Emirates vs. Delta Business Class to Africa

With the newish Emirates Boeing 777 service from Seattle, via Dubai, to Africa and similar business class pricing to Delta (ex Seattle, via Atlanta, to Johannesburg) I gave it a whirl on my May / June 2013 trip to Kenya / Tanzania. Keep in mind this review is not about Emirates Airbus A380 service.

Flying at Mach .83 over 35,000 feet above the peanut we call home I had 14 hours to contemplate how Emirates stacked up to my previous business class flights ex Atlanta to Johannesburg.

Cabin wise Delta’s blue grey tone feels like a dentist office without the scary drills and bright lights… definitely a more “clinic like” feel. Delta offers a window seat on each side of the aircraft and 2 center seats making a total of 4 seats per row. Emirates cabin is wider and has 7 seats across – 2, 3, 2. Emirates cabin has a much warmer feel – glossy blond woods and a grayish brown sand dune motif on the walls and dividers. Emirates actually had ½ a dozen fresh roses in mirrored flower holders on the front cabin wall and a fresh orchid in each bathroom.  

Whereas Delta offers only economy and business Emirates offers economy, business and first class private cabins (the cabin wall stops at about shoulder height so the flight attendants can check on you).

Seat wise (and the seat is what really matters) Delta wins for the reasons noted below:

Delta’s window seats are much more private. Aboard Delta couples should take the middle seats if they wish to chat. Delta seats have a myriad number of controls at your finger tips whereas on Emirates basic seat controls (takeoff / landing, reclined or sleeping) are on the armrest while more in-depth controls are on a submenu on the touchscreen tablet that is docked at each seat. Emirates ICE entertainment system has a wealth of programming, a massive screen on the seat back in front of you, . You may watch movies or forward and down facing cameras (great for takeoff and landing), catch up on the latest news, and view connecting flight departure times and gates. The handheld touchpad on some planes feels as if it is made of lead. It is very heavy. And on some aircraft the touchscreen is slower than the last day of school. Also the handheld touchpad and main screen continually turn on after you have turned them off… very annoying – especially in a dark cabin.

Delta’s business seating feels comfortable for me at 5 foot 10 inches and 170 pounds while Emirates feels snug… cozy. I don’t think Emirates biz seats would be comfortable for anyone much larger than me.

Emirates business class seats have massage features that are fun for about 5 minutes. When the person seated next to you turns theirs on you will feel it in your seat. In addition when the person in the seat next to you moves you can feel it through your seat (like when you are at the movies and the person next to you is tapping their foot and you can feel it but you don’t want to say anything). It looked to me to be one seat base divided into 2 seats. Delta seats have more storage on either side. 

On Emirates if you are in a window seat and need to use the loo you need to gymnast over the person sleeping next to you or ask them to put their seat up. Aboard Delta you simply don’t have this problem as there is no one seated next to you.

Importantly Delta’s biz class seats are 100% lie flat – 90 degrees. Emirates biz class seating (unless you are on board the Airbus A380) does not actually lie flat – it stops at about an 80 degree angle… Delta wins in my book on this fact alone. If I had to complain about Delta’s business class seats only one thing comes to mind – when you are in fully upright takeoff / landing position a little green light comes on so the flight attendant can see you are in the correct position. You can’t cheat and remain a little reclined – the flight attendants will scold you!

Bathroom wise business class is comparable although Emirate’s glossy blond wood toilet seat lid and paneling makes for a much nicer, more luxurious, feel. Think Lexus interior minus the leather…

Emirates does its best to impress with flight attendants coming round with a thin seat mattress, pillow and sheet after dinner. Also Emirates has the amazing star ceiling when the cabin lights are dimmed (flying from Seattle you head over the North Pole and down to Dubai so during our Northern Summer it is light outside the entire flight).

Complimentary toiletries aboard both airlines are similar with socks, toothpaste, toothbrush, and eyeshade being offered however Emirates takes it up a notch with Bvlgari perfume, aftershave and handcream.

