2020 was a turbulent year for the A380 superjumbo. After lockdown sent passenger numbers into a nosedive, some airlines said they would ground the four-engine double-decker for at least two years, while others scrapped their fleet altogether. Luckily for passengers who love the space that the £350m, 500-tonne behemoth offers, Emirates is flying in the opposite direction.
Not only is the Dubai-based super-connector still operating many of its 117 A380s, including on routes between Dubai and London and Manchester, it is also upgrading its jets. The economy, business and first class cabins, bar and showers are being refreshed and premium economy introduced – a first for any Gulf carrier. “The Emirates A380 is already one of the most sought-after travel experiences in the skies. We’ve made it even better,” says Sir Tim Clark, Emirates’ British boss.
The first all new A380 took off from London to Dubai yesterday (January 4) and Telegraph Travel was the only news outlet on board.
The first change you notice as you walk in on to the lower deck is the premium economy cabin. The new class between economy and business is the best innovation in air travel in the past two decades but it has become rather tired and “samey”, with most airlines doing little more than installing slightly bigger seats than at the back of the bus and chucking in a glass of cheap fizz. Someone needed to raise the bar and Clark has – in style.
Putting the new cabin in the nose of the aircraft downstairs – unlike rival carriers that prefer to sandwich it between economy and business upstairs - is smart because the lower deck has high ceilings, which creates a sense of space and luxury. Plus, being by the front door makes getting on and off quick and easy.
There are 56 seats in a 2-4-2 layout. Each seat has a cream quilted leather cover with a headrest that adjusted any way I wanted, removing the need for a bulky travel pillow. Thanks to the colour scheme, the cabin feels lighter and brighter than on other airlines. The wood veneer on the tray tables and walls echoes Emirates' business class, making it feel even more luxurious.
I had eight inches more leg room than in Emirates’ economy. The pitch – overall measure of distance between the seat in front – is 40 inches, which is rather like business class before the introduction of seats that recline into lie-flat beds. At 13.3 inches on the diagonal, my TV screen is the biggest to be found in any premium economy cabin. There are easily accessible in-seat charging points, large storage cubby holes and strong, directional overhead reading lights.
As the seat reclines eight inches, which feels generous, a leather calf rest and footrest pop up to create a cradle seat. Overall, there’s more space per passenger than in any other premium economy cabin. I flew overnight on the red eye and got more sleep than I usually do in premium economy.
The new cabin has three dedicated bathrooms which are big enough to get changed in without dislocating your limbs and are cleverly designed with lots of shelf space. That's a much better passenger-to-bathroom ratio than in the average A380 economy class cabin, where about 40 passengers typically share each bathroom.
The rest of the A380 has a fresh feel, too. All the economy seats are new and ergonomically designed, with fully adjustable wrap-around leather headrests. At almost 19 inches wide, they are among the most spacious “cheap seats” in the sky. The television screens have also been enlarged to 13.3 inches, the biggest you‘ll find in any economy cabin.
Upstairs, the business class cabin has been refreshed with champagne leather and new wood finishes on the lie-flat seats. The bar at the rear has been redecorated in similar finishes. The 14 first class suites are slightly wider and have taller doors, for even more privacy. The two showers, reserved for first class passengers, have been redecorated with a design that echoes the Ghaf, the national tree of the United Arab Emirates.
Some will find the design a bit too bling, but this is the Middle East, so it goes with the territory. For me, the only duff note was the take-off and landing muzak which sounds as though Clark composed and performed it himself.
You can’t book Emirates’ premium economy seats yet because the airline does not have enough jets with the new cabin to justify amending its booking systems, but that is set to change over the next 18 months when five more all new A380s will go into service. For now, Clark says he “plans to offer premium economy as a complimentary upgrade to valued customers.” Premium economy seats are also set to be installed on some of the airline’s Boeing 777x aircraft, that are due to join the fleet in 2023. Existing A380s may be retrofitted.
That means, for the time being, the catering and amenities are economy class. But, no matter. Dust down your frequent flier card, dress the part and you could be flying at the pointy end for the price of a ticket at the back.