, despite recent concerns over the future of the aircraft, Emirates has orders in for 81 more, with company executives touting their unwavering support for its future.
Personally, I am a big fan of the A380 having chosen it over 747-400s for recent flights to Australia and South Africa on Qantas and BA, respectively. So while I was keen to see how the Emirates A380 stacked up in terms of seat comfort and overall feel, my focus for this story was squarely on the customer experience, specifically, what it takes to deliver a truly unique travel experience.
My journey started with Emirates Chauffeur-drive service, complimentary when you fly in First or Business Class. My driver, Penny, texted me 20 minutes prior to pick-up to say she was at my front door and asked if there was anything I needed (cold water and snacks were already in the center console). They say you only have one chance to make a first impression, and this one was spot on. Check-in at DFW was quick, and I was invited to relax in the Emirates lounge prior to departure.
Boarding for flight EK222 was a little delayed, so I struck up a conversation in line with a family of four from Nebraska who were heading to Dubai for a week’s vacation. They were traveling in First Class, and mom was clearly excited and anxious to get on board. I asked her husband if this was their first time flying Emirates. “No,” he said. “I fly quite frequently to Europe and the Middle East and always choose this airline, even if I have to backtrack from Dubai to my next destination.”
“That seems a bit tedious,” I retorted. “Why not just take one of the US carriers to Europe or fly British Airways from somewhere nearby, like Chicago?”
“You’ll see why,” he said with a smile, as he gathered up the family and sidled up the walkway to the upper deck.
“Welcome to Emirates, Sir,” the neatly-tailored flight attendant said as I entered the doorway. “Seat 18A. Just make a right, and it’s a little ways down.”
Like many aviation enthusiasts (ahem, AvGeeks), I had already read several of the online reviews of the A380 cabin and the Business Class seats on Emirates. I therefore had a pretty good idea of what to expect: 76 lie-flat seats in a 1:2:1 configuration spread across two cabins (58 in the larger forward cabin and 18 in the smaller cabin toward the rear of the plane) with lots of burled walnut veneer and gold trim, even around the windows!
The decor, while probably not everyone’s taste, certainly lets you know that you are in a premium cabin, and it does so boldly and unashamedly. Actually, I found it both warm and inviting. In fact, the cabin has an airy feeling, aided by the fact that you’re sitting fairly low to the ground once in the seat so that, when you do stand up, you’ve got a lot more space around you and can look through the whole aircraft toward that amazing bar at the back. (more on that later!)
As I settled into the seat I noticed several things, all within arm’s reach: a mini-bar tucked into the console next to my shoulder with bottles of water, Perrier, soda and orange juice; controls to lower the window blinds to muted light or full blackout; and a removable tablet-like device (with walnut trim, naturally) to control both the seat and the inflight entertainment (IFE) on a 17-inch touch-screen TV.
The menu and wine list were already laid out on the console (a nice touch given that I like to get a quick look at what’s in store) as was a pair of high-quality, noise-canceling headphones. I also noticed a smaller, standard inflight entertainment system controller which seemed odd at first. However, I soon realized that this gave me an alternative way to control the TV once the seat was reclined so that I didn’t have to reach for the tablet or have it on my lap. The top level of the minibar also offered a secure place to store my electronic devices with charging outlets nearby. All-in-all, the seat environment was uncluttered and thoughtfully laid out. Again, first impressions…
Prior to take-off I was offered the choice between a glass of water, orange juice, or Veuve Cliquot champagne, all served in real glass (take note, US carriers), followed by a refreshing hot towel, warm nuts, and a rather tasteful amenity kit jammed full of Bulgari products. The flight attendants were exactly as advertised: fresh, immaculately groomed, and with smiles as warm as the towels they had just handed out.
“Have you decided on your lunch choices, Mr. Slattery?” asked Eddie, a charming young man from Manchester, as we leveled-off for our 14-plus hour journey to Dubai.
“Yes thanks. I think I’ll start with the smoked salmon (which was served on dark pumpernickel bread with a baby beetroot salad with a chunky herb salsa and a light crème fraîche quenelle) followed by the beef tenderloin (served here with peppercorn sauce, Mediterranean-style grilled vegetables and creamy mashed potatoes). I’ll come back to dessert a bit later if that’s okay?” I replied.
“Of course,” he answered. “Any Wine with lunch?”
“I tell you what Eddie, surprise me,” I said. “Select something that you think will work.”
