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Interview: Sir Tim Clark, CEO Emirates, on his new Business Class, success of Premium Economy

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On Thursday, Rob and I donned our suits and headed to the Aviation Club lunch in Mayfair. We were there to hear what Emirates President and CEO Sir Tim Clark had to say, both about his own airline and the industry as a whole.

Sir Tim covered a huge amount of ground over more than an hour, including comment on Rolls Royce, Airbus, Boeing’s challenges and Heathrow’s third runway. I hope to cover all of this in another article.

More interesting for us, and what I am covering today, was what he had to say about the new business class coming on Emirates’ new A350s (arriving this year) and the success of their premium economy cabins, which we reviewed here.

Interview: Sir Tim Clark, CEO Emirates

Premium economy has been a huge success

Emirates was late to the game introducing a premium economy cabin on its long haul aircraft. Whilst Virgin Atlantic and EVA Air introduced the new class way back in 1992, Emirates only rolled it out in 2021 as part of its A380 refurbishment program.

This is despite the fact that premium economy is a massive money-maker for many airlines. Lufthansa says that premium economy makes more money per square metre than any other cabin, despite only introducing it in 2014. IAG was also singing its praises in its 2023 results announcement yesterday.

Lufthansa claims it generates 6% more revenue than business class and 33% more than economy. British Airways says it is almost as profitable as its Club cabins.

I asked Tim Clark why it took the airline so long (responses have been lightly edited for clarity):

“We took the view that if you looked at their [competitor’s] economy, compared to our economy, there was no need to do a premium economy cabin. What they did with their premium cabin was basically the same as our economy.

The way we thought was perhaps a little bit cavalier, a little bit arrogant, but we really gilded the lily in economy. However the time came when it became apparent, talking to my peer group, that they were quite bullish about the success of their premium cabins and I thought, well, we need to try it.

Then of course went through the pain of planning this out to a fourth decimal place to see that we had got our sums right, which was all done pre-covid. And then everything stopped for covid and when we started again, the fares we could achieve jumped by about 125% compared to the plan. It immediately went into profit, and has stayed that way.

Our main worry was that premium economy would take a bit out of business class, so this was factored into the maths. The idea was that all of the people who bought the high fare buckets in economy would trade up. And that’s exactly what happened, and more. Even people who were paying less than the [highest economy fares] also traded up. Very few came down [from business class to premium economy]. Some smaller businesses who are a bit budget conscious who did trade down travelled more with us. The bottom line is that the income in absolute terms was great.”

Interview: Sir Tim Clark, CEO Emirates

What about the customer experience?

“I didn’t want to do what I’d seen so many do, which was to just add more pitch [leg room] and not a lot else. I said let’s really do an ‘Emirates’ on it, so I put that wood in the cabins and did all these lovely seats. We took Mercedes S Class-style seats and put them into Premium Economy and made it look like The Ritz Carlton on steroids. And I think it works.”

Emirates opted for cream leather seats which – when the renders were revealed – generated lots of discussion online as to how durable they would be and the maintenance required to keep them cream.

“When we launched in the early days, the colour palettes that we chose were all light but everybody else was dark, black and brown and grey. I thought, why would you create a little tube space and make it so claustrophobic by putting dark colours in? What you need to do is lighten it up, which is what we did. We’ve always done that. The leather seats in premium economy and the colours of those are part of our DNA.

We positioned it on the main deck between the front two doors with 56 seats. And now [people in business class on the top deck] come out and say ‘Mr. Clark, there’s a party going on downstairs. You’ve got to come and look.’ They’re all standing up and they’re having a wonderful time and I said, ‘Oh, my God, I knew we put too much booze on!’

But you know, all that we are offering, putting more crew on, the better quality of wine, even putting business class wines in there, introducing our own sort of champagne in there, lifting the food offering …. Great craic, it was a wonderful, wonderful experiment, which has clearly paid off.

I’m just a little bit worried about whether it will work on our regional operations when we put it on the A350. It will be buzzing around Kuwait, Oman and Cairo – will it perform? We’ll see.”

Interview: Sir Tim Clark, CEO Emirates

Emirates’ new business class is coming

Speaking of the A350, let’s talk about their imminent arrival. Emirates has 65 on order, including a top-up order of 15 that it made at the Dubai Air Show last year. So far, it only has the smaller A350-900 on order although the airline is very much interested in ordering the larger -1000 – more on that in another article.

