I couldn’t determine where the fire started, but I could see the flickering orange glow of the flames. Smoke began filling the cabin. I heard other passengers screaming while I waited for the oxygen masks to drop. This was it, my first airplane disaster.
But just as quickly as it began, it was over. The flight safety instructor demonstrated how to use the fire extinguisher, turned off the switches that created the fire effect, the smoke, and the prerecorded screams. Everything was back to normal, and I walked off the plane used for flight attendant training in a hangar at Emirates Flight Training Academy in Dubai with nary a singed hair.
Nearby, another plane, this one designed to simulate severe turbulence, was bobbing up and down like a bronco on quaaludes. Giant pools covered large swaths of the floor, ready for flight attendants to practice water landings. There were three full-size planes here used for safety training. In all, Emirates spent $10 million to create this safety training area.
As an aviation nerd, taking a behind-the-scenes tour of Emirates operations this summer made me happier than a cat in a Fancy Feast factory. I spent two days at Emirates in Dubai touring every part of the facility, from the hangar where the Rolls Royce engines are regularly replaced on the planes, to the razor-sharp water jets that precisely slice thousands of pieces of cake. I’m on airplanes often, but I seldom think about all the details involved — such as the 225,000 region-specific meals which the Emirates kitchen pumps out every day.
The tour all started with a wish. I wanted to see the inside of an Airbus A380. After a long absence, Emirates has brought back its A380s -- which are the largest passenger jets in the sky -- to Boston for seasonal daily flights. The next round of seasonal direct flights from Boston begins Dec. 1. This was my chance to finally see the double-decker.
After I bought my ticket for a flight from Boston to Dubai, I asked the folks at Emirates if someone might quickly show me around the plane before take off. Perhaps I could take a quick peak at the notoriously posh first-class cabins, or see the bar or the spa on the upper deck before the plane departed. Given that tickets for first class can run well over $10,000 (one way), I knew this would probably be my only opportunity to ever see these spaces.
Emirates’ response was much better than I ever could have anticipated. I received an e-mail back asking if I would be interested in looking behind the scenes at the facilities in Dubai.
I felt like Charlie before his tour of the chocolate factory (minus the dangerous chewing gum). I would see the inner workings of the world’s fourth largest airline, which runs 3,600 flights a week from its hub in Dubai.
I didn’t get to tour the plane before take off, but my tour of the facilities in Dubai began with a look inside flight attendant training college. It’s a 13-day course that covers everything from medical training, to dealing with terrorists, to makeup tutorials. Flight attendants are trained in selling duty free (the products rotate every 30 days), serving meals, and retrieving your mobile phone when you drop it between the armrest and the seat. Whenever I fly I always keep in mind that flight attendants are there to do more than serve tomato juice, but my walk-through reminded me of how intricate it all can be.
There are hundreds of safety-related bits and bobs that many of us will hopefully never see tucked away in the plane. Inside the slides that inflate in the event of a water landing there is purified water, water purification pills, and a desalination kit. There’s food, flares, infant lifeboats, oars, dehydrated sponges to sop up water that passengers may bring into the slide once it’s detached and used as a lifeboat, and, of course, a puncture repair kit.
“There is so much equipment here that the passengers don’t know about,” said the instructor leading my tour. “But we need to become familiar with all of it.”
While I enjoyed experiencing the fake fire on the training plane (sadly I couldn’t go on the plane that simulated turbulence) what was even more thrilling was experiencing fake first class. The A380 on Emirates has 14 private cabins. You can slide a door closed, sit in a seat that would give any home recliner a run for its money, and partake of 4,500 entertainment options on a giant TV. I may have previously mentioned the cost of first class is, well, more than the combined value of all my worldly possessions, so when I saw a replica of a cabin in a training facility, I planted myself in the recliner, closed the door, and pretended for a moment that my last name was Buffett. A descendant of either Warren or Jimmy would be fine.
Also in this area I got a look at replicas of the shower/spas. The two spas, where passengers can take a shower at 40,000 feet, are available to first-class passengers.
On the second day, I toured the massive catering operation. When I’m on a plane, I wait for a bag of chips, something to drink, or maybe a meal if I’m on an international flight. That’s about it. Do I think about how food storage on a plane is like a game of Tetris, how quickly all the trays need to get unloaded from a plane before they’re reloaded? How food is prepared so it can be reheated in the ovens of a plane and still taste good?
The answer to all of those questions is no, I had not thought of these things.
But I was reminded as I walked through the enormous buildings where hundreds of people do have to think about these things. The catering facility is an insanely complicated operation. Trolleys of dirty dishes are being unloaded and washed (dirty silverware does not sort itself), deliveries are constantly coming in, meals are being cooked, and desserts are getting baked. It all gets reassembled and loaded back on the planes.
On the A380, there are 426 seats in economy alone. That’s a lot of meals and snacks to be handing out. Executive chef Peter Boos walked me through the kitchens, where the airline makes 110 million (!) meals a year.
I’ve read multiple times that food tastes different at 35,000 feet, so I asked Boos what he does to make sure that food is appealing at that altitude. I was expecting a long, scientific explanation. Instead he gave me the once over before answering
“I’ve heard that and I don’t think it’s true,” he said. “I just make sure it tastes good.”
There you have it.
While I was in Dubai, I did Dubai things such as ice skate at the giant shopping mall, visit the souks where vendors tried to grab my attention by shouting “Hey, Justin Bieber!” (finally, someone noticed the resemblance), and go to the 125th floor of the Burj Khalifa. But between you and me, the highlight of my trip was the flight home from Dubai to Boston.
My request to tour the A380 was still floating around, and a kind purser by the name of David Panozzo decided to make my airplane nerd wish come true.
“What do you want to see?” he asked shortly after the flight departed for Boston.
I started ticking down the list. I saw where the crew sleeps. The hive-like series of bunks reminded me of a Japanese capsule hotel. I asked if I could go to the upper deck where business class, first class, and the bar are located. We sat in the lounge at the bar and chatted. I peered into where the 76 business section seats are located and at the front of the deck where the two spa/showers are located.
The onboard showers are used exclusively by first-class customers. Each passenger can reserve a 25-minute block in the showers. Panozzo looked at the shower schedule for my flight. It wasn’t full, and he asked if I’d like to try it out.
I think I was disrobing before he had finished the question. The spa, as it’s called, is more like a large bathroom. But it has a heated floor, flat screen monitors, and all the amenities you could need. From the shower I looked at the monitor and saw that I was over Halifax. I brushed my teeth. I blow-dried my hair. I changed my clothes and sat on a bench realizing I would forever be spoiled. How could I possibly go back to an economy class bathroom after this? Spoiler alert, I went back to an economy bathroom on my next flight.
I may never be back in an airplane spa again, but at least I’ll always have the memory of walking off of a plane and, for once, not looking like a poster child for bedhead.
The Emirates A380 resumes daily flights out of Boston direct to Dubai beginning Dec. 1 and running through Jan. 31. The airline has a codeshare agreement with JetBlue.