Not long ago, it looked like the reign of the Airbus A380 as Queen of the Skies was ending. But one airline, Emirates, is not only bringing back its A380s with a vengeance but investing up to $2 billion dollars in refreshing its planes and instituting a whole new class of Premium Economy service.
Before COVID, Emirates was considered the only airline to make full use of the A380. Dozens of the giant planes landed at capacious Dubai (DBX) airport like clockwork, like so many 500-passenger buses. There were six flights a day to London alone.
But Airbus ended manufacture of the great plane in 2021, with just 251 built . As COVID-19 quarantines closed international borders, most A380s were parked. At least 17 A380s have already been scrapped. Several airlines, including China Southern, Thai Airlines, Malaysia Airlines and Air France, have either announced plans to stop flying the A380 or send them to scrap yards.
Coming out of the pandemic, airlines prefer smaller, fuel-efficient and easier to fill aircraft like the 200-seat Airbus A321XLR. But they didn’t ask passengers who would vote for a roomy A380 every day and twice on Sundays.
While most of Emirates A380 fleet was mothballed in 2020 due to COVID, demand has returned quickly. At a meeting at the Emirates Lounge at LAX, Essa Sulaiman Ahmad, Emirates’ Divisional Vice President for the US and Canada, told me that Emirates demand is now at 97% of 2019, the last full year before COVID.
The airline is flying six A380 flights to London and five to Mumbai per day, for example. Mr. Ahmad said the A380 is key for Emirates at slot-constrained airports like London, essentially doing the work of two smaller planes.
So far Emirates has added its new Premium Economy cabin to more than 20 of its 116 A380 aircraft. The upgrade program, which will also impact Emirates fleet of 180 Boeing 777s, will be completed in 2025.
It makes sense for Emirates to add Premium Economy for such long-haul flights. Many passengers are unwilling to pay Business or First-Class fares yet will pay more to get more comfort than economy class can offer.
The new Premium Economy cabin on Emirates A380s has 56 seats. Each offers 40” seat pitch (regular economy is 32”) and is 19.5” wide.
The padded leather seats are a restful beige and come with both an attached headrest and a plush pillow. The reclining seats have comfortable footrests. A flight attendant assured us that reclining does not create rebellion from the passenger behind but does sometimes launch a chain-reaction mass recline.
Each passenger gets a big viewing screen on the back of the seat in front of them. The screen lets you stream a vast selection of movies and TV shows, including plenty of children’s programming for a long flight. Wi-Fi internet access is also available. An Emirates promotional video shows that you can also watch live sports.
The seats have a pull-out seat tray to serve the special menu created for Premium Economy passengers. We were served some vegan cheesecake. While this may seem a contradiction in terms, it’s actually pretty good.
If the flight attendant doesn’t let you eat dessert first, food choices include Cobb salad, seared cod with sautéed kale and spinach and butter chicken. There’s a choice of wines, beers, spirits and soft drinks. The wines include an Emirates exclusive, Chandon Brut Vintage 2016, an Australian sparkling blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.
So far Emirates says that over 160,000 passengers have chosen Premium Economy since it was launched a year ago. Emirates invited us on board (not to fly, unfortunately) to mark the availability of Premium Economy in the LA market beginning in July of 2023.
In the Emirates video, an excited passenger opines that Premium Economy is “a little more, but so worth it.” So how do prices compare to Economy and Business Class?
We searched for an outbound flight from LAX to DXB on September 30. Flight EK216, an A380 departing LAX at 16:40 was $544 for a one-way economy ticket. Premium Economy for the same flight was $1629, while Business Class was $5,051.60. Return on October 8 on EK215 was $584.15 for Economy. Premium Economy was $1669.15, while Business Class was $4,318.15.
An Economy ticket from LAX to Mumbai on October 3 was $506.10. Premium Economy was priced at $1646.10,while Business Class was $4213.10. Returning flights were respectively $539.10, $1679.20 and $3320.20.
Some flights noted that Premium Economy was only “Partially Available,” presumably due to connecting with an non-upgraded A380 or B777.
Whether the flights are “a little more, but so worth it” are in the eyes (and wallet) of the beholder. Premium Economy is essentially three times as much as Economy. On the other hand, Business Class, at $5051, is priced at nearly ten times Economy at $544.
Emirates typically ranks in the top ten of world airlines in terms of service. So it is unlikely that adding Premium Economy will be seen as going downscale, but rather as extending the brand’s cachet to a new product.
While friendly competitor and neighbor Etihad is promoting its ultra-upscale Residence ($30,000 each way) again, Emirates is betting that a much larger group of upscale families and business travelers will splurge a little on Premium Economy.
This ‘mass affluent’ group is growing around the world. In Los Angeles alone, there over 255,000 millionaires. These practical people, who know value, might pay the price for a comfortable Emirates Premium Economy flight without a second thought.