The first A350 is pencilled in to arrive in the late summer, likely around August, and will introduce a new business class cabin for the airline.

Despite its (fantastic) marketing and reputation, Emirates hasn’t always been at the forefront of customer experience for premium travellers. It is about to begin process of refurbishing the now-dated 2-3-2 layout that you find on many of its Boeing 777 aircraft.

“We’re going to do the best we can with our business cabin, it will be a 1-2-1 layout rather than 2-3-2, spacious. In the early stage it will replicate what we do on the A380 on the upper deck in business, but with slightly more room and more modern technology both in the design and build of it.”

Initial A350 deliveries will come with something of a half-way house business class cabin. This will be superseded by an even newer business class with later deliveries, although Sir Tim Clark did not specify when:

Interview: Sir Tim Clark, CEO Emirates

“The next stage after [the initial A350 deliveries] will be a new design for business class. I’m not going to say what it is, but I just wish that we had a patent on the doors that we designed for the A340-500 suites because everybody’s using putting doors on now! It will be a great aeroplane, it’s going to be extremely comfortable.”

The 777X fleet – when they arrive in late 2025 or early 2026 – will also feature a new seat. What this will look like is still under wraps, although Emirates has signed a $1billion deal with French seatmaker Safran which also supplies Emirates’ A380 seat. Assuming Emirates goes for a customised, off-the-shelf seat then it really has three options:

  • Safran’s Unity seat, selected by Qantas for their ultra-longhaul A350s and the backbone of Air India’s upcoming fleet refurbishment. This is a staggered layout, similar to what Emirates already flies on its A380s
  • Safran’s Versa seat, a herringbone (angled) configuration that Air France is currently installing on its A350s
  • Safran’s Fusio seat. This would be the most impressive choice, as it is widely seen as a larger seat with more personal space. It is the seat flown by ANA on its refurbished Boeing 777 fleet and has been widely praised.

Emirates’ A350s will come in a three-class configuration with business, premium economy and economy. Sir Tim confirmed that it would feature 312 seats, slightly fewer than the 324 seats that Air France has on its A350-900s or the 348 on Iberia’s less premium-heavy birds.

Sadly, the A350s are unlikely to see regular service to the UK. This is largely due to their size as they are significantly smaller than the A380, which can accommodate up to 615 passengers in the most dense configurations Emirates has. The UK is the airline’s strongest market and even airports such as Glasgow now see daily A380 services.

Part 2 of this interview covers Sir Tim’s views on a is Boeing and Airbus woes, including the 777X and A350-1000.

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Comments (52)

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

  • Blair Waldorf Salad says:

    Emirates are great for point to point London/Manchester to Dubai on the A380. The lounges in UK are very good and the arrival experience at DXB T3 far superior to T1 in every way. However, they are dead in the water for me on an onward connecting itinerary due to the fear of the 2-3-2 layout on the 777s. It is interesting when I go home to Dublin how different the perception is there, DUB being served only by the 777.

  • Neil says:

    Great read. Be interesting to see when more A380s will be reintroduced to the UK. Most of Emirates 615 seat A380’s are still in storage and the likes of BHX-DXB is on 1x daily 380 and 1x daily 777 which is still below the pre-covid 2x daily 380! Hopefully the final 380’s will out of storage soon!

  • Kuestrian says:

    “We took the view that if you looked at their economy, compared to our economy, there was no need to do a premium economy cabin. What they did with their premium cabin was basically the same as our economy.”

    Thanks for the laugh, to help start the day!

    • Si says:

      Yeah 10 across in economy, what an industry leading offer!

    • Kowalski says:

      Yes, I actually laughed out loud when I read that!

    • AspirationalFlyer says:

      I think this (at best) depends on what airlines they are comparing themselves too. I certainly don’t think economy on Emirates is any better than it is on Singapore, Qatar or Etihad. Emirates have historically had good IFE, although many airlines have caught up now (including many of the European ones on their newer aircraft).