“That would be my pleasure, Sir,” he replied, as he laid out a perfectly-ironed tablecloth before turning toward the person sitting behind me to begin the pre-lunch routine once more.
As I sipped on my champagne, I began to wonder what it really took to put a product like this in the air. I picked up the menu and wine list a second time and started reading through the array of food on offer, only this time digesting its contents a little more slowly: four appetizers, including a traditional Arabic mezze; three mains – the tenderloin, a crusted sea bass fillet and an Indian chicken curry; two desserts (I opted for the treacle and lemon tart served with vanilla crème anglaise in the end); a cheese board; a selection of fruits; and, finally, a wonderful assortment of chocolates. And that was just lunch! Light bites were available throughout the flight – I tried the smoked salmon and broccoli quiche, which was excellent. The wines were equally good with a choice of two whites and two reds (incidentally, Eddie selected an Australian Chardonnay and the Bordeaux to accompany my meal). I rounded out my lunch with a glass of their vintage tawney port.
A Dutchman On A Mission
The man responsible for putting this epicurean feast in the air is Joost Heymeijer, Emirates’ Senior Vice President of Inflight Catering and Service Delivery. Twenty-four hours after landing in Dubai, I find myself in his office admiring the many wooden wine crates that line the walls. He has kindly set aside an hour-and-a-half to talk about the Emirates premium experience.
“They are all empty!” he exclaims with a chuckle, as he walks through the door and introduces himself. “Please call me Joost,” he says with a warm handshake, dispensing my somewhat more formal approach, and we quickly settle in for what turns out to be a relaxed and highly informative conversation about the industry and his airline.
A self-confessed service fanatic, Heymeijer assumed his role after a five year stint as General Manager of the Emirates Wolgan Valley Resort and Spa in Australia. He has spent his entire career in the hospitality industry. I begin by asking him about the challenge of conceptualizing and executing the premium experience, specifically putting together menus and wine lists across such a vast and diverse route network.
“Well, when you hear the title ‘catering’,” Heymeijer begins, “people automatically think food which is, of course, very important. But I think the big secret is the logistics of, one, how dishes come together, but then, two, how do we get it on the plane? How do we get the meals where they need to be? Do we have the product on board that a passenger has asked for that is out of the norm? So the logistics side and the supply chain side is enormously important and often the biggest challenge.”
The numbers are, indeed, staggering. The airline served well over 50 million meals last year whilst up in the air, and I half-jokingly suggest to Heymeijer that planning service delivery on such a scale would seem to require more of a choreographer than a caterer.
“What I often tell people is if you look at an airplane and you turn it upside down and you shake it, everything that falls out falls under inflight catering. So whether those are kid’s toys or toothpicks, menu cards, tea cups, and coasters – you name it – all that stuff needs to be purchased, then supply chain managed. The logistics and timing is where the real fun starts. Catering is really a series of silos of specialists and it often starts years before an aircraft starts flying because as a caterer, or as someone who looks after the well-being of passengers on board, you want a particular space to be able to do it. But the commercial team will say, well, do you really need that chiller? Do you really need that extra row of carts because we can actually put two chairs there. So you need to find a balance between the premium appeal that we have as an airline and the space and the service and the ratio of crew to passenger as well as the commercial reality of maximizing financial return.”
Heymeijer explains that, over the years, the size and space of the galleys where food is stored and prepared have become smaller rather than bigger. “So we need to be a lot smarter also in the design of what we serve our passengers that we can do with less space and still provide a very high-end product. It’s always a nice challenge. I was just talking to a colleague of mine this morning who was helping design with the guys at Boeing aircraft that we will get in 2022. They are already looking at what will be available, what is the equipment, what is the technology, what will we be able to do from a food point of view and how much space do we need?”
I have to admit, I have never given a moment’s thought to how much space it takes to prepare and deliver meals onboard an airplane, but I have always been curious as to how menus come together. Are they route specific or region specific? Is all the food prepared in one location (Dubai, in this case). And if it isn’t, how does the company keep the product consistent, especially when dealing with multiple caterers around the globe? I ask the man in charge how the menu design process unfolds.
“From a menu point of view, we have split the world up into five different regions,” Heymeijer says. “North and South America, Northern Europe and the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Africa, the sub-continent (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka), and Asia/Pacific – so there are five regional catering managers, all based in Dubai, but each managing somewhere between 20 and 25 stations.
