Emirates, an airline known for its “bling” with onboard bars for business-class passengers and even showers for first-class flyers (on the A380), has become the first major Middle Eastern airline to introduce premium economy as a class of service. Other airlines, including British Airways and Singapore Airlines, have had premium economy for years, and it’s been around since 1991, when EVA Air first introduced the product.
I’ve flown premium economy several times, and while it has been noticeably better than economy, I don’t believe the product is usually worth the hefty ticket price — especially when fares can often be 200% to 300% higher than economy yet the product seems much closer to economy than anything midway to business class.
Related: Emirates’ premium economy is finally coming to London — here’s what you need to know
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So, could an airline known for being “extra” become the gold standard for this relatively new class of service?
TPG reporter Zach Griff had a taste of the new seats on a recent flight from New York before the full experience was rolled out, and he was impressed. With my home city, London, being one of the first destinations to receive the full Emirates premium economy experience, I booked a flight on its flagship Airbus A380 to put it to the test.
Emirates currently has six Airbus A380 aircraft fitted with premium economy seats. From November 2022, the airline will commence a mammoth retrofit program to revamp 67 more A380 aircraft, as well as 53 Boeing 777 aircraft, with the new seats.
With only a handful of planes currently flying with this new cabin, Emirates is initially dedicating premium economy service from its mega hub in Dubai International Airport (DXB) to what it calls “high-traffic A380 routes.” London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR), Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) and Sydney Airport (SYD) all made the initial cut in August and Christchurch Airport (CHC) in New Zealand will be added in December.
Because the United Kingdom is one of Emirates’ most important European markets, the airline operates an impressive six daily A380 flights to Heathrow alone. Only two daily flights have premium economy cabins installed — the morning EK1 and afternoon EK3 services.
I chose the afternoon EK3 departure, which leaves Dubai at 2:15 p.m. and arrives in London just over seven hours later at 6:40 p.m. The return flight, EK4, departs London at 8:40 p.m. and touches down in Emirates’ DXB hub at 6:35 a.m.
Frustratingly, premium economy has still not been loaded into the Emirates Skywards loyalty program, so you can’t currently use points and miles to book this new product. However, based on the redemption rates for economy and business, I predict Emirates will charge around 50,000 Skywards miles plus fees, taxes and surcharges each way between Dubai and London once premium economy award seats are finally available.
Skywards is one of the only airline loyalty programs to partner with all four of the major transferable points programs (though the 2:1 transfer ratio with Capital One means you should focus on American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards or Citi ThankYou Rewards). Emirates also offers cobranded credit cards with Barclays.
To experience the product as close to launch as possible, I booked a round-trip cash ticket from London to Dubai (in economy for the outbound leg and premium economy on the return) for $1,878.90. It’s possible to find round-trip Emirates flights with both legs in premium economy from around $1,650 — if you book well in advance. This is fairly pricey given you can find numerous one-stop business-class fares on rival carriers like Lufthansa and Swiss between these two cities for a similar price.
I earned 3,300 Skywards miles for my premium economy flight on Emirates, which is worth about $39.60 according to TPG’s current valuations. I also earned 3,300 Skywards tier miles.
Related: Emirates’ new premium economy debuts: Here’s what we know so far
The check-in area of Terminal 3 at Dubai Airport was almost deserted when I arrived around 11 a.m.
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Given Emirates is only operating premium economy on a handful of routes right now, I was curious as to whether there would be a dedicated check-in area. The directional signage indicated there was, in zone six at the back of the check-in hall near security.
I arrived to find purple pillars indicating premium economy in both English and Arabic. It was a huge setup for only a few flights — clearly future-proofed for the retrofit rollout program next year — and I was immediately helped by a check-in agent. She was friendly and efficient but nothing was distinct from regular economy check-in.
Security was also very quick. My flight to London departed from the B gates, which required a short elevator up one floor.
While lounge access was not provided to Emirates premium economy passengers (and I have no status in its Skywards loyalty program), there were endless avenues of duty-free luxury shopping and food and beverage outlets to keep me occupied in this impressive airport terminal.
I especially enjoyed the huge Candylicious store, which reminded me of something from Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and was ideal for stocking up on sweet snacks before a long flight.
Plenty of seating was available both at and near my gate. The lounging chairs were popular with connecting passengers trying to catch up on some sleep, though there were still plenty available.
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My gate opened an hour before departure, with premium economy passengers directed through the priority lane alongside travelers in first class. It wasn’t entirely smooth — the automated boarding gates continually failed for myself and the passengers around me, forcing the exasperated gate staff to manually board most passengers.
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I initially thought the area around Gate 19 would be too small for the almost 500 passengers on my full flight to London, but there was ample room with a large waiting area one level down. Boarding commenced on time, 45 minutes before departure, with economy and premium economy guests boarded together by zones, based on their row number. My flight departed and arrived roughly on time.
