18th February 2010.
Emirates 777-300ER (A6-ECQ)
Departure time: 01:20am
Flight time: 07:34.
I dont mind saying it. I am very jaded with flying. I remember being excited for literally months before the first flight I ever took. I drew pictures of that Britannia 737 and pasted them up all over my room. I got an Airfix 737-200 model and tried to paint those famous blue cheatlines and the even more famous lady on the tail, with predictably hideous results for a seven year old. Unfeasibly proud of my creation, it joined the multitude of glue-streaked Lancasters, Flying Fortresses, Spitfires and F16s that hung precariously on cotton threads from the Artex in my room. By the time I hopped off the carpark free bus at Gatwick airport, I was so excited that I was hyperventilating. It was the same for my first widebody, a Caledonian Tristar three years later, and my first long-haul flight when I was 12, on a United 747. Fast forward a mere 23 years and here I am. I fly at least once a month. I have well over a hundred flights on the A319 and A320 alone, and am a prolific member of no fewer than nine frequent flyer programmes. Sadly, flying has become very mundane for me, and the gloss has largely been erased.
So I approached my latest run home to London from my new home in Singapore on Emirates with little more than a flutter. Part of it was the fact that I had to fly via Dubai instead of going non-stop, and the other part of it was that it was Emirates. Ten abreast in Y class. Hugely overrated service. Nowhere near as good as Singapore Airlines or Qantas in my view. Ignore all the hype - they are a glorified cattle-carrier in the cheap seats and have never really enjoyed a flight with them since I took Singapore Airlines for the first time. I've done UK-Far East and back with them four times in the past, but not since 2006, and by all accounts they were not as good as they were then. I wasnt expecting much.
I rolled up to Changi with the wife at ten pm, and headed straight to the bar on the roof of T1 for a few pre-flight drinks. A pint of Heineken up there costs a nasty S$15, which works out at £30 for two pints for you and your wife. Brutal.
Still traumatised by the bar bill, we headed downstairs and to the gate where we boarded first and were showed to the back of the plane where the fuselage tapers inwards leaving space for two seats instead of the usual three. I noticed that our 777-300ER, A6-ECQ, was very new, having only been delivered to EK in October last year. She was fitted with the new ICE system, of which more later. It features powerpoints, USB ports and an Ethernet port, and a very useful cupholder effort that you only really notice when you are on a plane that doesnt have one. In terms of amenities, EK's hard product in the cheap seats is every bit as good as SQ which is a hell of a statement I have to say.
And so began a real novel experience for me: a long-haul journey that I actually enjoyed a great deal. We sat down and pushed on time, heading out to the southerly end of the T1-side runway for a powerful departure to the north. Immediately the crew were into their stride. Towels were served and then a rapid drinks run was done. I was served by a very beautiful diminutive English girl called Katie, who smiled knowingly when I asked for a Jack Daniels & Coke. She then handed me two bottles of JD and winked at me. Class. About ten minutes later she came past and saw my empty bottles, and leant in close to ask if wanted another. She might have been asking for my life savings and I'd have said yes - it was the smile. Sure enough, she returned 30 seconds later with another two bottles of JD and some coke, and a huge packet of mixed nuts. I noticed her providing a fluent and very professional smiling service to everyone else around me. For so long a loyal convert to the serene Singapore girls, I have to say Katie had them beat purely by being genuine, and having a little bit of sass about her. A sandwich and snack service came round just after that and I asked if they had anything other than cheese sandwiches, as I do not eat cheese. Katie's counterpart from the other side of the trolley rushed off and came back with an Asian vegetarian ciabatta, (presumably from C class) straight away, her face full of concern that this economy passenger, one of 250+ on the full flight, might go hungry. Katie came past with another JD and Coke and some other snacks from the back of the cabin, including a packet of crisps which I later found out were hers for her rest period later in the flight, but that she had given up for me. Unbelievable. You just do not get treatment like that in Economy class these days. Well apparently you do!
The sandwiches disappeared and so did the JD's, and I settled into the ICE system. For me, it beats the industry-leading KrisWorld system in a few key areas - it is touch screen, it seems to be running on a faster processor, and it has more features. It has about the same number of channels, and the films were top notch. Both products feature a huge size screen and are, as IFE systems go, very reliable. Certainly a big improvement on the IFE on the last EK flight I took, a few years back. I watched The Hurt Locker which was one of the best films I've seen in a very long time - thoroughly absorbing and enthralling throughout.
