Flying First Class During a Pandemic

by Zoe Bowker

Curious to see how Emirates’ First Class has changed during the age of COVID-19? We flew 19 hours and 40 minutes to test it out…

On March 15th 2020, our Emirates flight from Dubai landed in Auckland, New Zealand. The next day, everything changed. Borders closed, lockdowns intensified and international travel as we knew it ceased to exist. Our lives changed from flying every couple of weeks to taking not a single flight for six months – to say things have changed would be an understatement.

Finally, it’s time for us to fly back to Dubai – so let us give you a run down on what it’s like to fly First Class during a pandemic.

At the airport

From the moment we arrive at Auckland International Airport, it’s clear that plenty has changed in our absence (and the world’s) from international travel. With just 123 passengers on our flight spread throughout the three classes, queues to check-in are completely empty when we arrive at roughly 90 minutes to departure – that’s a change we’d happily keep. After all of our paperwork is checked off – negative COVID-19 test, health declaration form from the airline and one from the UAE in addition to GDRFA approval, we’re cleared to board. It was a remarkably easy process, nothing too different to usual – and a far cry from how things were when borders first opened.

The airport is, as expected, a ghost town. All outlets bar a solitary foodservice venue and one remote-service, barricaded duty-free store are closed. There are no lounges either (though we think the Emirates lounge in Dubai may have been open at this time), it’s a wait-at-the-gate kind of scenario. Premium classes still get priority boarding (after families with small children), which is not the case on every airline post-COVID.

On board

Upon boarding our flight, it’s clear to see the carefree world of travel we took for granted in 2019 is no longer. Cabin crew are dressed in full PPE, and we can’t begin to think how tough it must be to wear this for a long flight. Speaking of long flight, the 17h 40m AKL – DXB flight has changed route, now stopping in Kuala Lumpur to refuel due to the needs of the B777 which has replaced the A380 super jumbo.

This means you’ll now have the inferior 777 layout on this route, which in Business Class is 2-3-2 as opposed to the A380’s 1-2-1. For First Class, the only real difference is there are no shower spa bathrooms (and in these times, one of the two bathrooms is reserved for crew only) and no communal bar/lounge area. The B777 we flew on was one of the newest in the fleet, however, fitted with the re-designed Business Class seats (click here to read our review of the upgraded Emirates 777 Business Class product) and absolutely enormous screens in the first class suites.

A hygiene pack waits for us on board, with sanitiser, mask, wipes and gloves. We doubt many passengers wouldn’t be fully armed with sanitisers galore, but it’s a reassuring touch. Everything on board is now presented still in its plastic – the first class notebook and pen, pillow and minibar glasses are all wrapped for hygiene purposes. Sadly, the snack bowl that you’d usually find in your first class suite is absent, and while we acknowledge the need to reduce touch points when it comes to amenities, we are mourning our usual jar of Lakrids.

We’re happy to see that pyjamas and slippers are still offered, and the bathrooms now offer individually wrapped soaps if you prefer that option to touching the pump soap (we suppose one really cannot be too careful in these times…).

Food & beverages

We’re relieved to see that the usual Dom Perignon (2008 vintage, currently) was offered, even pre-takeoff – a glass of DP was a welcome luxury after a tense and sterile airport experience. On some flights, we hear that pre-takeoff bubbles may be limited to Moët, so we imagine it will vary based on location.

So how has the menu changed during the pandemic era? Where possible, meals are delivered all at once to avoid superfluous contact, but given that we were in First Class with its dine-on-demand perks, we simply ordered dish by dish so we could still enjoy our meal at a leisurely pace.

Dishes are served with plastic covers; even the cutlery, napkin and water glass are presented still sealed in plastic. If you’re someone who dislikes excess plastic, you might not love seeing all the packaging used – but if you’re a germophobe, surely, this is paradise. And let’s face it – the plastic was still being used on a pre-COVID flight, only the passenger didn’t see it.

The First Class meal service has changed from five-course to three, but we found there was no problem ordering multiple appetizers or say, both cheese and dessert if you wished (as per usual service). It is dine-on-demand, after all.

On the first leg of our flight, AKL – KUL, we ordered the Roasted Five-Spice Chicken with butternut squash puree, spinach and sesame soy mayonnaise to start. We were instead delivered the Poached chicken with cucumber salad and ginger dressing with garlic and chives. It was delicious, so we absolutely didn’t mind the mixup – and we proceeded to order the dish we had originally asked for after. Both were served cold and rather superb – so far, this is the best in-flight food we’ve had on our 10+ Emirates First Class flights. We’re excited at this point for the rest of the dining experience, something we can’t always say.

Our main of Duck confit with sweet citrus soy jus, wok fried noodles and papaya and snake bean salad was just ok, not really living up to the enticing description. This is more like what we’ve come to expect from Emirates catering, frustratingly, even in first class.

Our refuelling stop in Kuala Lumpur lasted around one and a half hours, and while we absolutely loved being able to stay on the plane (the one positive of quarantine restrictions), there wasn’t really much to be gained by doing so. The lights were set to full brightness and PAs came through at ear splitting volume, so sleeping wasn’t really on the cards. There was no food or drink service apart from a quick offer of what is usually in the goody basket in your First Class suite (something that’s been removed during these times). Yes, it’s better than having to disembark, but it of course would have been great to have some sort of service during that time.

We were surprised to see that the menu for leg two, which departed around 1am NZ time, consisted mostly of…breakfast? We didn’t really feel like it was breakfast time yet, so opted to try two of the light bites instead – the stir-fried vegetable noodles and the beef pie. The noodles were the loser of the two – we’d have loved more vegetables and the noodles were undercooked, but in contrast, the pie was actually pretty tasty. The usual extras like chocolate truffles were also absent.

Beverages are slightly reduced at this time, with just one red and one white wine option (plus Moët and a port) in Business Class, down from two and two, which personally, we think really isn’t up to standard. First Class has seen a similar halving, going from four whites and four reds to two apiece. Beers, spirits and cocktails are reduced also, the usual Hennesy Paradis served in First Class downgraded to Hennessy XO, which clocks in around a fifth of the price of Paradis. Some frequent First Class travellers might not be too impressed by these changes given that the prices being charged are just as high as pre-COVID, but, we can understand why these measures are in place given the state of global aviation.

WiFi is still free in First Class if you’re a Skywards member, and given the low passenger load, we found it worked better than ever. We were actually able to get work done, online shopping ordering processed for arrival and able chat easily to friends and post on socials online without service disruption.

Yes, some aspects of First Class have been reduced during the pandemic – there’s a reduction in beverage range and quality and meal service has been compacted – but thankfully you’ll still find the iconic cosy pyjamas and the favourite drop of EK First travellers, Dom Perignon, available to indulge in. You may find your plane type has changed (such as our equipment change from A380 to B777) so if this is important to you, don’t forget to double check your aircraft before booking). With most Emirates A380 being currently parked, that means the spa suites and communal bars will be hard to come by in the skies, but probably for the best during pandemic times. Amenities aside, we feel the space and privacy afforded by First Class has never been worth more; the ability to ‘socially distance’ from most other passengers is truly, a luxury.

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