Emerging Markets, Pilot Shortages, A380s and Tennis: Visiting Emirates’ US Open Suite and an Interview with a Company Executive

An Emirates 777 in Dubai (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Hisham Qadri)

The US Open has returned to Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, New York and so has Emirates Airline, a 6-year sponsor of the matches. As one of the main sponsors of the multi-week event stretching from late August into September, the Emirates name can be seen throughout the Billie Jean King Tennis Center.

As a main sponsor, the Emirates name can be see throughout the grounds of the Billie Jean King Tennis Complex in Flushing, New York.

The airline invited AirlineGeeks to one of the matches to get a look at their luxury suite in Arthur Ashe Stadium and talk with one of their executives about the future of the airline.

The Emirates Suite

Located center court in Arthur Ashe Stadium, the tennis complex’s largest stadium, is the Emirates Airline suite. One of the largest and most exclusive suites in the stadium, the Emirates suite is the social hotspot of the US Open.

The view from the Emirates Airline suite in Arthur Ashe Stadium. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)

Walking into the suite, you’ll first be greeted by Emirates Airline flight attendants, dressed in their full uniforms, who are taking a break from flying to promote and represent the airline at the Open. The Emirates logo and promotional advertisements adorn the lobby in the suite, which leads you to the expansive space.

Emirates logos and promotional materials as you enter the Emirates suite. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)

Inside the suite, you’ll find a luxurious room so big that it takes up the size of 4 normal size luxury boxes in the stadium. Numerous tables and booths take up the center of the room for guests to enjoy the complimentary food and drink served at the rear of the room.

According to the seat map, the Emirates suite is the size of nearly 5 normal luxury boxes at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Emirates logos and promotional materials as you enter the Emirates suite. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)

A hot buffet, sushi bar and full-service bar are available for all to enjoy while watches the matches either outside or inside courtesy of the large screen televisions located throughout the suite. In the far back of the suite, you’ll find a large display with Emirates’ route network and all the destinations it serves.

Large screen televisions and an Emirates route map lines the walls of the suite. Emirates logos and promotional materials as you enter the Emirates suite. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)

On each table and booth fresh flowers are brought in, similar to those found in the Emirates Lounge at JFK Airport, and bar snacks including chips and dip, raisinettes, honey mustard-flavored pretzels and mixed nuts. Throughout the night, a full array of catering staff was on hand to assist guests with anything from refilling empty drinks to taking away trash.

Fresh flowers and snacks are found on each table. Emirates logos and promotional materials as you enter the Emirates suite. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)

As is any luxury suite, this mega-suite was split between an inside and outside area. While the inside was focused more on dining, the outside area was purely seats to watch the various matches throughout the day and night. In total, there were three sections of seats, one main section consisting of 3 rows and two periphery sections consisting of 4 rows each.

Each of the three sections had three rows of seating with each seat featuring an Emirates-branded seat cushion. Emirates logos and promotional materials as you enter the Emirates suite. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)

On top of each seat were Emirates branding seat cushions for guests to take home after the game. The Emirates name and logo were prominently featured, as well as their hashtag for the event, #EmiratesAce. Additionally, upon walking in, guests were given Emirates-branded hats and red caps with “Fly Emirates” across the top in white lettering. Even the silverware was branded with Emirates’ name and logo.

Guests were given Emirates-branded seat cushions, hats and caps. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)

As guests slowly poured into the suite, the meal service for the evening began. At the bar, nearly the same complement of brands available in the JFK Emirates Lounge was featured here as well as champagne. The sushi bar opened first with a dedicated sushi chef crafting the Japanese delicacy throughout the night with the standard accompaniments of soy sauce, fresh ginger and wasabi.

The bar in the Emirates suite rivals the one at the Emirate Lounge at JFK. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)

Mid-way through the first match of the evening session, dinner was served at the hot buffet. Standard vegetables including kale salad, asparagus and beets were first in line, then fresh shrimp with cocktail sauce and finally the three hot entrees of lobster macaroni and cheese, roasted chicken and vegetables and Chilean sea bass, as well as a cutting station for steak.

Paper materials are used to prevent excessive noise in the stadium. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)

The dinner service lasted until the start of the next match when the desserts were put out. On the dessert menu was a selection of cheeses and crackers with grapes, fresh fruit, a variety of macaroons, red velvet cake and carrot cake to finish out the night.

The dessert menu consisted of fruits, cheeses, macaroons and cakes. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)

As glamorous as the experience is, running the Emirates suite is not easy. As many of the Emirates employees and executives that frequent the suite will tell you, you don’t get to watch very much tennis while catering to the exclusive clientele and celebrities that pass through the suite on a daily basis. On the night of our visit, Slumdog Millionaire star Frieda Pinto and tennis pro James Blake were in attendance.

The Emirates name and logo is featured prominently on the center screen at the stadium. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)

Additionally, as one of the main sponsors of the event, Emirates takes part in a few of the fan-based events throughout the matches, one of them being the “ball fight,” where the winner of match launches a few tennis balls into the crowd. Whoever catches the ball is invited down to the suite for a prize. That night’s winners were young kids that got to come down to the suite and meet James Blake in addition to their prizes, although their parents were more excited about the Blake picture than they were.