I managed to fit in a chat with Katie and two of her colleagues in the rear galley during the flight and she was still smiling, still desperate to help even four hours into the flight. It is so nice to see someone who so obviously cares about their job, and takes it so seriously. I'm not one for undue praise but she was absolutely excellent. She insisted on me taking one more JD and coke back to my seat, and a Virgin Mary for my tired and headachy wife. The cabin was dark, but the mood lighting and tiny little fibreoptic lights in the ceiling gave the whole scene an ethereal feeling. I've been on mood lighted 777s many times but always thought it was more of a gimmick than anything else, but (and maybe it was the JD) on this flight it was nice to sit back and watch. Very nice.
Breakfast was served just before arrival into Dubai and I chose the chicken curry which was also very good, with large chunks of moist chicken in a light and tangy curry sauce with just enough spice and well presented with a tasty rice and vegetables.
For about an hour in the last stages of cruise we hit some bumps and the crew stopped service to sit down and strap in. The 777 handled the bumps like the thoroughbred it is, and we got a climb to FL38 at one point, with the power of the GE90s running through the cabin like far off thunder. Yes it is far noisier in the cabin than the A340 or A380, but the 777-300ER is a magnificent aircraft. You get a feeling of power and of solidity from everything about it. It is hugely reassuring to be on one when the dark thoughts about plane crashes creep into your mind when you are hundreds of miles from the nearest land. This flight, my logger reveals, was my 39th ever 777 flight, of which an astonishing 27 have been on the 777-300ER.
Dubai Airport was its normal vast, shiny, highly efficient self for four hours and some change during the stopover for our transfer to EK25. A real high point for me though, was seeing not one, but SIX EK A380s all lined up next to each other. I watched EK001 push and depart for LHR, and confess a feeling of some sadness to see her graceful bulk head off into the azure heat haze without me on board - regrettably this flight was booked solid and we had to wait for EK25 a couple of hours after. Even so, seeing six of the monsters, to add to the three SQ birds and the QF I saw push a start from the roof at Singapore all those hours before meant that I caught a tangible frisson of something resembling that childlike enthusiasm I referred to earlier. I doubt that will ever leave me completely, but how satisfying to get such an unexpected treat on what was shaping up to be a boring, never-ending nightflight on a humdrum carrier on a noisy 777. Its so nice to be wrong sometimes.
18th February 2010.
Emirates 777-300ER (A6-EBT)
Departure time: 09:50am
Flight time: 07:15.
The flight passed in a blur, as I slept for most of it. This aircraft also had the new ICE system, and was spotlessly clean in and out. The 777-300ER performed like the thoroughbred she is in some quite heavy (pilots: "light to moderate") chop over Slovakia and Austria, but the crew kept serving throughout. All were smiling and helpful as far as I could tell. The usual towels and menu service was carried out slowly but steadily, and the food was very good. I had a few cups of coffee when I woke up. This was a decent flight but I did really speak enough to the flight attendants to make any real assessment of their service. We landed 27R at LHR after a five minute spin at Lambourne to park next to the same A380 i saw leave DXB almost nine hours earlier, and taxi past the QF bird i saw leave Changi many more hours earlier than that. Truly an A380-tastic flight, and I didnt even go on one! Disembarkation and passport control was rapid and our bags were on the belts before us. Gate to taxi in front of T3 in under 30 minutes - impressive. No, not the word I'm looking for...
Another aspect of my preconceptions being shattered perhaps? Maybe I'm just really jaded and cynical about flying these days and have gone just a little too long since I last had a truly exceptional flight.
My only criticism of the flight was the narrow seating but that's Emirates for you. Ten abreast in economy is not nice, but the ICE and excellent food makes up for it to a great extent. When you get show-stopping service and feel truly valued as a guest not a bum on a seat, it leaves a lasting impression. EK are much-hyped and my previous flights with them have given me the impression that whilst the airline is a highly efficient and eye-poppingly vast machine, that in the service and product stakes, it lags some way behind QR and EY just up the road, and considerably behind SQ, NZ and QF in most respects.
After this flight though I have to confess a feeling of some satisfaction at for once, something living up to its hype. What a difference a smile and little bottle of JD makes eh?
(I've got back into doing trip-reports in the hope that i stop being so bloody cynical and jaded about flying all the time. Next up is LGW-DXB-SIN on EK and then in two weeks SIN-DOH-IAH so stand by for some more trip report action and a comparison with EK and QR - who is better? Stay tuned and find out! Sorry too about the lack of pics - I'll upload some later on if i get a chance...)