    • Blair Waldorf Salad says:

      I didn’t think it was laughable, and thus the pile-on re it being a puff piece is a bit harsh. Emirates economy seems oddly popular due to reasons some people value:
      – vast array of seating possibilities with some passengers saying the front section on the A380 lower deck feels like a private ‘premium’ cabin
      – printed menus and/or menu listed in the IFE
      – free wifi for messaging
      – meals served in reusable plastic white dishes that look a bit like porcelain rather than foil containers
      – pillows and blankets meticulously laid out prior to boarding
      – over-ear headphones rather than cheap disposable in-ear ones
      – the greater general sense of space afforded by the A380 including toilet provision

      Personally it’s still economy to me and I don’t do either economy or premium economy. But these are features I have seen people comment on in online reviews and mention in person.

      • meta says:

        All the things you listed are offered by other airlines in economy. It’s nothing novel. Not all offer these, but plenty do.

  • Thywillbedone says:

    Not to be ‘that guy’, but is this really an interview? Seems like a standard corporate PR pitch with some Q&A tacked on …

    • Qrfan says:

      I think that’s fair. That the nonsense about Emirates economy being equivalent to premium economy elsewhere was allowed to get to print without being shut down suggests a very friendly audience. The latter part of that answer is the real story – fear of customers trading down.

      • Rhys says:

        Did you read the whole thing? He admits it was arrogant in the next line!

        • Qrfan says:

          It’s not arrogant, it’s factually nonsensical, and I don’t believe for a minute that it’s what he actually thought.

          • Rhys says:

            I think the fact that he says how successful premium economy has been speaks for itself on their decision to drag their feet so long 🙂

    • Rob says:

      We’ve combined two interviews – an audience Q&A and a special interview session we had afterwards.

  • James says:

    Can you ask if we’re likely to see an appearance at Edinburgh for EK (especially as QR’s success will not have gone unnoticed).

    • BJ says:

      I hope not, I’d much prefer the rumoured third daily Qatar rotation. Better still, I’d rather an East Asian carrier came to Rfinburgh before either of those two things happened.

      • Numpty says:

        How about copying the NYC – FRA – SIN that Singapore do? A Singapore airlines route that goes NYC – EDI – SIN would open up options east and west.

        • BJ says:

          I would think SIN-EDI-Canada could work. I think I read here or elsewhere Ethiopia might start EDI via someplace in Europe similar to MAN flight. Stuff like that not quite so good but still welcome.

  • The real Swiss Tony says:

    Nice read for a Friday morning.

    I can only assume Sir Tim’s reference to DNA was a very deliberate elbow in the ribs of IAG whose mantra still revolves around making the customer experience as unpleasant as possible.

    Think the elephant in the room here however is the state of DXB. The lounges & premium security are good, but the rest is a jumbled mess.

    • Blair Waldorf Salad says:

      No premium security at all in T1, for those not flying Emirates 🫠

    • Rhys says:

      He spoke a lot about DWC as well, which was interesting. DXB + getting planes from Boeing/Airbus are their biggest constraints at the moment.

  • BJ says:

    Despite their huge fleet of A380s I find Emirates a rather dull airline and they fail to capture my interest. I’m not saying I will not fly them, I have done so ( F and Y on A380 and Y on 777) and would do so again. They are just unexciting and I cannot put my finger on why because I have not had a bad experience with them. Perhaps it’s the 777s, and the lingering memory of 10 abreast in Y. Perhaps it’s my dislike of connecting in the ME (although it’s growing on me following recent good connecting experiences in Doha) and no interest in visiting Dubai. Maybe it’s the lack of a decent loyalty scheme and limited/poor marketing (at least to me). I’m most likely to choose them on one of their two daily flights between BKK and HKG but even then I prefer the Air Asia shedules/frequency and the option to use DMK instead of BKK. Emirates is an airline I want to love because of the A380s and because they facilitated one stop region to region flight in a big way but despite this I just don’t. It’s a bit baffling.

    • Chris W says:

      I suspect the airline will manage to survive without your custom.

      • BJ says:

        Indeed 🙂 I think they have a very loyal customer base as they seem to do well despite limitted advertising and promotions relative to many other airlines.

        • Sean says:

          Limited advertising? They sponsor half the world’s sporting events.

          • BJ says:

            Who bothers with that? Does it work?

          • ken says:

            “Who bothers with that? Does it work?”