Food wise Emirates is certainly more exotic with Middle Eastern fare – I had a traditional mezze platter and chicken methi murg (chicken curry with fenugreek leaves) for dinner and scrambled eggs with Portobello mushrooms, sausage and potatoes for breakfast. Overall the food quality aboard Emirates was higher. I enjoyed far more items (keep in mind I also enjoy spiced foods). The after dinner box of Godiva chocolates aboard Emirates – hmm… trying hard! How about an espresso or glass of Moet with breakfast? Yes that is correct…

Both Delta and Emirates are partnered with West Coast favorite Alaska Airlines and miles can be earned if you buy the right type of ticket (the right fare class). However note that although I put my frequent flyer number in on Emirate’s website customer service said it was not there and upon arrival at the airport they said it was not there either! Fortunately my seat choice was!

If flying from a city that offers the Airbus A380 service keep in mind the business class is much larger and boarding times approach economy sluggishness… of course one of the niceties of business class is avoiding lines and boarding delays. 

Importantly Delta does not have first class and this is actually better. When you are sitting in your business class seat on Emirates you will spend some of your time wondering what the first class lie flat sleeper cabins are like… and what it is like to have a shower at 35,000 feet (yes the first class bathroom has a shower). Aboard Delta you have the best seat so no jealousy rearing its head! 

From Seattle Delta takes exactly the same amount of time to get to Johannesburg as Emirates takes to get to Dar Es Salaam or Nairobi in East Africa. If you are traveling to East Africa aboard Delta you are great into Joburg but then you would need to fly aboard another airline (at additional cost) to East Africa – another 4+ hours away! And if you want to overnight in Atlanta en route ex Seattle you will need to pay for an Atlanta hotel. Emirates picks you up at home for free in a towncar, and provides a night’s free hotel in Dubai (if you need one)…  Emirates also makes sense if you want to add Dubai to your “been there / done that” list.

In Dubai Terminal 3 is devoted to Emirates flights… it is massive.  In fact it is the largest airport terminal in the world. Emirates in Dubai have free strollers to use within the terminal if you are traveling with children. In my opinion Emirates airport lounges and food offerings easily outshine Delta.

As noted above if you are flying business class and have a connecting flight Emirates offers a complimentary hotel stay (look on website for number of hours between flights needed to qualify). After clearing immigration, getting your bags and clearing customs you make your way to the business / first class hotel shuttle area where you will most likely wait in line, show your voucher (given to you upon checkin at the airport before your flight), and then walk with a group of other passengers to a shuttle bus… in my case a Mercedes minibus that took 5 of us to Le Meridian 2 minutes away. The Meridien is a fine hotel and breakfast was included. The next morning they shuttle you back to the airport at a scheduled time. 

My opinion – I give the seat to Delta… but that Delta seat comes with a cold, airplane like, cabin, indifferent service and food that is average. Emirates service FAR outshined the service I have received the numerous times I have flown Delta’s business class ex Atlanta to Johannesburg. When I told the Emirates flight attendants this at the end of the flight they appeared genuinely thankful and said that comment made their day! They were friendly, helpful, smiling, and attentive… a rare thing aboard flights these days. I would suggest that if you intend to visit East Africa Emirates is the way to go… and you can get a UAE stamp in your passport en route or spend a few extra days checking out Dubai by the sea… If you are flying to Southern Africa I would give the nod to Delta… begrudgingly.

Price? We are able to offer Delta business class fares ex Atlanta to Johannesburg roundtrip starting around US $7,500. This is a hair less than what you would pay booking direct with Delta. Aboard Emirates, flying ex Seattle to Dubai and on to Johannesburg roundtrip, our business fares are closer to US $7,000 per person… this is US $500 less per person than Delta and roughly US $800 less per person than booking direct with Emirates.

If you are wondering – I did not see anyone aboard Emirates with a hooded falcon on their arm (this actually is allowed on Emirates flights within the Middle East).

By the way – Dubai is terrifically interesting… from the world’s tallest structure, the Burj Kalifa, to the world’s most luxurious and only 7 star hotel, the Burj Al Arab it is a trip! Well worth visiting for 2 or 3 nights…

Stay well,

Ian Proctor
Ultimate Africa founder and president

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