Emirates also does a seat upgrade giveaway where a random group is given upgraded tickets to watch the matches from the Emirates suite for the duration of the session.

Interview with Hubert Frach, Emirates Airline Divisional Vice President, Commercial Operations – West

Before the matches began, AirlineGeeks had the opportunity to talk to Hubert Frach of Emirates to discuss a variety of topics including expansion in the Americas, use of the Airbus A380, new premium cabin products and the new Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner.

Resumption of Normal Service to the United States

We began the interview with the topic of Emirates reduction of service to the United States in 2017 citing President Trump’s laptop ban. With service to numerous cities across the country including Seattle, Boston and Los Angeles reduced, we wanted to know if service will be resumed to normal levels now that the laptop ban has been lifted.

Mr. Frach started by saying that Emirates is in a strong position currently in terms of service to the U.S. Additionally, the peak summer travel season met its expectations in terms of load factors which have been consistently high in the 80 percent range with the business travel demand from the previous year increasing. While service is not back to its normal levels across the board, some cities have seen service increased to normal levels, including Houston with resumed Airbus A380 service.

Although no concrete plans to bring back U.S. service to its normal levels, Mr. Frach made clear that Emirates is committed to the market and if the demand is there, services will increase. Mr. Frach stated that although some cities saw a reduction, including Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, Newark saw an increase with the flight to Athens.

Demand, however, isn’t the only consideration as Mr. Frach pointed out. Sometimes operational considerations must be taken into account. For example, some airports in the U.S., including Newark, are not A380 capable and the economic determination must be made to either send double daily flights on smaller aircraft or use the Boeing 777-300ER on a single daily flight.

Will the U.S. Become an All-A380 Country for Emirates?

Airport capability was an important factor in our next question, which was if Mr. Frach believed that the U.S. would become an all-A380 country, meaning that every Emirates flight to the U.S. would be operated by the double-decker aircraft, in the near future. Mr. Frach pointed out that the decision to use an A380 isn’t entirely on Emirates, since some airports cannot accept them and that they will have to work with airport operators to make them A380 capable before service can be launched on the aircraft.

Beyond airport considerations, however, demand is the biggest factor in deciding whether or not to employ the A380 on a route, especially premium cabin configuration. Since the entire top deck of three-class A380s is premium cabin configured with 76 business seats in total, the demand for that product must be there or else it’s not worth sending the aircraft. The Boeing 777s only have 42 business seats, a difference of over a hundred thousand dollars.

Staying with the Airbus A380, we then inquired about the airline’s plans for the 20 aircraft that it recently purchased from Airbus with options for 16 more that saved the A380 program. We wanted to know if the aircraft would be used to open new routes or deployed on existing routes.

While Mr. Frach stated that Emirates hadn’t come to a determination yet on what to do with the aircraft, he mentioned that the oldest A380s in the fleet are around 10 years old since deliveries began in 2008. Since Emirates prefers to use the aircraft for about 12 years, he said that the newer aircraft will serve to replace the oldest in the fleet first and that although they’re acquiring more aircraft, they’ll also be retiring a few older ones so it won’t necessarily mean net growth in fleet size.

Expanding South of the Equator

Moving back to service to the Americas, we touched upon one of Emirates’ most underserved areas, South America. Currently, the airline only serves 4 cities: Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago de Chile and Buenos Aires, and both Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile are served by fifth freedom flights from Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, respectively. We wanted to know what the most promising markets are for Emirates and where they’re likely to serve next on the continent.

Mr. Frach responded by saying that Sao Paulo is one of the most important points that Emirates serves because of its importance as a business and economic hub, which is why it is served with two daily flights, one solely to Sao Paulo and the other that continues on to Santiago de Chile. In terms of expansion, Mr. Frach stated that the South American markets are shaky and volatile, especially with the devaluation of the Argentine peso, and while Emirates can manage volatility, expansion takes a backseat.

However, Mr. Frach confirmed that expanding into Chile has proved to be a good decision for Emirates due to the demand for leisure travel to the country and its strong resource-based economy. Brazil, on the other hand, will have to be monitored closely as it prepares for the upcoming presidential election in October. Mr. Frach told us that after a presidential election, demand for travel slows, people are more likely to stay home following an election and business is slowed as well.

Asking about whether the market is geared towards business or leisure passengers, Mr. Frach stated that the flights routinely see both types of passengers. Especially with Chile since the diversity of the country in terms of leisure options but also the strong economy that’s attractive for business makes it a popular destination for both types of passengers.

Emirates has seen mostly Asian traffic heading to South America from countries such as China, Japan, South Korea and India. From South America, a good number of passengers are heading solely to Dubai, but also continuing on to India and Thailand as Bangkok has proved to be a popular destination for South Americans.

In terms of expansion to more cities, Mr. Frach admitted that the airline was strongly considering service to Panama, which would have been one of the world’s longest flights, but that the market wasn’t right yet. Foremost, the inbound market demand wasn’t where it should’ve been at the time. However, the airline is still interested in moving into Central America due to its emerging and promising markets and for that reason still maintains a team in Panama to work with potential partners to determine the market’s value to Emirates.

