December 8, 2007

Flying with Emirates

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Last night I flew with Emirates for the first time, on my way to Dubai and Muscat. I must say that I was very much looking for the experience, as I had high expectations given Emirates placed second in Zagat's survey on international airlines for economy class. Well, I have a lot to write about now, after the experience, although I kinda got more than I bargained for. Here is a very long account of what happened...

I was running a little late before my departure, as I spent some time cleaning my camera equipment. I decided to take a cab from home to the airport, since I was worried about my pre-booked left-hand-side window seat being cancelled if I checked in a little too late. My cab driver had never dropped anyone off at Terminal 2 (and I had never checked in there myself), so he got a little lost. I finally had him drop me off in front of the escalators from the parking lot to the building, and rushed up to the counter.

I probably arrived around 55 minutes before the flight, just a couple of minutes after airlines would normally release any pre-booked seats. Emirates farmed out their ground handling to Jardines, and I was obviously facing someone very inexperienced (maybe even a trainee), since it took her 3-4 minutes just to find my reservation, even though I handed her a print out of my reservation. There was a senior ground staff from Emirates kinda looking over her shoulder.

After finally finding my reservation, she proceeded to tell me that I was getting one of the last seats on the plane. I pointed out to her the fact that I had already had a window seat reserved, and for her to please check. Apparently the seat has been released and is now occupied by someone else. What's more, she informed me that it is the airline's policy to release reserved seats 1 hour before check-in counter close. Since check-in counters officially close 50 minutes before flight departure, she is effectively telling me that I have to check-in almost 2 hours before flight time to keep my seat.

I made it clear to her that I thought this was ridiculous. Most airlines will keep your reserved seats and only release them one hour before flight time. I mentioned this to her, and her reply was "But this is how we do it here." Wonderful. I looooove that line. A customer is giving you feedback to let you know that your competitor is doing something better, and you are not performing up to his/her expectations/standards. And what do you do? Tell them that you don't give a damn coz things ain't gonna change around here. Everytime someone says that to me, I have to urge to reply: "...and this is how you just lost a customer!"

After seeing me throw a hissy fit, she manages to find a window seat for me that was originally taken by the crew. Unfortunately it is on the wrong side of the plane. I had wanted to be on the left side to get a view of the Dubai coastline as we approached for landing. Now I'm going to miss that view. Nevermind. At least I have a window seat with a view.

But wait...after issuing me my boarding pass, she suddenly wasn't sure she could release that seat to me. So I'm left standing at the counter while she figures this out. By that time she handed me back my boarding pass, it had taken more than 20 minutes to check me in, and the time now was only 35 minutes before departure. I will now have to haul ass to get to my gate on time.

I am now on board in my seat. The cattle class seats on Emirates look a bit skinny at first, fitting 10 in a row on a 777-300ER. But as had been advertised for the last 10 years, they do have the best entertainment system of any airline, even in cattle class. They boast 500 channels, and based on a quick glance I would say that they are not lying. And all AVOD, too!

But minutes after I sit down, I start drawing comparisons with my cliche about China - that it's all about the hardware. Yes, the AVOD system is nice, but can't they do something about the flight attendants?! Most of them (especially the women) have very poor attitudes and are frowning most of the time. Emirates hire their crew from all over the world and I counted Brits, Thai, Korean, Indonesian, Filipino, Arabic, Hongkie among the ones walking around on my flight. But they are very poorly trained, and inefficient.

Meal service. At one point I counted 4 carts being pushed by flight attendants on one aisle in the back half of Economy. This sort of traffic jam wouldn't happen on other top airlines like CX or SQ. And they serve their bakery items cold! I had a cold (as in just came from the fridge) dinner roll, and cold croissants (again fresh from the fridge) for my breakfast!

The only good thing about the in-flight experience (other than the AVOD system) was the starry sky within the cabin. When the lights are dimmed at night, the ceiling of the cabin appears like the milky way with pinpoints of light shining through. I supposed that it, along wit the wavy desert motif on the sides of the cabin, is supposed to evoke of sense of being in the desert under starry skies at night. Very romantic.

OK, there's more. We finally landed in Dubai, on time. I now have 2 hours before my connecting flight to Muscat. No problem!

Dubai Int'l Airport is constructing an extension terminal where they will park all Emirates flights. For now they don't have enough gates to accomodate all the flights coming in, so we park on the tarmac and wait to be offloaded. After everyone has gotten up and waited for a few minutes, we are informed by the captain that they don't seem to have one of those mobile staircase thingies to enable us to get off. So we wait. And wait. Finally, people in front seem to start moving. But the process grinds to a halt time and again, as there also seems to be a shortage of buses to transport offloaded passengers.

By the time I get off the plane, 35 minutes or so have passed since landing. Finally I am on the bus heading to the terminal building. But there seems to be a huge traffic jam on the tarmac. The bus makes its way around the airport slowly, but gets stuck. Somewhere along the route, the bus driver decides to start playing an explanation/apology from Emirates about having to bus us in due to a lack of gates. Fine, at least I now understand. But the message keeps playing in a loop since Mr. Bus Driver forgets (or did he?) to turn it off. I probably ended up hearing the darn thing more than 10 times by the time I got off the bus.

And what time did I get off the bus? More than 1 hour after I land. Can you believe this?! It takes me more than 1 hour just to get inside the terminal! This is unheard of anywhere else in the world! And what's more, I have to go through security check immediately again, which takes up more time. By the time I am through and having quickly grabbed a bottle of Evian to quench my thirst, I am 35 minutes away from my connecting flight departure time and have to run for the gate again!

But I'm still not home free. I go through the boarding gate for my Emirates flight to Muscat (which, incidentally, happens to be the farthest gate from where I entered the terminal) only to find that I have to board another bus to get to the plane. Wonderful news. Thankfully this time it took only a few minutes to get to the plane, and I board quickly.

Unfortunately, some of my fellow passengers got stuck (either traffic jam or they couldn't find a bus to ship them in). So I sit in the plane and wait. What's more, even after all of the passengers have boarded, we still couldn't leave because we were waiting for some baggage to arrive so that they can be loaded on the plane. I find out a few minutes later (since I have a window seat directly above the cargo bay) that my suitcase is among this last batch of bags. Imagine that it has now been 2 1/2 hours since I landed, and my bag finally made it onto my connecting flight...

I'm glad that I finally had a chance to fly Emirates, and that I finally had a chance to transit through Dubai Airport. But after this experience, it will probably be a long time before I would think about doing either again...

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