The Purser, the Crew, and, Oh My… That Bar!
I am back on board the marvelous A380 and, with the lunch service complete, I take stroll to the back of the plane. On any other airplane, that would mean a visit to the bathroom. On the Emirates A380, however, it means a visit to the stand-up bar!
Much has been written about the 1970s being the golden age of air travel. It was the era that saw the entire upper decks of Boeing 747s turned into full-scale cocktail lounges. Qantas’ 747 boasted a luxurious “Captain Cook First Class Lounge.” American Airlines went one step further with their infamous piano bar! So whilst most airlines nowadays try and squeeze every dollar out of every inch within the cabin, some airlines, like Emirates (and now Etihad and Qatar), have brought a little bit of the 1970s back by installing onboard bars and lounges, a place where premium passengers can stretch out and relax beyond the “confines” of their flat-bed seats.
To be honest, I was a little skeptical that this was more of a marketing tool than a smart use of space on an airplane. Was I wrong! The Emirates bar is simply fantastic, well-stocked with a wide variety of beers, wines, and spirits as well as a selection of canapés, sandwiches, and light snacks. There is plenty of room to stand and chat with fellow travelers, as well as two semi-circular sofas that give the entire space a very sophisticated and intimate feel.
In Dubai, Joost Heymeijer, Emirates’ Senior Vice President of Inflight Catering and Service Delivery, tells me that, while the bar really is a stand-out feature of the A380, it doesn’t make life easy for the crew because they work out of a compact galley all the way at the back of the plane. “This means that if the bar is busy,” which Heymeijer says it often tends to get, “they need to do a bit of elbowing trying to get to the front of the plane. But it makes it very sociable, and one of the things that we’ve done very well in that aircraft is bring back the fun of flying, to be able to get up and say ‘I’m going to go to the bar and have a drink.’ And a lot of people meet people here.” And that is precisely what I am here to do, although my meeting is a pre-arranged one with the purser on my flight, a Mr. Mayur Khanna.
An Indian by birth, Khanna started with the company eight and a half years ago as a flight attendant, eventually working his way up to purser in 2013. We are about five hours into the flight when we meet on the sofa.
“Good evening Mr. Slattery, welcome aboard our airplane,” he says with a nod and a handshake. “This seems a fairly good place to sit and chat, don’t you think?” he notes, with a wink, and we share the first of what turns out to be many laughs during the next two hours. I ask him about his overall philosophy when it comes to service delivery.
“Ah,” he says with a wide, warm smile. “It’s really quite simple. I try to treat people as individuals. Obviously you can’t get to know everybody on one flight, but everybody has a story. Everybody who boarded this plane is experiencing something. Some are excited. Some are nervous. Some are stressed. Some may be in pain, so I try to understand that people are individuals, not numbers. My approach is to treat people with dignity and respect.”
That becomes obvious as we leave the bar and take a leisurely walk through Business Class, First Class, and then down the stairs for a return journey through the length of Economy. We stop in First Class and he invites me to sit for a while in one of the enclosed suites. “I just need to check on my staff to make sure they are all taken care of,” he says, and he hands me a glass of Dom Perignon before disappearing down the stairs. I feel like a bit of an invader sitting here, but the passengers are either all asleep or watching movies under a ceiling of stars and computer-synchronized mood lighting. There are no overhead bins in First which gives the cabin an amazing sense of serene space.
Khanna is soon back, and we stop at the very front of the plane where I get a quick tour of the showers (there are two on board with dedicated attendants) and the small bar at the top of the stairs, which is stocked with only the finest liquors. He explains that in the morning hours, the entire bar is transformed into a spa center with a variety of luxury products and that, quite to my surprise, most passengers do make use of the showers, especially those making connections through Dubai who don’t have time to use the lounge facilities. “All dining in First Class is à la carte,” Khanna says, and he hands me the leather-bound menu to peruse.
We descend the stairs and begin our walk through Economy, which is a heaving mass of 409 passengers (Khanna confirms that there is one open seat), and it suddenly strikes me: all the wonderful food, the wine, the stand-up bar, the amenity kit, the warm towels – yes, it’s all very high-end, closer to being in a Michelin-rated restaurant than an airplane. There is a “wow” factor that has to be experienced to be believed, but the difference between this airline and all the others I have flown, in my opinion, is simply the crew. It’s not that the flight attendants on other carriers are bad per se (it is, after all, a stressful job dealing with crabby travelers), but the Emirates crew gives the experience an entirely different feel. There really is a focus on customer service and the attention to detail that Joost Heymeijer kept emphasizing is obvious, at all times. Nothing seems like too much trouble. Khanna himself picks up a child’s toy that has dropped into the isle as we continue our walk, and then asks one of his flight attendants whether she needs a cup of coffee and another whether he has had enough rest. But there is something else at work here that gives this flight (and my return one) a distinctly different feel to me – the cosmopolitan nature of the crew. Khanna says they like to be called “Globalists” – there are 17 languages spoken on this flight, and it just sets a different tone. Even the pilots, whom I met later during the flight, are a diverse group of aviators: a Canadian (the captain, who just wants to talk ice hockey), and Austrian, and a decidedly engaging Emirati. If ever there was an airline for planet Earth, then surely this is it?
I ask Khanna what it’s like to work for Emirates. “Well, they treat us very well to be honest. As an example, when I came to Dubai as a “new joiner” for my training they had organized a fully-furnished apartment, the fridge had already been stocked with the basics, and there was a cell phone on the table ready to go. There were no bills to pay.” He says it has even improved since he joined as the company now takes the new trainees out for tours to immerse them in the culture and to get their bearings.
I return to the upper deck via the stairway at the back of the plane, take my leave of Mayur, and stop one last time at the bar for a glass of red wine before retiring. “Impressive, isn’t it?” says the man standing next to me in a heavy Texan accent.
“What, the wine or the bar?” I ask.
“The whole dang shootin’ match!” he replies, as he raises his glass to a toast at 38,000 feet.