These regional specialists will then work with their colleagues and the databases that we have on food to assess what will appeal to the demographic of the city we fly in to. So we do lots and lots of data analysis before we even start writing a menu. We want to get an understanding of who it is that gets onboard, because sometimes we fly in and out of cities in Africa but in a particular class there may be a lot more Australians on board than there would be people from that African country. So the regional catering manager will start designing a menu.”
Heymeijer explains that they often look at what makes a city special. “I guess if we were to fly into Kansas City we would look at barbeque,” he says. “That would appeal to that particular region but it might not appeal to someone in Detroit at all. And then, at the same time, of course we cook here in Dubai flying to Houston, or wherever, but then that plane needs to come back so there is a tender process that takes place to see whom of the local caterers will win our business. We then work very, very closely with that culinary team when that choice is made. That often means that our catering managers are traveling to that destination or we pick the team up and bring them here. Not just to introduce them to how we cook and serve but also our back office IT systems and how they need to work with that.”
As we continue our conversation, it becomes clear to me that scale is a key issue and that airline catering is not, as some people think, akin to event catering. “Yes!”, Heymeijer exclaims, “people often confuse the two. We work really big scale and our requirements to those caterers are very highly specked, and not just in the food product but also how goods are being procured, the hygiene policies and procedures that they have in place, and so on.
How do they deal with Halal requirements? Those are important. So you tend to end up with the companies that specialize in aircraft catering, but then city-by-city, the talent of the culinary team differs. And our challenge in the American market is that, for many, many years, there wasn’t a very high-end product flying in and out of the US, so the skills required in the catering units is often not there because a lot of caterers aren’t used to cooking anymore, they assemble. They buy ingredients or loose items and that gets put on a plate or in a foil where we insist on high culinary skills and people actually need to be able to cook.”
It was pretty obvious from my onboard experience to Dubai that whoever had prepared the beef tenderloin knew how to cook. But the perfectly smooth tablecloth, without even a hint of a wrinkle?
Heymeijer laughs. “Yes, we pay enormous attention to detail,” referring to the tablecloths. “These are details that passengers often don’t pick up on because it’s just part of our natural service process.”
I ask about the variety of food requests that come in to the airline on a daily basis. “It really is amazing,” he says. “We have over 20 different types of meals that you could pre-order if you have an intolerance, or a religious restriction, or a health requirement, and nine times out of ten we are able to deal with it. But, you know, the quality of our crockery and cutlery, from your salt and pepper shakers, to the types of bread and the quantities of it – it’s all very bespoke and high-end, and I think if you add all of these little layers up, at the end of the flight you’re going ‘wow, that was a top experience.’ And that’s not just service but also the quality of your seat, how far does your hand have to reach to touch the screen of this big, widescreen TV that sits in front of you, the quality of the headsets, it is all part of that premium experience.”
I return to the sheer scale of the operation, where something like 170,000 meals are prepared each day for inflight consumption. “How,” I ask, “do you turn 50 million-plus meals into a thoughtful and personal experience?”
Heymeijer explains that 53 million meals doesn’t equate to 53 million passengers because on longer flights there are two and a half, sometimes three, meals per passenger. “So when we build the menu we look at the length of the flight and we look at what is the first meal that people are going to eat, and then from a digestion point of view we build. You know, we don’t want to just stuff you full of carbohydrates so that by the second meal you say ‘well, I really can’t have breakfast because I am still so full’ and then you get off the flight and you think ‘I really would have liked some breakfast.’ So we try and build specifically for the length of the flight the type of food that we serve.”
Interestingly, Emirates bases all their regional catering managers in Dubai rather than in the region they are personally responsible for. It is here, under the direction of Emirates Flight Catering (a daughter company of the airline), that about 65% of all meals are prepared. There are some cities around the world where catering is not picked up, for reasons of either security or hygiene. In these cases, the company back-caters, and the meals are flown on the outbound flights.
Heymeijer beckons me toward a map on his wall. “You see,” he says, making sweeping hand motions across the globe, “the reason the largest component comes from here, this great hub Dubai, is that in six hours you’re in Europe, three hours you’re in India, three hours you’re in Africa, and three hours you’re in Turkey. So that’s why we keep our regional managers here. They travel a lot, and they are responsible for over 90 stations around the world. Plus on top of that we also look after the food product in all our lounges. We now have 37 lounges around the world, so we look after their food product as well.”