At the conclusion of the ceremony unveiling the new partnership between United Airlines and Emirates, I caught up with Sir Tim Clark, the President of Emirates, and asked him about the different service philosophies onboard Emirates and United. His answer was quite revealing.
What Does Emirates President Sir Tim Clark Think Of United Airlines’ Onboard Service?
As Clark was speaking to members of the press, I wriggled my way into the conversation and asked him whether there was any concern over the very different styles of United Airlines and Emirates, particularly in terms of onboard service levels, that could alienate loyal Emirates’ customers on future United interline or codeshare routes.
Clark acknowledged the difference in service levels but expressed “confidence” that United Airlines will continue to invest in its soft product, specifically mentioning that he has discussed this issue with United CEO Scott Kirby and has been provided “assurances” that United will continue to strengthen its onboard meal service offerings in all cabins, including economy class.
“I’m not worried. Emirates has been a great force in the industry for restoring service and we continue to see improvements from others. United is serious about its soft product and will continue to make strides.”
The premise of my question was that the two carriers bring very different strengths to the table, particularly when it comes to premium cabins. Emirates’ image as a premium carrier is rooted in its exotic flight attendants and its over-the-top onboard offerings including a spacious bar and showers onboard the upper deck of its flagship Airbus A380.
Meanwhile, United’s premium cabin soft onboard cuisine still lacks many pre-pandemic elements including appetizers, dessert carts, and mid-flight snacks beyond potato chips and apples. Passengers who book an Emirates codeshare from Dubai to Newark operated by United may be in for a big and negative surprise when it comes to the onboard food and beverage options. Economy class passengers may be in for a surprise when stepping onto a United transcontinental flight and finding out their only complimentary meal options are pretzels or cookies.
On the other hand, United Airlines offers a superior business class seat compared to Emirates’ 777 aircraft. Even on the 777 aircraft that Emirates has recently retrofitted, business class remains in an uncompetitive 2-3-2 layout, with middle seats and a lack of direct aisle access at 3/7 seats per row. Even worse, Emirates’ older 777s, of which close to 100 are in service, do not even offer fully lie-flat seats in business class. The Emirates’ A380 business class seat is arguably on-par with the United Polaris business class seat.
In this sense, United customers booking on Emirates might be in a for a very negative surprise when they find middle seats that do not even fully recline onboard the 777. United is in the process of retrofitting its long-haul fleet to install Polaris seating on all planes, but the 777 retrofits are completed. United has indicated it will operate its 777-200 aircraft on its new Newark (EWR) – Dubai (DXB) route.
Ultimately, Clark pivoted to the strength of the combined route network, adding that “passengers are most concerned with getting to their destination as smoothly as possible and our relationship will facilitate this.”
As United and Emirates cozy up, each brings different strengths. While there is no need to harmonize service offerings with the partnership set to be limited in nature, Clark is optimistic that United will continue to raise service levels onboard in the months ahead. Time will tell.