Etihad’s new A380 cabins shows the way forward for airlines

Remember a few years back Singapore Airlines (SIA) became the launch customer of the Airbus A380 and it creates the ‘Suites’ category, referring to a class above First. Frequent travellers know that ‘First Class’ is the epitome of commercial air travel. For the uber-wealthy, there are of course private jets without queues for security and probably no delays due to irregular operations of aircraft. SIA of course have shown innovation, and something that made it truly a world class airline of its own. For example it was the first to offer inflight entertainment on demand, on Economy class nonetheless. That of course re-defined the way travellers fly nowadays.

Middle-Eastern Airlines and Innovation

But Etihad in its recent salvo, once again shows why the world’s airline executives do not really like the Middle-Eastern counterparts much. It is true that the big 3 Middle-Eastern carriers (Emirates, Qatar and Etihad) have the backing of cheap state money bankrolled from petroleum and natural gas sales. But more importantly they have taken cues from Singapore and SIA. Back in the 1970s, Singapore just gained independence and lacking any natural resources aside from its strategic shipping location, the country pushed for the development of air travel, along the way making Singapore’s Changi Airport to one of the world’s most loved and efficient airports. SIA also became one of the best airlines (they even used to fly a Concorde jointly with BA back then) and known for the most innovation.

Today, Etihad based in Abu Dhabi, Emirates based in Dubai and Qatar based in Doha are after the same idea. That is all 3 of these small nations needs to consider for their economy after the oil and gas runs dry. They need to re-invent their economy and a country’s airport is essential in paving the way for that considering the globalization of businesses nowadays. Emirates is of course the largest operator of the A380s with the only on-board shower, while Qatar is hosting the World Cup in 2022 and is actively courting businesses to open in Doha. Then Etihad launched 10 years ago, and it has been relatively quiet in comparison to the other 2, slowly buying up stakes and conducting partnerships with airlines like Air Seychelles, Jet Airways, Garuda Indonesia and recently Alitalia.

So when they revealed plans for their A380s yesterday, it shows a level of innovation that was lacking in many of the A380s cabin by other national airlines. The difference shows how national airlines face virtually no competition in their home markets, but the Middle-Eastern carriers are competing fiercely with each other especially considering that Etihad’s and Emirates’ home airports are just 2 hours drive away from each other. The level of competition results in innovation, while many airlines are content to rest on their laurels. Is that any wonder then that passengers are more keen to fly with the Middle-Eastern airlines on international long-haul routes where comfort and service matters more?

Etihad’s new Cabin on the A380

For starters the new Economy class on Etihad’s A380s feature fixed ‘wings’ on one side to add some level of privacy and a ledge for weary travellers to lie on. Seat maps show a 3-4-3 seat layout, similar to Singapore Airlines’ A380. Yes that is 10-abreast but some airlines like Air Canada, American Airlines, Air France, United and many others place 10-abreast on the Boeing 777, which is narrower than the A380. This means less space and comfort for passengers. On a flight more than 8 hours, I am not sure if I would want to be squeezed in such a cabin. The good news is that Etihad’s 787 would feature the same Economy Class cabin!

The new Business class, dubbed ‘Business Studio’ will convert to a fully flat bed of 80.5 inches long and will have the added comfort of mattresses and pyjamas. I think Qantas offers pyjamas on Business-class but not mattresses and Delta does offer mattresses branded with Westin’s ‘Heavenly Bed’. Though both does not have a cabin half as stylish as Etihad. I would be contented with just Etihad’s business class for long haul routes since these cabin would also be onboard their 787 Dreamliners.

First Class on the A380 is termed ‘First Class Apartment’ since it is a step further from Suites in that it features a separate seat and a pull-down bed. Lufthansa was first to feature both a seat and a bed on the refurbished 747-400s but Etihad’s new suite layout is definitely more impressive and gives SIA’s suites a run for its money. The mini ‘apartments’ can be joined up to allow couples to chat on the bed together, and joining them to form a double bed, so SIA is no longer the only airline to offer double beds on the A380s.

But what was more stupendous was the creation of the ‘First Class Residences’, only available on Etihad’s A380s. The airline utilized the forward left lavatory space on the A380 to form a private chamber on the skies that is meant for 2 persons. It features a living room with seats for 2 persons and has a 32-inch flat screen TV, similar to Asiana’s First Class Suites. Then it also has private bathroom complete with showers onboard. No more sharing with fellow passengers! And finally a bedroom with double beds to snuggle into after dinner. All enclosed in the front and it comes with a personal butler too! Basically this is the only 3-room space on a commercial airline, or what I would call a private jet experience onboard a commercial aircraft, and perhaps the ultimate in First Class travel.

How it Changes Airlines’ Strategy

Etihad would start off with one A380 and plans to fly it between London and Abu Dhabi. Eventually as it has more A380s it plans to fly them to Sydney and New York (JFK). Granted many might question the viability of such a product but this shows how Middle-Eastern have been doing the innovation to gain customers and businesses rather than trying to get more passengers into a plane after they paid more for it.

It also shows how difficult it has become for airlines to differentiate themselves from the competition. Most airline cabins nowadays are built by specialized manufacturers and this means a similar product can easily be fitted on a competitor’s fleet. When businesses rely too much on outsourced work, there is a lot more work to be done to obtain some sort of competitive advantage.

But what is clear from here on is that more passengers are bound to use the Middle-Eastern carriers as hubs for long-haul international air travel. And the move also made me reflect on my lesson in ‘Business Strategy’ which I posted here. Many legacy national carriers are now in the mainstream. New Middle-Eastern carriers are preying on long-haul premium customers while the budget carriers are eating up their market share in the leisure travel market. Thus there is a need for legacy carriers to re-define their market because the status quo would not remain for long as Etihad shows.


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