- The introduction of Emirates’ flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Athens, Greece, and then Dubai, United Arab Emirates, was met with protests from United Airlines employees and members of Congress last year.
- While memorable, the protests were a single chapter in the feud between US legacy airlines and their Middle Eastern rivals.
- I had the chance to experience the flights on the way home from a trip to Dubai last month.
Last month, at the end of a trip to Dubai, I decided to fly Emirates to Newark, New Jersey, with a stopover in Athens, Greece, instead of a quicker nonstop flight to JFK Airport in New York.
In many respects, Emirates’ Newark service by way of Athens is the most controversial flight in the world.
That’s because Newark Liberty International isn’t just any airport, but the New York-area hub for United Airlines, which is the only other airline to offer a nonstop flight between Newark and Athens.
The Newark-Athens flight is what people in the airline industry call a fifth-freedom flight. It involves an airline operating flights between its home country and a foreign country with a stopover in a second country, effectively allowing an airline to operate international flights between the two foreign nations.
It also tends to rub airlines in those countries the wrong way, because it feels as if Emirates is muscling in on their turf.
So when Emirates launched its nonstop daily service between Newark and Athens in March, the inaugural flight was greeted by hundreds of protestors organised by United Airlines. Several members of Congress were also there, advocating the job security of their constituents.
The protests were but a single chapter in the long-running feud between America’s three major legacy carriers (American, Delta, and United) and the Middle East’s trio of mega-airlines (Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways).
So, without further ado, here was my experience in economy class aboard Emirates Flight EK209 from Dubai to Newark with a stopover in Athens – aka, the most controversial flight in the world.
After grabbing a quick breakfast in the business-class lounge …
… it was time to board my flight home. Emirates uses Boeing 777-300ERs for its Newark-bound flights.
I flew economy class, and the entire section was full. In fact, it was oversold by a dozen or so seats, meaning a few lucky folks got bumped up to business class.
Fortunately, Emirates’ economy seats have 32 inches of pitch. It isn’t a crazy amount of room, but more than sufficient for my needs.
The seatback cupholder’s rotating center ring proved oddly entertaining.
The first leg of the flight was five hours from Dubai to Athens.
The main event of this flight was lunch — either the chicken with sundried-tomato pesto or the lamb with rosemary sauce.
I went with the chicken. The main course was savoury and moist. The barley and lentil salad was quite good as well. But the mango mousse with Kit Kat crumbles didn’t work. I discovered that chocolatey mango wasn’t for me.
After a quick nap, Athens came into view on the plane’s cameras.
In Athens, all passengers, even those headed to Newark, were required to deplane. As the airline prepped for the next leg, we made our way through a Greek security checkpoint …
… and found ourselves at a boarding gate, waiting to get on the plane again. In total, we spent a little more than hour on the ground.
With a fresh crew and a new set of passengers, we boarded our eight-year-old Boeing 777-300ER. The airline operates a fleet of more than 160 Boeing 777s, the largest in the world.
Here were my accommodations for the next leg of the journey. Again, the entire plane was packed. Emirates provides all economy-class passengers pillows, blankets, and headphones.
All passengers also received an amenity kit, including socks, earplugs, a toothbrush with toothpaste, and an eye mask.
This leg of the flight will last more than 10 hours …
… giving me the perfect opportunity to explore Ice, Emirates’ in-flight entertainment system with roughly 2,500 channels for movies, TV, and music.
The system is controlled by the seatback touchscreen or this remote.
I was tempted to marathon my way through a season of “24” …
… but I decided to go with the complete “Fast and Furious” collection.
But first, another meal. For our second lunch, Emirates offered a choice of chicken in sauce or braised beef.
I went with the beef, which seemed the more popular of the two dishes. It was a bit salty for my taste, but remarkably tender. The chocolate dessert was serviceable, while the cold orzo salad was a no-go, missing on both taste and texture.
After lunch, the lights went out for a while, giving me the chance to experience the crown jewels of Vin Diesel’s cinematic career while admiring the cabin lights designed to mimic stars in the night sky.
Before landing, dinner was served. With a choice of salmon in beurre blanc or a chicken-and-tarragon casserole, I again went for the chicken. It wasn’t as tender as I would have liked, but the tarragon sauce’s delicate flavour saved the dish. The potato salad with gherkin and parsley was perfect — great flavour and texture.
Soon after the meal, we landed on time in Newark, around 9:30 p.m. Here’s my verdict.
With less space and fewer amenities, economy class is perhaps the most difficult of the in-flight products to perfect, meaning there’s a thin line between success and brutalizing your passengers.
Fortunately, Emirates is pretty darn good at what it does.
The food was top-notch, as was the airline’s selection of soft drinks and alcoholic beverages.
The 32 inches of seat pitch and relatively generous recline angle offered enough room for some solid napping. Unlike many of the new slimline seats, Emirates’ economy seats are well-cushioned and supportive.
Ice lived up to its billing from the airline-rating website Skytrax as the best in-flight entertainment system for the past 13 years. The large selection of Western and regional films, TV shows, and music has something for just about anyone.
Unfortunately, the screen at my seat was slow to react and didn’t have very good picture quality. But our aircraft was one of the older planes in the fleet and did not have the latest screens, which are more responsive and deliver a much better picture.
However, there was one thing bugged me.
In January, I had the chance to experience no fewer than five sets of Emirates cabin crew. Almost without fail, they were incredibly professional, helpful, and a joy to deal with -all except the gentleman assigned to serve my section on the leg from Athens to Newark, who was terse, snapped at passengers, and generally had a dour expression, as if he really didn’t want to be there.
But apart from this little speed bump, everything else was great.
So what’s my final verdict?
As controversial as Emirates’ Newark-Athens operation may be in the airline industry, the customer experience and overall service are outstanding.
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