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A shower in the sky: Parts 1 - 3

By Stuart Loh, A lawyer with a passion for tech, travel & tucker

There are some things in life I have resigned myself to never experiencing. Except perhaps if one day I am retired and, in a fit of spite, I decide to fritter away my heirs’ inheritance. Among these things are staying in a presidential suite at a five star hotel, going into space, and taking a shower on an aircraft.

The only commercial airline in the world with showers on board is Emirates. Emirates runs a fleet of Airbus 380s which each pack two spacious shower rooms aboard its first class cabin. A one-way, seven hour flight from Dubai to London will set you back around US$5,000. This is a very tough discretionary expense to justify, unless you’re one of those people who works out of desire and not need.

Even the old trick of using frequent flyer miles is difficult with Emirates, if you’re based in America. Emirates is not a member of any airline alliances, nor is it a transfer partner of any credit card points programs. While it has a bilateral partnership with Alaska Airlines, redeeming a one-way flight would cost about 90,000 miles – if you can find availability (Emirates has been rumored to have been clamping down on partner airline redemptions lately).

Nonetheless, a group of people in a corner of the internet have known for some time of a special airfare that existed for the better part of two years. The airfare consists of a first class ticket that permits you to fly a circuitous route of about 25,000 kilometers, make day trips into three different cities, and include two or three first class segments on Emirates. The thing that makes the airfare special is that it is offered at a dramatically discounted price. The catch is that the first flight must depart from Colombo, Sri Lanka. Colombo is not the most accessible place in the world when you live in San Francisco. In fact, it’s literally half-way around the world and it makes little difference whether you travel east or west to get there.

The fare came to be known as the “ex-CMB” fare in the online community, CMB being the IATA code for Colombo International Airport. By using an online tool called Matrix and typing in a particular routing code, “CMB :: CX HKG EK DXB EK LHR AA”, you could retrieve this rather implausible itinerary.

I filed this fact away in the back of my mind until I was invited to attend a friend’s wedding in Bangalore in May. Since I was going to be practically in the same neighborhood, I figured it would be worth booking a short “positioning flight” to Colombo from Bangalore and going on a once in a lifetime flying extravaganza.

The itinerary I pieced together took me from Colombo to Hong Kong via Singapore on a Cathay Pacific flight (in business class, since that route doesn’t have a first class cabin), then from Hong Kong to Dubai and Dubai to London on Emirates, and finally London to San Francisco on British Airways. I would have a 12 hour layover in Hong Kong, a 23 hour layover in Dubai, and an eight hour layover in London. Each flight would be a red-eye, so I didn’t need to book any hotels in those cities. While I had been to each of those cities before, the trip would make for a great opportunity to catch up with some friends.

This itinerary is impossible to book online. I needed to find a travel agent – something which, in this day and age, was difficult to do. Luckily, I found one a couple blocks away from work – a branch of STA Travel, which ironically specializes in budget student travel. My timing was particularly good because that branch closed down several weeks later due to lack of business, and the nearest one was in Davis, a hundred miles away.

I printed out the itinerary and brought it into the travel agency.

“This is a crazy itinerary. I don’t think it’s valid,” the branch manager said immediately. He began to type it into the computer anyway. About ten minutes of typing and muttering to himself, he finally spoke. “Huh. It actually priced.”

The price, including taxes and a $75 booking fee, was almost exactly US$2,500.

No one is quite sure whether the anomalous airfare was a pricing mistake, or some kind of longstanding but misguided effort to boost tourism in Sri Lanka, but the opportunity closed up a couple months after I booked, in March 2013. Today, the same flight itinerary prices at over US$22,000.

For a period afterwards, it was still possible to book a similar itinerary, except that you couldn’t technically book an Emirates flight as part of it. The airfare was offered by American Airlines and required crossing the Atlantic Ocean with an AA flight (or codeshare) as part of its routing.This meant you could have a routing that went from Colombo to Kuala Lumpur, then Kuala Lumpur to London (on Malaysia Airlines), then London to Los Angeles (on American or an American codeshare). Interestingly, it was also still possible to have a segment on an Emirates plane because the DXB-LHR segment codeshares with Qantas. So, if you booked using the Qantas flight number, you could still end up on an Emirates A380 plane. However, this loophole also appeared to close up several months later.

