Tolerable.  That’s the word to describe it.  Sometimes just barely tolerable, sometimes better than tolerable, but never sheer agony.  Emirates Airways’ nonstop flights between the U.S. and its huge Dubai hub are always more than twelve hours and can seem even longer if the boarding pass has the word “Economy” on it, as mine did. Of five recent legs aboard Emirates 777 and A380 planes, one was 15 hours in the air.  That can feel like a lifetime confined to a coach seat.

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Ten seats across (3-4-3) is the Emirates standard coach configuration on 777s and A380s

One version of Emirates A380 aircraft crams in 557 economy seats in a total of 88 rows, with a 3-4-3 (ten-across) configuration, some of which are just 17.5 inches wide.

But at least the fuselage of the A380 is wider than the shell of the ubiquitous Emirates 777 airplanes, also configured with ten seats across in sardine class. Somehow Emirates has squeezed in as many as 385 seats on their 777s, each one a hip-crunching 17 inches wide.

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Ten seats across on Emirates looks and feels crowded, here seen on an A380

That’s pretty darn narrow.  I’m not sure, but I think the legal standard for Kindergarten chair width in some school systems probably exceeds seventeen inches.

That was the worst of it: the tiny seats, both too narrow and too close to one’s neighbors. Had that been the beginning and end of the story, I could hardly describe the experiences of five flights in such circumstances as “tolerable.”

With that said up front, though, Emirates did a good job of mitigating the harsh reality of the dinky seats in many value-adding ways that soothed my ego and tended in the general direction of civilized comfort.  Altogether, Emirates’ balms to battle agony raised the experience to tolerable.

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Connections at Dubai airport between Emirates flights were easy and painless

Backing up a step, I took this dive into the deep end of Emirates’ class offerings because of the enticement of spending just $1100 (taxes included) to fly halfway around the world from Raleigh to Sri Lanka and back, with a free stopover in The Maldives.  I couldn’t resist the bargain and threw caution to the wind.  For such a pittance, I figured I could suck it up and endure the long flights in cattle class.

I was right, too.  The flying experiences didn’t give me nightmares or send me to the E.R.  Emirates’ partner JetBlue took me to Boston from RDU, where the connection to Dubai was a 777-300ER. From there another 777 took me to Male’ (Maldives), and later yet another 777 from Male’ to Colombo (Sri Lanka). Going home, a fourth Emirates 777 jetted from Colombo to Dubai.  The connection there was to an A380 to JFK, from whence JetBlue transported me to Raleigh.

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Emirates flight attendants in coach universally smile , and their attitudes towards us hapless economy passengers were always genuine and positive

So what moved the needle from horrible to tolerable on those five flights?  The many small Emirates spiffs that consistently rained down upon coach passengers on every flight:

  • I’ve already mentioned the seats were slightly—but noticeably—wider on the A380 than on the 777s. Ten seats across are too many, but better when the seat is a little wider
  • Despite the narrow confines of each seat, recline was pretty good for coach, possibly because the seats seemed designed and contoured better for the human body than coach seats of the past
  • In the same vein, seat pitch (distance between rows) was not claustrophobic, leaving room for seats to recline without terribly invading personal space
  • Hot towels were religiously handed out after boarding and just before landing
  • Big screens on 380s and most 777s made watching easier, more inviting
  • The ICE (Info, Communications, Entertainment) systems worked well (except on the Colombo to Dubai 777, which kept crashing)
  • Ditto for handheld ICE controls: Most worked well
  • ICE content was outstanding, with enormous variety of movies, TV programs, games, entertainment, and even live TV
  • Cheap non-noise-cancelling headset were free and worked okay, though definitely the weakest link in the ICE package; I brought my own Bose noise-cancelling, around-the-ear headphones
  • Menus were handed out on all flights in coach
  • A small but adequate amenity kit was provided on all flights in economy (eyeshade, toothbrush and paste, socks, but no earplugs); I cannot imagine getting a coach amenity kit from a U.S. carrier, ever
  • Pillows and blankets were provided for every coach seat
  • A well-designed, adjustable headrest made sleeping easier
  • Decent meals, some really good, others mediocre, though breakfasts were always pretty good
  • Mid-cabin snacks, fruit, water, booze, wine, beer, fruit juices, etc. out through entire flight for anyone to take in coach
  • Alcohol flowed at seats, too. All you had to do was ring the call button, though I did observe some drunks finally get cut off Colombo to Dubai
  • Emirates staffs plenty of FAs on duty at all times in economy, and they were always always friendly, responsive, willing to help with anything; I was happily surprised to see the consistently good attitude of cabin crews
  • Emirates flight attendants are like the United Nations of the skies: so many ethnic and cultural groups represented; on our last flight, the cabin crew came from 18 different countries and spoke 16 different languages
  • Special stuff for kids was handed out, and FAs were very helpful with bassinets for infants
  • Adequate lavs on 777s, though just 5 lavs in forward 3 sections of coach on 380 lower decks, and those were often full, creating lines. 3 on the 380 were on the pedestal deck, of which 2 were unusually roomy, while the 3rd was extremely tight (could not easily get in or out when opening door, as it barely cleared the toilet lid). Remaining 2 on main deck average size; nonetheless, I never had to wait more than 8 minutes for a lav
  • Lav cleaning by the cabin crew was frequent and adequate, especially considering the nonstop use
  • Emirates provided a meal voucher good for about $15 credit in many Dubai airport restaurants to help ease the pain of a long layover coming home
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Emirates meal voucher good for airport restaurants in Dubai given to economy passengers with long layovers

No, the spiffs couldn’t make up for the narrow seats, proving once again that air travel comfort is first and foremost about the seat.

Despite that unwavering reality, Emirates won me over with their multitude of small efforts to take the edge off the seat discomfort, combined with the positive, friendly attitudes of their flight attendants.  I came away knowing I could do it again for 15 hours in coach on Emirates without dread and probably will.

However, if Emirates introduced a premium economy product similar to Cathay Pacific’s, then I’d pay extra for it in a heartbeat.

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Dubai airport gate

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