Chris Schulz is shown around – and threatened with being thrown off – a (completely stationary) ‘superjumbo’ passenger jet.
It wasn’t my fault. Someone left the door wide open. In the middle of this Emirates A380 plane – a two-storey Airbus with spa showers, reclining beds and a bar crammed into a behemoth of a jet nicknamed a “superjumbo” – is a silver door that looks like it probably shouldn’t be unlocked. Yet it isn’t just ajar – it’s stretched so wide open it’s practically inviting me in.
Anyone leaning in for a look at what’s behind it would spot a thin stairway leading down into a secret third level of the plane. “Crew only” says the sign. But no one is there to ask for permission. On this guided media tour of a recently refurbished and relaunched Emirates A380 parked at Auckland International Airport, I’ve been left to my own devices. Nobody is there to stop me.
I can’t help myself. I have to take a peek. Who wouldn’t?
Down the bottom of those stairs is a tiny room with grey bunk beds stacked in neat rows capable of sleeping six crew at a time. It’s a crammed but necessary spot of respite for the 26 staff needed to keep an A380’s 595 passengers happy, fed, bathed and served constant caviar and cocktails (in first class and business class) on the 17-hour flights that take off from Auckland and Christchurch to Dubai every day.
These planes have just returned to service after several years of post-Covid mothballing. Despite the eye-watering price tag of $16,000-plus for an all-inclusive first class return trip, those reclining seats with massive screens, a pop-up bar and personalised diaries are chocka almost every flight. “We’re full every day. Usually we’re sold out in first class and business [class],” one tour guide tells me. “It’s like this every day.”
But I shouldn’t be in here, on my own, poking around in the staff sleeping quarters. “Don’t wander off. You’ll get kicked out,” we’re warned at the start of the tour. Security is paramount even though this plane won’t be leaving the tarmac with us. It’s waiting for paying passengers to board for an 8.30pm flight, so we have two hours to look around, take photos and imagine what it’s like to take a first class flight most of us working in media will probably never be able to afford.
We start down below, in premium economy, where even there the leg room is ample for a six-foot-four giant like myself. The three toilets up front are popular, we are told, because even those travelling on a budget like to have choice when it comes to their ablutions. Meals that we won’t get to try are spread out: a breakfast omelette, croissant, tapioca pudding and a fruit platter; dinner of slow-cooked halal meat, pumpkin and feta salad, green beans and a buttered roll.
Afterwards, I sneak off and discover the crew’s secret sleeping quarters, which isn’t supposed to be part of this light-hearted media tour. Yet, when I inform aircraft officials I’ve seen inside, the jovial mood shifts. “The door was wide open?” asks one official. I’d been taken up to the cockpit then told to wander freely through the cabin, but now he’s frowning, clearly regretting not sticking firmly to this rogue reporter’s side like glue. “How did you get in [there]? … When did you see it?” he pesters.
Finally, another official says: “I might stay close [to you].” It sounds like it might be a good idea.
Sadly, we’re not airborne when any of this happens. Today, I don’t get to join the throngs travelling to Dubai, and munch my way through any of the meals offered to Emirates’ first class passengers, which include chicken bzar, tapioca-soy dumplings, orange frangipane tart and all-you-can-eat caviar, washed down with vintage 2008 Dom Pérignon and as much cake as you can handle.
I don’t get to book a half-hour slot in one of two spa services, where travellers can enjoy underfloor heating, a five-minute hot shower, slip into a complimentary robe and slippers, moisturise, then return to a ready-made bed before sliding the doors to the first class pod shut. There, in blissful solitude, you can press the button to send your personal chilled drinks trolley into hiding, slip noise-cancelling headphones over your ears, curl up and drift off to sleep under twinkling cabin stars.
I also don’t get to try the fully-stocked bar, where travellers can enjoy an alcoholic or non-alcoholic cocktail and socialise with willing cabinmates. What would happen were I to sneak upstairs into the bar from economy? I’m told there’s a velvet rope across the stairs, like a VIP-only nightclub. The official, growing wary of my antics, also warns: “I’d open up one of the aircraft doors and throw you out.” (He’s joking, I think.)
Despite the relative comfort and headroom available throughout an A380, there’s no doubt that first class is where it’s at. It’s when I, once again, sneak off from the tour to relax in a pod that I really start to notice all the extras. Each seat has multiple snack and drink options, three screens, including a gaming tablet, an iPad and a larger screen for movies. You can, says one guide, take your entertainment to the bar, or the toilet.
Seats are separated, but there are sweetheart suites available for couples to lie back and watch a movie together. Travelling solo and want time out? Push the button and the doors close. Chilled drinks are available and at hand at all times. A leather-embossed diary and pen is yours to jot down your thoughts and take home. Bonus meals are just a button push away. “5,000 channels” are available for viewing, but this might be an exaggeration.
Anyone travelling like this will pay for it. For a flight this June, a return trip to Dubai on a refurbished Emirates A380 with aqua seats and forest decals will set you back $2,795 in economy, $5,551 in premium economy, $11,322 in business class and $16,249 in first class. Luxury travel is clearly back in fashion, and New Zealand is being used as a testing ground for rolling out more mothballed and refurbished A380s on routes around the world. If it works, and it seems to be, more will come online over the year.
I imagine first class on an A380 is a rather nice way to travel. But today, imagining it is all I get to do. Afterwards, my car park pass is declined and I have to reverse back through the honking drivers behind me to return to the pay machine. Traffic on the northwestern motorway is a nightmare. My kid needs to get to football practice. And when I get home, I find the cat’s thrown up on the duvet. The return to terra firma is even more brutal when you never left it in the first place.