The Truth About Flying Emirates Economy Class

A Boon for Business Travelers, a Bust for Coach Passengers

Boeing 777-300ER
••• Emirates' Boeing 777-300ER. Robert Alexander/Getty Images.

Emirates, which is based in Dubai, prides itself on flying one of the youngest fleets of planes. But newer is not always better, since many of the latest aircraft squeeze even more coach passengers into less space.

When we learned that Emirates had introduced service from New York's JFK Airport to Malpensa in Milan, Italy and was offering a low introductory economy-class rate, we jumped at the opportunity to travel to Italy, is one of Europe's most romantic countries.

Emirates Equipment

Although Emirates has purchased a number of A380 Dreamliners, our plane was a modern 777-300ER that extended back some 50 rows with its coach seats ten across in a 3-4-3 configuration. It is a massive, fuel-efficient model that engirdles passengers so tightly that I wondered if the designers ever sat in the back.

Economy-class seats are as narrow as those on short-hop Southwest Airlines' 737s: a fanny-pinching 17 inches. On a Southwest flight from, say Las Vegas to Los Angeles, that's almost bearable. But on a plane designed to fly eight hours direct from New York to Milan, ouch!

Despite the cruel and unforgiving narrowness of the seats, they are nicely upholstered. Unfortunately, they are crammed together so tightly that if you are not on an intimate basis with your seat mate when you board, you may be by the time you land. And you may also fly uncomfortably close to the passenger in front of you, should he or she cruelly decide to recline.

Because we're all so crammed in, aisle seat passengers on a full flight tend to defensively lean away from center seaters. That makes them sitting ducks to be awakened by passing passengers and crew during service as well as throughout the flight. In the back, there's no place to run, no place to hide, and no place to sleep unless you knock yourselves out.

Dining with Emirates

Emirates foodservice draws a distinct line between premium-class passengers and the rest of us. The Emirates Lounge at JFK for business and first-class is an outstanding place to have a meal before boarding one of their flights. (Not that you won't be graciously served onboard if you travel in those sections.) The advantage of dining here, rather than on a late-night flight, is that you can go to sleep after takeoff rather than waiting for food service.

Culinary pleasures in the lounge include plates of smoked salmon, ramekins of beef and mushroom sauce topped with puff pastry. A constantly refilled steam table and a gondola with dessert plates tempt. There's also unlimited Champagne and wine, excellent service, and even complimentary toothbrushes and toothpaste in the loo.

Then there's what's served in steerage. En route to Milan on our eight-hour flight, we received for dinner a box whose contents revealed a single slice of microwave pizza. Period. Prior to landing, passengers were offered breakfast, which included an ice-cold fruit cup and over-salted spinach frittata. Mangia!

Entertainment Aboard Emirates

This is where Emirates does excel. Its ICE system consists of a large screen built into economy-class seat backs.

Using either a controller or the touch screen, passengers can select from hundreds of current and popular movies, great music, even audiobooks to queue up and entertain themselves in flight. All of the A380 and some Boeing 777 aircraft have free Wi-Fi and in-seat power.

If You Fly Emirates...

  • Try to select mid-week flights departing during less-busy times. On our return flight, only 80 out of 300 seats were occupied, and it was a completely different and actually pleasurable flight.
  • In the back of the 777 are a few rows of two, rather than three, seats across. Don't pick the last row (across from the toilet), but the rows ahead of it. For couples, these are a small luxury where no one need suffer in the middle seat.
  • If you can't spring for business class, buy three seats instead of two. Although legroom will still be tight, you can flip up the armrests and stretch out a bit together.
  • Bring your own food.
  • Check in online before you leave for the airport. If departing from the United States, you won't be issued a boarding pass but you may be able to wait on a shorter line at the airport to obtain one than passengers who have not done so.

For More Information

Visit Emirates Online

Pre flight, the writer was provided a complimentary buffet in the Emirates Lounge for the purpose of reviewing that aspect of Emirates. To this day, she regrets not stuffing her carry-on with many of the complimentary delicacies arrayed so that she had more than a single slice of microwaved pizza to eat during the seven-hour flight in the economy section.