Cabin and seat
Emirates’ premium economy-equipped Airbus A380 aircraft features 484 seats across four classes. Upstairs, there are 14 first-class suites and those famous onboard showers, plus 76 business-class seats with an onboard bar behind them. On the lower deck, the new premium economy cabin is located right at the front with 56 seats in a mostly 2-4-2 layout (there are eight rows of two seats along the sides of the cabin and six rows of four seats each running down the middle). There are 338 economy seats in a 3-4-3 configuration that takes up the rest of the lower deck.
As the world’s largest passenger aircraft, the A380 is unique for many reasons, one of which is the staircase at the front center of the premium economy cabin leading to the upper deck. It means the front two rows on each side are across from the staircase rather than other passengers, making them ideal for couples looking for a little more privacy.
Related: The Airbus A380 rolled through a French town for the last time
I’m not normally a fan of premium economy cabins this large as they feel less, well, “premium,” but I actually loved how spacious this Emirates cabin was. While the staircase was a constant reminder there was something better above, it gave a real sense of space and drama.
I had selected 37K, a window seat halfway back in the cabin. My first impressions of the new Recaro PL3530 seat were terrific — the cream-colored leather, which I learned was the same as in business class upstairs, felt very luxurious.
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The seats were 19 1/2 inches wide, with 38 inches of legroom and 8 inches of recline. These numbers are all fairly standard for international premium economy, but the finishes elevated the seat significantly compared to its competitors. Light-colored upholstery is usually prone to stains but these seats were spotless.
The well-cushioned headrest could be maneuvered up and down, and its side wings adjusted in and out. Crucially, these adjustments stayed in place even when I took a quick nap.
The calf rest was a noticeable feature as I explored the seat — very thickly padded and sturdy, providing excellent support for my legs, though the foot space became pretty tight once the leg rest was fully raised. The seat recline and leg rest could both be operated by buttons below the center drink tray. There was also an odd little storage space saddled next to the controls; considering it was too small to fit even my smartphone I am still unsure of its actual purpose.
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There was also a footrest that folded down from the seat in front. If you have long legs and big feet (like I do) you will probably struggle to fit your feet on the lowered footrest while the leg rest is also raised. I found the space quite tight and while I only took a quick nap, this underscored my previous issues with premium economy.
If you cannot easily sleep sitting up you would probably struggle to sleep in this seat, no matter how well padded it is. It was also difficult to get out of the seat when the passengers in front had their seats fully reclined.
There was very little storage (or privacy) around the seat beyond a magazine pocket above the leg rest and a small vertical space next to the footwell, but I loved the small cubbyhole below the inflight entertainment screen which was ideal for storing and charging your mobile phone.
There was a small gap between the edge of the seats and the aircraft fuselage which I came to love, as it provided some extra (sorely needed) storage space on the ground around my feet. For solo travelers, I would absolutely recommend the window A and K seats in this cabin.
Emirates chose to embellish the windows of the premium economy cabin with a shiny polished wood grain trim and double shutters which could be raised and lowered with buttons at the base of each window — a detail reminiscent of business class upstairs.
The tray table also had a glossy wood finish, and it could be folded out from the center console under the left armrest. Unfortunately, it was surprisingly small for an otherwise generously proportioned seat and oddly not centered over the seat (and it couldn’t be moved left or right). I wish Emirates had chosen something larger and better positioned.
Overall, while the dimensions of the seat were industry standard, the decorative finishes were definitely a step above.
Amenities and inflight entertainment
On my seat when I boarded were a pillow and blanket. Having flown Emirates economy on the outbound flight a few days earlier, it was clear the pillow in premium economy was larger and plusher, but the blanket, disappointingly, appeared to be the same.
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I also found a bottle of water in the seatback pocket and the same headphones provided to economy guests. The headphones were dreadful — uncomfortable, flimsy plastic with poor, tinny sound quality. I recommend bringing your own.
Related: 13 must-have items the TPG team can’t travel without
There was no amenity kit provided to premium economy passengers, which struck me as odd. It wasn’t essential on a daytime flight but it’s usually provided in this class of service on other leading airlines.
Emirates has always excelled at inflight entertainment with its “ICE” (which stands for information, communication and entertainment) seatback screen system, a 13.3-inch high-definition touchscreen that tilts up and down as needed. These screens are the same size as in economy; however, this is because Emirates has some of the largest economy screens of any airline, so they are an acceptable size for premium economy. The amount of entertainment available on the system was overwhelming. I usually count how many new-release movies and television series there are on IFE systems when I fly, but on this flight, I gave up after about 100. Both the range of entertainment options and the quality of the screen were outstanding.
Emirates promised 4,500 channels of entertainment; there was easily enough to entertain passengers even if the flight was to the moon and back. I watched the final Jurassic Park movie, “Jurassic World Dominion,” which had a pretty ridiculous plot but I enjoyed the quality of the new screen. There were also USB-A and USB-C charging ports.
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A single universal charging plug was shared between two seats and located between the leg rests. It struck me as odd that there was only one plug between two passengers; perhaps Emirates believes passengers are more likely to charge small devices by USB, rather than larger devices needing a full-size plug.
Wi-Fi was available on this flight with packages ranging from $4.99 for basic messaging to an outrageously priced $9.99 option for just 30 minutes and a full-flight package for $16.99. I registered acceptable speeds of 11 Mbps downloads but just 0.20 Mbps uploads.