If you really want to try the Emirates shower, there is a “budget” option. Emirates flies a fifth freedom route between Hong Kong and Bangkok. The flight is only three hours long, but it’s flown by an A380. Just enough time for you to take that $800 shower.

The Trip
Emirates offers business and first class passengers a free chauffeur service as part of their ticket in most major cities, so the experience starts before you get on the plane. You have to call ahead to book, but they offer pickup at your point of origin, and dropoff at your destination, subject to generous distance limitations that vary depending on the city.

Each city has a different fleet of vehicles. In Hong Kong, I was picked up by a Mercedes minivan. He drove strictly by the rules, setting the cruise control at 80 km/h on the highway to the airport, while taxi cabs sped past us like machine gun bullets.

My first Emirates flight was on a Boeing 777. It was almost the same as their flagship Airbus 380, but without showers and a slightly older interior. It was still opulent.

First and business class boarded through the front door and the suites in the first class cabin make an immediate impact. The seats look exactly like the promotional photos. Each is actually an enclosed suite, lined with leather, wood paneling, and slightly gaudy gold trim. A door can be electronically closed to provide some privacy, although the top of the suite is not enclosed so that flight attendants can check up on you by standing tall and peering over the wall.

The seat can recline into a fully horizontal bed, and there is ample legroom, even if you’re seven feet tall. To the side, there is stowage space for blankets and pillows, and a small cabinet for personal effects. A small handheld controller and a small LCD touchscreen which can be detached from its holder provide two ways to control the TV. The touchscreen controller also can be used to control everything else in the suite, including lighting, the three window shades, seat positioning, and the massage rollers in the seat.

Also to the side is a minibar stocked with pineapple juice, Perrier, Voss and a variety of canned soft drinks. Next to the minibar is a release for a large tray table that is used for meals and can be used for work.

To the front is a very large TV screen with a fresh orchid next to it and a small basket of snacks on a ledge in front. A vanity mirror and box of skin care products is built into the ledge, as is a writing kit (all of which can be taken off the plane with you). Carry-on luggage can be stowed in the space underneath the TV.

The first class cabin was almost full. I felt like a complete fraud sitting there, watching the business class passengers stream past, but I was still loving it.

Across the aisle was an Italian man with a thick gold chain and a shirt that had been unbuttoned one button too many. He didn’t speak English, so they borrowed a flight attendant from another cabin to translate. Emirates’ crews are the most multi-cultural that I’ve seen, and when the captain introduced the crew while we were taxiing to the runway, he must have rattled off at least a dozen languages that the crew spoke between themselves.

Before we took off, I asked the flight attendant to take a photo of me in the seat for posterity. She happily obliged, and then asked a question to which the answer was obvious. “First time flying with us in this cabin, Mr. Loh?”

As is customary, the flight attendant also offered me a pre-take off drink, a cup of Arabic coffee, and a date.

Shortly afterwards, the attendant was back, handing out the meal service menu, an amenities kit, some pajamas, and slippers. Meals are ordered à la carte, and can be eaten whenever you want to. You can also order as much food as you want, subject to availability.

The food is decent, but at the end of the day it’s still airplane food and they’re heating up pre-prepared food in a tiny oven. The setting in which the meal occurs is what makes it memorable – from the white tablecloth, to the metal cutlery and other meticulously laid out eating accouterments.

The amenities kit was manufactured by Bulgari and contained an array of stuff that I thought would surely get confiscated the next time I went through airport security, including a shaving kit with a razor, an aerosol can filled with shaving cream, and a large stick of deodorant. (Strangely enough, it passed through security without any problems.)

I was feeling tired after running around a humid Hong Kong, so I had a snack and went to the lavatory to brush my teeth and change into some shorts. By the time I came out, my bed had been made for me and I fell asleep almost instantly.

After too short a sleep, I was prodded awake for breakfast. I opted for an unorthodox mix of dim sum, pastries, fruit, and a can of coke.

The Italian man across the aisle had already finished eating and was now inspecting the skin care products kit with what I can only describe as a look of intense conflict. His face was that of a man unsure about whether the little bottles of lotion and snuff boxes were something he was actually allowed to steal. He put the kit back on the table and took a long sip from his wine glass (it’s never too early for alcohol when you’re flying). He picked it up again and pawed at it some more. And then he surreptitiously shoved the whole thing into his bag. I did the same thing, but was much less surreptitious about it.

Read Part 2 – A Shower In The Sky

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