Competition across the Tasman for business travellers is as fierce as it's ever been. On the Auckland-Sydney route alone, Emirates competes with Air New Zealand, Qantas, Aerolineas Argentinas (continuing from Buenos Aires), LAN (continuing from Santiago), Jetstar and Pacific Blue.
For business travellers looking for a comfortable seat between Australia and New Zealand, this is great news. Long-haul business class is proliferating on the international carriers, with excellent seats and service.
For Kiwis and people visiting New Zealand, Emirates has three daily flights from Auckland. One goes to Sydney on their A380, and one each to Melbourne and Brisbane on 777-300ERs. Christchurch is also connected to Sydney by a 777-300ER.
Unlike Air New Zealand and Qantas, Emirates doesn't have a separate check-in lounge for premium passengers in Auckland.
Instead, the left-most desks in the main check-in area are dedicated for first and business class passengers. The staff member was pleasant and explained the setup in Auckland, and highlighted the NZ customs pre-clearance booth.
Heading upstairs, the pre-clearance line and security went very swiftly indeed, and we headed for the Emirates Lounge -- without having to navigate through a duty-free shop devoid of any signage. Sydney airport, take note.
The lounge in Auckland is hands-down the best part of the Emirates business class experience. It's a shared business and first class lounge, with modern showers, a superb automatic massage chair, loads of space -- and an excellent food and drink selection.
The wine selection, though few in number, was high in quality. (Three excellent NZ whites, two NZ reds, and Moët.) On your behalf, we tasted them all. Hey, it was Christmas...
The Emirates staff in the lounge were the best of the entire trip. The desk agent was friendly and knowledgeable, and the food and beverage attendants polite, multilingual and unobtrusive.
The one problem that we observed was a Muslim woman travelling alone waiting in the lounge for over an hour for a female chauffeur. We'd have expected Emirates to realise that observant Muslim women travelling alone can't ride unescorted with a male chauffeur and to have sorted that out in advance.
(On the topic of chauffeurs, we were disappointed that trans-Tasman flights are not eligible for the usual Emirates free chauffeur service. The chauffeur service is a big draw to Emirates, but we understand why they don't offer it.)
The desk agent called the flight -- the last of the evening -- twice, and made sure to explain that there would be two calls. Thumbs-up to her for that, because it's much more pleasant to spend those twenty minutes in the lounge than on the plane.
The gate was a five minute walk from the lounge, and the boarding process was simple and efficient, with the usual Emirates two-jetway system: the left-hand one for business and first class and the right for economy.
Emirates provides first and business class passengers with a card entitling them to use the Express Path fast-track customs and immigration service, which speeds things up enormously. We weren't travelling with hold luggage, so we were out of the airport in under ten minutes -- a real benefit.
The 777-300ER cabin is Emirates' older long-haul layout, and business class is in a 2-3-2 forward-facing configuration with slope beds.
While we're not fans of what our American friends call "wedgie-beds", the Emirates version at least flatten low enough so passengers in the middle or window seats can easily step over the person in the aisle.
On the downside, the lack of elbow and shoulder room in the seat was really surprising. The sculpted seat surround actually makes it feel quite narrow. Comparable seating on British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand's longhaul flights has significantly more legroom.
Emirates has a newer seat on its A380 flying from Auckland to Sydney, and the business traveller buzz is more positive.
Top tip: when picking your seat, there are two business class cabins on the 777-300ER: a smaller two-row cabin in front, and a larger four-row cabin behind. The front cabin is a little more exclusive, although window seats in row 7 have a misaligned window, so select carefully.
Our verdict on the seat: leagues ahead of anything else across the Tasman, but for long-haul, it isn't competitive.
Emirates is reputed to have some of the best food and drink in the business, but we were disappointed with the meal.
The food was fairly mediocre, with a decent prawn starter but almost entirely inedible lamb with roasted vegetables for the main that was worse than many economy meals. We didn't finish it, choosing instead to snack on some garlic bread.
The Moët continued to flow throughout the flight, and the red wine we tried -- a decent enough Burgundy -- was drinkable, but disappointing after the excellent reds in the lounge.
The menu from Melbourne to Dubai looked a lot better, with several lighter, snack-type options that would have been nice to see on our flight.
Entertainment & Service
The big screen entertainment was excellent, and as classical music fiends the selection of interesting things to listen to was absolutely unparalleled. The "Emirates Guide to..." various musical periods sounds like a superb way to pass the time, and there's everything from Dame Kiri to Sir Elton to Lady Gaga on the system.
Emirates' service has a really variable reputation. Sometimes it's excellent, sometimes merely adequate, sometimes downright poor. Unfortunately, the service on this flight varied between adequate and poor, which was especially disappointing since there were more crew than business class passengers on this Christmas flight. (The crew were wearing festive Santa hats, though.)
It took the crew a good ten minutes to offer a welcome drink, and a refill wasn't offered before takeoff. There was no welcome-aboard chit-chat at all, which set the tone for a flight with a lack of warmth -- and not in the slightly cool yet polite Singapore Airlines way either.
The one service highlight was the impressive wine service, when the crew always presented the bottle label-first and offered a tasting pour. However, there was a distinct lack of crew passing through the cabin to check if anybody needed anything.
The crew were the weakest part of the Emirates experience, and this isn't the first time that's been reported. Emirates really needs to devote some time and energy to fixing this problem, because it's dragging the airline's reputation down.