Three bathrooms were located at the front of the cabin just behind the cockpit, which proved to be just enough for the completely full cabin of 56 passengers. These were cleaned regularly and I appreciated the gold finishes, which added a bit of class. The toiletries were from The White Company, which is also available in British Airways’ premium cabins.
Food and beverage
During the boarding process, the crew handed out glasses of fruit juices or water. I chose lemon-and-mint juice, which was refreshing, but it was a shame (and a surprise) that sparkling wine wasn’t on the tray.
Menus were handed out shortly after takeoff, and could also be viewed on the Emirates app, or by navigating to the Wi-Fi login page, without requiring a Wi-Fi purchase.
As I perused my options, drinks were offered. This Australian was pleased to see Domaine Chandon Brut Vintage 2016 on the menu from the Yarra Valley of Victoria. This retails for about $23 per bottle and tasted much more like authentic French Champagne than the sweet prosecco you might find on other carriers. When the drink arrived it was served in a stemless glass with a packet of mixed nuts.
The main meal was lunch, served shortly after takeoff. There was no choice of appetizer (orzo salad) or dessert (assorted profiteroles) though two options were available for the entree: butter chicken or tomato prawns.
Only two meal options for the main felt like more of an economy standard, and I wish Emirates had offered a third choice (perhaps vegetarian) as a point of differentiation from the cabin behind.
But when I received my tray I was immediately impressed by both the size and presentation of the meal, served on white china with actual glasses (not plastic) and metal cutlery folded in a cloth napkin.
I love orzo and the fresh-tasting pesto made for a light and tasty appetizer. The prawn entree was colorful and neatly presented, and it tasted just as appealing as it looked. Three different types of bread were offered as well (white, brown and Arabic). Since I was flying on a Middle Eastern airline, I opted for the latter, naturally.
The assorted profiteroles were plain, dark- and white-chocolate pastries in a bowl.
A misstep came when tea and coffee were offered after the meal in cheap paper cups. This really stood out and felt like perhaps Emirates had forgotten to stock the correct crockery, so it was using takeaway cups as a temporary stopgap for the new product.
A flight from Dubai to London, at around seven hours, is similar in duration to a flight from London to New York (a route I fly regularly), so I expected a very light second meal as you find on transatlantic flights. This time, there was no selection to choose from, but the four small sandwiches (ham and mustard; pastrami and pickle; cheese and onion; cucumber and cream cheese) were just the right amount of food. They came served with a fruit scone, clotted cream and strawberry jam (in an individual glass jar) — basically amounting to a high-quality British afternoon tea that was served an hour before landing.
South African purser Charl worked my aisle and proudly told me he was hand-picked to work exclusively in the premium economy cabins as his airline rolled out the new product. It was quickly clear why: He was a professional who took great pride in and enjoyed his job. The level of service he provided was more like what I had experienced in business class on other carriers, rather than premium economy.
For example, when the passenger next to me asked for wine, he gave tasting notes for all three options without needing to refer to any menus. He also presented the wine bottle to each passenger before serving; something I have never experienced during my premium economy travels.
Meal trays were also carefully tidied and checked before being handed to passengers, a simple step that makes a world of difference to the presentation of the meal and something I wish British Airways and Virgin Atlantic would adopt.
The service was almost too complex though. Lunch took two hours from start to finish, despite there being only eight rows to serve, because of how many questions each passenger was asked about how they would like their meal and beverages. Some amenities, such as a slice of lemon with each soft drink, could probably just be on request to speed up the flow, rather than offered with every order.
I had high expectations for Emirates’ long-awaited premium economy product and overall, I was impressed.
I loved being at the front of the A380 with that dramatic staircase reminding me I was on the world’s largest passenger aircraft. After so many A380s were grounded during the pandemic, it was wonderful to be back on this marvel of engineering.
There were plenty of positives from the experience. The seat and cabin finishes were very high-end without feeling too “blingy.” Service was at a business-class level from start to finish, especially with the way the wines were described, presented and poured. The food was the best I’ve had in premium economy in terms of taste, presentation and quantity. And Emirates’ inflight entertainment remains among the best in the industry and the new screens are large, high-quality and packed with shows and movies.
Considering how much time and money has been invested by Emirates in this long-awaited product, there were some unexpected shortcomings. The tray tables were a little too small, and not centered over the seat. The headphones were awful and I was surprised not to see an amenity kit. The pillow was fine, but the blanket appeared to be the same as the ones distributed in economy. The decision to serve tea and coffee in cheap takeaway paper cups also stuck out. But these are all easily fixable issues, and I trust Emirates will make adjustments as it rolls out the new product across the massive fleet.
I’ve been critical of the steep pricing of premium economy on carriers such as Emirates. Given I can usually find a connecting flight in business class on other reliable carriers for the same price as a nonstop Emirates flight in premium economy, I still think Emirates has priced this new product too high and it is not quite worth the cost despite being a great product. If you can find a good deal (perhaps with points and miles down the track) it is a noticeable step up from regular economy and probably the best premium economy product I’ve flown to date.