Flying First Class in a Pandemic: SWISS vs. Emirates

Background

At the start of January 2021, I travelled from Switzerland to Dubai to give a course in Ras Al-Khaimah, which is one of the emirates that make up the UAE. I decided to fly in First Class on this trip to avoid having to sit next to another passenger. I’m quite willing to believe that the HEPA filters are effective. But I’m not sure how much help that is if the guy you’re sitting next to in Business Class is infected.

On the outbound I flew SWISS. Originally, I should have returned on Saturday on SWISS. But eventually, I got myself a new ticket on Emirates, which allowed me to return home a day early. As such, I was able to make a direct comparison between the two carriers in general, as well as of how they handle flying in the pandemic.

Schedule

Currently, both SWISS and Emirates still operate on the Zürich to Dubai route. However, neither one of the two carriers provides a daily service anymore. Emirates flies five times a week, and the route has been downgraded from an Airbus A 380 to the Boeing B 777-300. Whereas SWISS operates three to four times a week and is sending anything from the Airbus A 330-300 to the Boeing B 777-300 down to Dubai these days. SWISS has terminated the extension of the flight from Dubai to Muscat.

The SWISS flight has been rescheduled and now departs Zürich at 16h15, to arrive in Dubai at 01h25. The Emirates flight departs Zürich at 14h35, to arrive in Dubai at 23:45.

The return flight with SWISS departs from Dubai at 03h50 and arrives back in Zürich at 08h05. Whereas Emirates departs from Dubai at 08h25, to arrive at 12h25.

As far as I’m concerned, Emirates has the more attractive schedule in both directions, simply because you’re not travelling in the middle of the night. At a block time of about six hours, the flight is hardly long enough to get any decent sleep. And a departure at 03h50 from Dubai is simply a human rights violation to me.

Booking

The whole purpose of flying First Class on this trip was for me to have as much personal space as possible on the aircraft. Both SWISS and Emirates have a First Class cabin layout in a 1 + 2 + 1 configuration. Clearly, my intention on this trip was to secure one of the single seats. However, on the Emirates website you only get to see which seats are still available in the cabin once you have completed the booking and go into the ‘Manage my Booking’ section to select your seats. This is much better on the SWISS website, where the seats can be selected before payment is made.

Getting to and from the airport

Emirates’ complimentary chauffeur service is a hard act to follow and just takes another burden off your mind when travelling. Public transport in Switzerland is excellent and generally very reliable, even in snow and adverse weather. But these days you still have to contend with the Corona sceptics who refuse, on principle, to wear their mask properly as a rather puerile act of civil disobedience. I have no idea if the masks really offer that much protection. But that’s neither here nor there and quite frankly, if you think refusing to wear a mask in public is what defines you as a person, I think you’re rather a sad human being.

Experience on the ground & lounge access

At their hub in Zürich airport, SWISS has more or less shut down all of its usual First Class services. There are two First Class check-in counters, but the First Class island is temporarily closed. The lounges on the A and E piers are also closed, and with them the segregated security lines too.

In Dubai SWISS only uses remote stands. And I mean really remote. The transfer to the terminal is by bus and takes about ten minutes. There is a dedicated First Class bus, but that’s still not as convenient as a contact stand. SWISS does not provide a lounge for its departing passengers in Dubai, which is particularly nasty if you’re looking at a departure at 03h50 in the morning.

At their hub in Dubai airport, Emirates has kept the First and Business Class terminal open. The First Class lounge is temporarily closed. However, the Business Class lounge remains open and one half of it has been sectioned off for First Class passengers only. In the First Class section food can be ordered from the staff, the menu is available online and can be viewed using a QR code.

In Zürich, there is no lounge available for First Class passengers on Emirates, as their lounge is located on the E pier which is currently in hibernation.

Interaction with the staff and crew

On the ground I couldn’t really say there was much of a difference in the way passengers interact with the staff. There are Plexiglas screens at the check-in counters, and staff were all wearing their face masks properly.