Fifth Freedom Flights in South America and Beyond

When asked whether more fifth freedom flights would be established in the country, Mr. Frach responded by saying that it depends on aircraft technology and demand. Simply put, some aircraft cannot reach to the far edges of South America from Dubai and require a stop someplace else.

Emirates has been under fire for some of its fifth freedom routes, including Newark-Athens, which Mr. Frach said was introduced to them via the Greek government and was found to be a viable route. A similar case for the New York-Milan route where Emirates believed it could serve the route, especially because of its superior premium cabin offering, due to the route’s economic importance connecting Italy’s economic center with New York.

However, Mr. Frach pointed out that fifth freedom only makes up 1 percent of Emirates’ route network and the discussion about it is overrated.

Since Mr. Frach mentioned the New York-Milan route, we asked whether Air Italy’s entrance in that market had disrupted Emirates’ revenue in any way due to additional capacity on the route. Mr. Frach responded by saying that the airline has seen a wonderful summer with the route and its revenues haven’t been affected by Air Italy. The diversity of business segments traveling on the route certainly helps Emirates because of its A380 premium cabin offering.

Pilot Shortage Affecting Emirates

Moving on to the issue of the pilot shortages that have been affecting Emirates and caused them to temporarily borrow pilots from Etihad, Mr. Frach stated that the issue was due to an internal mismatch of the number of pilots to aircraft. In short, the airline didn’t properly anticipate its demands for pilots.

However, he confidently stated that the issue has been addressed, in part, through increased recruiting efforts, including worldwide pilot recruitment, and proper planning. Emirates believes that its current recruitment numbers and increased proactive efforts will prevent the problem from reoccurring in the future.

Mr. Frach also discussed how the airline doesn’t have the problem of attracting people to Dubai because of its status as a modern world-class city with near-unlimited amenities where everything is accessible on-demand. While living in the Middle East, a region that seems so far away from what we’re used to in the West, may appear to be problematic, Mr. Frach explained how easy it is to hop on an Emirates flight back home due to its extensive global network.

Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner

Emirates ordered the Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner at the Dubai Air Show, placing a $1.5 billion order for the largest variant of the 787 family. Details have not yet been announced about the interior of the aircraft, especially the premium product, so we asked whether or not Emirates will continue with the 2-3-2 layout found on the Boeing 777s or if it will eliminate the awkward middle seat in the center.

While Emirates does not have a confirmed layout for the aircraft, Mr. Frach did state that Emirates President Sir Tim Cook has been aiming towards a 2-2-2 layout for its aircraft. The Boeing 777-200LRs are already receiving refurbishments to give them 2-2-2 configurations in business class, as well as a removing the center overhead bins to give the cabin a more open, featuring mini-bars and larger televisions in every business class seat and a new color scheme in economy class.

There are only a few remaining 777-200LRs yet to be refurbished, with the airline planning do so within the next 2 years. While Mr. Frach couldn’t confirm any additional details about the 787-10, including routes, the changes being made to the 777-200LR are a positive sign that Emirates will not be continuing the middle-seat in business class as well as giving the Dreamliners a fresh design compared to existing aircraft.

Mr. Frach did mention that the new Boeing 777X aircraft will be coming in 2020, of which Emirates has orders for 150 split between 35 777-8s and 115 777-9s.

Premium Economy is Coming to Emirates

Lastly, Mr. Frach discussed Emirates’ plans to launch its first premium economy product. Traditionally, the big 3 Gulf carriers (Emirates, Etihad and Qatar) haven’t operated a premium economy cabin, making Emirates the first to do so. The cabin will first be seen on the Airbus A380 aircraft in 2020. Three-cabin A380s will see the premium economy cabin on the lower deck while high-density A380s will see it on the upper deck.

The premium economy will be an augmented business class, according to Mr. Frach, with cradle seats instead of lie-flat seats found in business and first class cabins. The seats will be not your typical premium economy seats as Emirates is ordered seats specific to the airline but pitch and width have yet to be announced. There will be a clear distinction, however, between Emirates business class and premium economy.

While details are still very scarce, the premium economy cabin will be around 50-seats, The configuration, however, is unknown. Since the upper deck of an A380 is narrower than the lower deck, one could guess that it will be a 2-3-2 configuration and the aircraft where the cabins are on the lower deck will see 2-4-2. However, all that is speculation as Emirates has not released too much info about the cabin and Mr. Frach couldn’t speculate himself.

Thomas Pallini

Thomas Pallini

Tom has been flying for as long as he can remember. His first flight memory was on a Song Airlines 757 flying from LaGuardia to Orlando. Back then, he was afraid to fly because he thought you needed to jump off the plane in order to get off. Some years later, Tom is now a seasoned traveler, often flying to places just for the fun of it. Most of the time, he'll never leave the airport on his trips. If he's not at home or at work as a Line Service Technician at Long Island MacArthur Airport, he's off flying somewhere, but only for the day.
Thomas Pallini