Simon Calder: Touch down at London's new draw

The man who pays his way

Sydney to Dubai is the longest flight in Emirates' extensive route network, a 7,500-mile haul against the jet stream that takes a good 14 hours. The cabin crew on the Airbus A380 deserve a break between dispensing drinks and good nature upon the time-tangled passengers. So, they are allocated a few hours to bed down in the crew rest compartment. They even get pyjamas. But not the kind that you or I might buy from M&S: these night garments have EMIRATES CREW emblazoned on the back, just in case the slumbering stewardesses are woken in an emergency.

I learned this last Saturday morning in a sun-soaked London SE10, after wandering through a car park to Britain's newest tourist attraction, beside a muddy curve of the Thames. The Emirates Aviation Experience had been officially opened the day before by Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, and Tim Clark, president of the Dubai-based airline. However, 8am on Saturday was the first time that normal people were allowed in. I expected aviation enthusiasts would be queuing from long before then, so I ambled along at about quarter-past – and found, more by luck than judgement, that I was the first proper visitor. Equally surprising was the very low admission fee, just £3 for fascinating insights into the working lives of cabin-crew – the people on whom so many passengers' lives depend, as the crash-landing of an Asiana jet at San Francisco demonstrated later that day.

In case they need assistance with the emergency exit doors, cabin crew identify in advance an "ABP" – an English-speaking Able-Bodied Person with the potential to help out. "But if they then order a vodka every 15 minutes, we find someone else," an on-screen stewardess revealed.

While such vignettes are being played out inside the fuselage, beneath the wings there is a constant "Blow, Bang, Squeeze, Suck" – which may sound like the punchline to an unsavoury aviation joke, but is actually the attraction's explanation of how a jet engine works. You can inspect a scale model of a GP7000 engine, made of Lego (which the real ones aren't). But most visitors, I suspect, will be drawn inexorably to the flight decks – five of them. All but one are working simulators, "lite" versions of the kind used for pilot training. They don't have the hydraulics to simulate motion, but they do have a convincing set of controls and a display of the airports at Heathrow and Dubai – by night or day, rain or shine. Given the street address of the Emirates Aviation Experience, Edmund Halley Way, it's a shame that the Comet doesn't feature, but pay £35-£45 for half an hour and you can choose to land an Airbus A380 or Boeing 777.

You need pay no extra simply to sit in the captain's seat of the biggest jet in the world and marvel at the way that the fate of 500 passengers and crew is controlled by a joystick that looks as if it should be controlling a computer game. Which, in a sense, it is.

One more element that I particularly enjoyed, since I was working on today's guide to baggage, was the brilliant idea of attaching a camera to a case and following its journey through the airport entrails from check-in at Dubai airport to reclaim at Bangkok. What did the luggage tag say again?

Cable vision

The Emirates Aviation Experience isn't Walt Disney World. But for anyone interested in the intriguing choreography of air travel – as portrayed in BBC2's Airport Live series last month – it delivers. Why, though, would the world's largest airline outside the US build a £2.5m facility like this close to an airport that it will never, ever serve (London City) but many miles from two that it does, Heathrow and Gatwick?

The answer lies just next door. Another Emirates-branded project, the Air Line, opened with great ceremony a year ago. The UK's first urban cable car, which provides a dramatic link across the Thames, has a capacity of about 40,000 passengers a day. The ridership in June was about 4,300 a day, which is a load factor of 11 per cent – compared with 80 per cent on Emirates' planes. The publicity material for the cable car says: "Interested in flying to North London? Look to see what awaits you ...". It proceeds to proclaim the delights of Buckingham Palace, St Paul's Cathedral and Little Venice. They are all north of the river, but anyone taking the Air Line across the Thames from Greenwich will end up further away from them. E16 isn't a departure gate – it's the postcode for a touristic black hole.

The Emirates Aviation Experience intends to incentivise people to come to this corner of Docklands, in order that they will then do the obvious thing and spend £8.60 for a round-trip on the Air Line – which, on a sunny day, is well worthwhile. The once-forlorn Greenwich peninsula is turning into a fun park, and providing a fascinating new dimension for the old capital.

Wrong kind of line

The Emirates Air Line has a departure every few seconds, the majority of them empty. The Jubilee Line departs from North Greenwich every two to four minutes, at least in theory. But when I tried to return from my aeronautical day out, a signal failure at Stratford brought London's newest Tube line to a halt for half an hour (an event categorised over the public address announcement as "minor delays").

When the system was finally rebooted, the journey to central London was punctuated by long waits at every station as hundreds of stressed people tried to board an already overstuffed train. The trip seemed to take almost as long as that 7,500-mile long haul from Sydney to Dubai, only without the in-flight entertainment. Or the excitingly inscribed pyjamas.

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