            Bearing in mind the gargantuan amounts spent on advertising, sponsorship and naming rights in every major sport, by almost every consumer industry over the last 50 years or more, what do you think ?

          • Rob says:

            Emirates has just signed a massive Wimbledon deal too.

            My theory of advertising is that, when making a purchase, you have a set of brands that you would consider and a set of brands that you would not.

            What sponsorship does is gives your brand some recognition, and potentially moves it into the ‘would consider’ category. By no means does this make the sale, but when you’re looking down a list of price prices vs airline it means you will consider Emirates even if you might dismiss China Southern, irrespective of cost.

          • BJ says:

            I guess it does but I don’t understand why it should. I get that Ronald get’s young kids to McDonalds but adults, are they so impressionable? Perdonally zi could not tell you a single ad that has appeared in HfP pages this week because I hust don’t care to notice. I figure most people are the same but perhaps I’m wrong.

  • Chris W says:

    The arrogance of the ME3 that their economy is so good they don’t need premium economy is just delusional and as Clark has now discovered, was a huge missed revenue opportunity.

    I remain shocked how expensive EK Y+ is and that people are willing to pay it. Looking at LHR-SYD this year it’s pretty consistently around £3.5k return in Y+ though you can reduce the price down to £2.9k by doing the LON-DXB-LON legs in Y.

    Economy on the ME3 hovers around £1,000 return for most of the year and I can assure you while Emirates Y+ is good, it’s absolutely not 3.5x as good as economy.

    You can consistently book J for £3.5k on other airlines on the same dates and I’m talking decent airlines like JAL or Cathay. No one in their right mind would choose Emirates Y+ over a proper flat bed all the way to Australia, but “a fool and their money…”

    If premium economy was priced, say 50% more than economy, or half the price of business class it would be a good deal worth trading up to.

    • Blair Waldorf Salad says:

      You always have to remember HfP knowledge and outside world knowledge are not one and the same. Many passengers book trips with barely a thought as to which airline is flying them there and get on board utterly surprised by the seating layout and where their seat may be. I expect same people may “as a treat” check prices for Y+ but would never dream of clicking further to check J prices.

      • Chris W says:

        But surely if you’re considering spending £3.5k instead of £1k “as a treat”, you might do a little bit of homework??

        • Rob says:

          If you did, you’d find China Southern has Sydney for under £2k in Business at the moment 🙂

          • Jonathan says:

            I’ve heard that the Chinese carriers are a bit all over place, or don’t expect them to be very similar to what we’re (seats must HfP readers will usually be sat in) used to

          • Rhys says:

            Of course not. But would you rather a £2k lie-flat seat to Australia or a £3.5k ticket in premium economy on Emirates?

          • Chris W says:

            Yes but with what caveats?
            – Leaving from somewhere outside the UK?
            – An 8 hour layover in a city the average traveller can’t even pronounce?
            – Bring your own food?
            – Cabin crew who don’t have great English?

            If China Southern could charge the same prices as Emirates they would. It’s cheap for a reason.

          • Rob says:

            For £2k to Oz, I’d take it!

    • BJ says:

      Unlike you a lot of customers probably don’t bother doing their homework. Also via ME is perceived to be direct and easy routing while the lijes of TYO and ICN will likely be perceived as a long detour.

    • Pogonation says:

      I believe a lot of the success of premium economy is down to corporate policy. Many corps have introduced PE only policies (in an effort to not look stingy but not shell out for J). Airlines take advantage of this by making it cheaper than J (not always) but still a stupid price when you consider the difference between Y and PE.

      A lot of my friends seem to be able to choose their airline provided they book PE or lower and there is no spend limit, so they are able to book stupid fares like these without it being pulled up (even if BA had the same route for 60% less). I feel like a big part of PE pricing is taking advantage of these policies rather than offering it for what it’s actually worth to the general consumer.

      • TGLoyalty says:

        Nail on head

      • Corporate Travel Policies = madness says:

        £5k on Air France Premium Economy … no issues!

        £2.5k on Qatar Airways Business Class …
        Ohhh, not sure if your trip is actually required…. Can you not do a Teams call instead?

        • Londonsteve says:

          Yes it’s mainly a perception thing. One has ‘economy’ in the name, the other is synonymous with grand living. “85% of our staff flying is in Economy,” sounds good in ESG meetings.

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