Emirates, which operates the world’s biggest fleet of long-haul aircraft, has thrown its weight behind the future of first-class travel, pouring millions into an upgrade of the ultra-luxury category on its Boeing 777 aircraft even as other carriers dispense of the biggest berths.
President Tim Clark showcased the new design on the opening day of the Dubai Air Show, with flourishes including hard-wood floors, multiple mood-lighting options and the benefits of a window even in the centre-cabin suite, which is created by beaming the outside view through a set of mock windows.
The suites, created in collaboration with Mercedes-Benz, were built by Rockwell Collins, and Clark said they cost “many millions” to create.
“There is a view that many carriers are pursuing a response to the demise of first class by coming up with some better business class product,” Clark said.
“I have to tell you that demand for first class on Emirates remains very strong.”
The new aircraft will initially be deployed on the Brussels and Geneva routes, with cities like Chicago or Perth likely to follow.
First-class travel has become a rarefied luxury in today’s aviation world focused more on fitting as many passengers as possible into a aircraft, and many airlines have seen their customers use them mainly via upgrades on miles they have collected.
Clark pushed back on the notion that ultra-luxury is a dying vestige of a more elegant travel age, saying his aircraft are full in the most expensive seats, be it on routes from Paris or London or China.
First-class travel has all but disappeared on trans-continental routes in the US, and many airlines have focused instead on upgrading the more modestly priced section of the cabin, adding premium economy options to tease passengers into more expensive seats.
To burnish the collaboration with Mercedes, Emirates will use the German company’s cars on all its premium chauffeur services in the future.
The airline also recruited automotive journalist Jeremy Clarkson, who is seen in a new ad rattling off the luxurious excesses of the new cabin wearing a tuxedo on a runway as the wide-body aircraft roars over his head.
The re-design introduced in Dubai is focused initially on the Boeing 777 aircraft, and Emirates will eventually harmonise the concept across its entire fleet, which includes more than 140 Airbus A380s, of which 100 have been delivered.
That aircraft is bigger than the 777 and now boasts 14 first-class suites, which will shrink to 11 as the carrier increases the footprint of each berth.
Singapore Airlines pioneered the enclosed suites on the A380 a decade ago, and Etihad Airways took the concept to the next level with its Residence design, which includes a butler service and living-room quarters.
Emirates’ new layout is designed for single travellers, Clark said, though there’s enough room for two people to meet in one of the cabins.
The bed, however, is not big for two, Clark said, cautioning that the doors easily slide open and that crew members can look inside to check on the passenger’s status.
“Generally, people behave,” Clark said.