With the cabin crew though, it’s a very different story: on SWISS the crew were merely wearing face masks. An announcement was made informing passengers to keep their masks on for the duration of the flight and especially when approached by the cabin crew. On my flight this was mostly respected. There have been a few minor changes in the service on SWISS: the starters are no longer served from a trolley and instead, passengers are brought all their courses individually, directly from the galley.

In contrast, the crew on Emirates are wearing this strange paper cover over their uniform. In addition to the face masks, they’re also wearing protective shields over their eyes. At the start of the meal service, the cabin crew explicitly asked me a) if I wanted them to bring the food with the covers removed, b) if I wanted them to remove the covers once the individual dishes were served or c) if I wanted to remove the covers myself. As such, my impression was the Emirates was more proactively addressing passengers’ concerns with the service aboard the aircraft.

Cleanliness of the cabin

On SWISS the cushions were sealed in plastic. There were no blankets available, though. Every passenger was given one small disinfectant towel.

On Emirates the pillow, duvet and mattress were sealed in plastic. In addition, every passenger was given a travel kit which contained two sealed face masks, two pairs of plastic gloves and seven sachets of disinfecting gel.

The cabin and seat

Irrespective of the pandemic, the SWISS First Class cabin is elegant and stylish and a pleasure to behold. It’s typically Swiss I find, in that the designers were clearly aiming for understated elegance and a somewhat rustic vibe with the light wood finish. Other than that though, the seat isn’t really all that comfortable – in the sitting or sleeping position. What’s more, when extended into a bed there was a hard bit pressing into the small of my back, and it was impossible to find a comfortable position to sleep in. The seat isn’t very private either. The doors do not fully close, and the partitions are not very high. So that when you’re sitting fully upright, your head sticks out above. Storage space is limited and inconveniently located.

In contrast, the old Emirates First Class seat really is just very ugly to look at. The finish is garish and ostentatious and the faux gold just looks cheap. If you can see beyond all that thought, it is an immensely comfortable seat. It’s very practical in its design and offers a lot convenient storage space. It’s also very private. The partitions are high enough to ensure that you are completely concealed form view with the doors closed.

Food & beverage

The meal service is always a highlight on SWISS. The crew tend to celebrate the best of Swiss hospitality in First Class. And despite the adaptations that were made to the service because of the pandemic, this was still the case on the flight from Zürich to Dubai. The tableware is simple but elegant and the setup of the table makes it look inviting. From the amuse bouche to dessert and the drink pairings suggested by the crew, the meal was a pleasure. The quality of the food was also very good.

On Emirates, the tableware looks a bit old-fashioned in style. For example, where SWISS has these sturdy looking wooden salt and pepper mills, on Emirates they’re made of plastic and look as though they’ve seen better days. The table set up is functional rather than enticing. It’s little things: there is a cheese course offered on both Emirates and SWISS, but on the former it doesn’t tell you anywhere what the cheese are. The quality of the food on Emirates was okay, although I don’t think it was as good as SWISS, and the plating of the dishes was not done quite so expertly either.

However, what is certainly a big plus on Emirates, for me at least, is that the meal service is à la carte, so passengers can have their meal any time they like. On SWISS the entire First Class cabin is served at the same time, usually right after take-off and irrespective of the time of night or day.

Overall impression

My overall impression of the two flights in comparison is that the Emirates experience seems a lot more professional and standardised in terms of dealing with passengers when flying in a pandemic. I don’t think the experience was particularly personal on Emirates, but I felt well taken care of and the hassle of travel was kept to the minimum, while at the same time respecting the regulations in place.

SWISS has much more personal touch to its service. On the one hand, that can be rather nice. But overall, it makes the whole product susceptible to variability as the result of the human factor. Furthermore, the adaptations made by SWISS make the experience not quite so hassle free.

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