The inflight bar and lounge area aboard Emirates’ Airbus A380 jets has become something of a signature for the airline, having first been experienced by Emirates passengers in 2008 when the airline received its first superjumbo.
Nine years later, that space was freshly redesigned with a new colour palette and bespoke seating – and will be revamped once more by late 2020 or early 2021 – but when Emirates first launched that flying bar in 2008, its success was far from guaranteed.
Executive Traveller winds the clock back by a decade in an exclusive interview with Emirates President Sir Tim Clark, to see how that first bar came about, and how the airline hedged its bets in case the bar’s popularity didn’t take off.
Conceiving Emirates’ first-ever inflight bar
Compared to the Boeing 777s that Emirates was flying in 2008, the A380’s entry into service marked a significant boost to business class, jumping from 35-42 seats per flight on those older Boeing 777s to having room for as many as 84 business class flyers on the superjumbo’s upper deck.
For an airline used to carrying half as many premium passengers on each flight, having space for 84 “was probably a little bit over the top,” admits Clark.
“The A380 gave us such a step increase in seat count per aeroplane, versus the 777s that we had in the day,” that the solution was instead to sacrifice eight of those business class seats – that may not have otherwise been sold, especially in those early days – in favour of an inflight bar instead.
Clark, who had spent 10 years working for Bahrain-based Gulf Air before moving to Dubai when Emirates was founded in 1985 (and later becoming President in 2003), drew on that earlier experience when mapping out the floor plan for the A380s.
“A bar had been seen on the Gulf Air TriStars in the years before (Emirates) was formed … so you can see where some of the ideas came from,” he hints.
“But had our bar not been there, we would have had 84 business class seats – instead of 76 business class seats” as Emirates has today on its three-class A380s, so “I designed the bar at the back of the aircraft on the upper deck, on the understanding that if it didn't work, we could remove it in 96 hours and put eight more business class seats in.”
Emirates hedged its bets, but quickly booked a win
In planning for that possible removal, Emirates’ first batch of A380s came fitted with overhead lockers in the bar area to help with a speedy transition – after all, an aircraft on the ground doesn’t make money, and if the bar didn’t work out, each plane would have to be grounded for four days to make that switch.
“All those (lockers) were left in deliberately, even though we spent an awful lot of time and money designing the bar and gilding the lily a little bit. There was a degree of concern as to how it would work,” Clark shares.
To the look and feel of the space, “it had to be a statement, it had to be part of the launch of this aircraft, which was going to include grand staircases, the showers et cetera, and the new business class seats that were coming: so, this was all part of it.”
Clark now admits that “we didn't actually think that many people were going to use it, but how wrong we were!”
As Emirates continued taking delivery of factory-fresh Airbus A380s, those newer planes arrived without overhead lockers in the bar area – but that brought about another problem: having enough oxygen masks in case of emergency, in what had become an incredibly popular space.
“As soon as the aircraft was launched on routes like London and places like Sydney, it was clear that we had to increase the number of dropdown oxygen masks to a minimum of 16, because at times, we had even (more passengers there than that).”
Still, that’s a good problem to have, and allowed Clark to breathe a sigh of relief on what had been his superjumbo gamble.
“It was popular from day one, and so we never looked back on that.”
Many passengers book Emirates just for the bar
When asked whether the inflight bar attracts more passengers to Emirates than it ‘loses’ – given it occupies the floor space of what could have been eight extra business class seats on every A380 – Clark is confident that on a typical flight, at least eight passengers chose Emirates just for the bar.
“Probably more than that,” he elaborates. “It's hugely attractive … incredibly popular, and people go from miles around to get on board the aeroplane. It's more than paid for itself.”
“Every time I travel on it, which is regularly, the bar is pretty full … particularly on ultra-long-range flights where we operate the A380, where it comes into its own really well and people go out of their way to travel on us.”
Two examples given are flights from Auckland to Dubai – clocking in at over 17 hours – and from Dubai to places on the US west coast like Los Angeles, which tick past 16 hours.
Emirates’ 2017 inflight bar revamp
With growing competition from its Gulf neighbours – Etihad and Qatar Airways both getting their first A380s in 2014, equipped with sizeable inflight lounge areas – Emirates introduced a redesigned version of its A380 lounge space in 2017, drawing on a more refined colour scheme and with a new style of communal seating.
“It's like everything in life,” Clark explains. “If you rest on your laurels, if you don't change out automotive designs, interiors and exteriors, if you don't change out consumer electronics et cetera, then you'll get marked down because others will.”
“We need to move. We have to move with the times, and the bar was proving extremely popular, so we took the opportunity to modernise it, go away from the teaks in the air, walnut et cetera, and give it a more 21st century look and feel, which I think we've done fairly successfully.”
“And as a result, people are perhaps using it a tad more, I don't know. But certainly, we can seat more people and there seems to be a highly convivial atmosphere down there, every time I go through it anyway,” Clark adds.
Emirates is currently working on a third-generation of its popular inflight bar and lounge space which will debut on selected flights from late 2020 or early 2021, as well as new “social areas” for its Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 jets, set to enter the Emirates fleet from 2023.