Ever since I booked my trip to attend the Dubai Airshow, I had been quietly hoping that Etihad would bring their flagship A380 to the static display. This was, however, a long shot, as Etihad only has four A380s in service; to take one out of service for an airshow is a big ask. Emirates had confirmed sometime out that they would have an A380 on static display, as did Qatar Airways, but these two models did not excite me nearly as much as the Etihad A380.
I could barely contain my excitement, when on the first day of the airshow, Etihad confirmed their A380 would make an appearance the following day! As the aircraft was only scheduled to remain at Al Maktoum Airport for a few hours before returning to Abu Dhabi, it was my first priority to go see this aircraft.
We met with the PR staff at the Etihad chalet and they were more than willing to give us a tour of the aircraft, even driving to the display from the chalet in custom-branded golf carts — talk about a VIP experience.
We boarded the aircraft onto the lower deck. As with many A380 operators, Etihad has elected to make the entire lower deck economy class. Immediately upon entering the cabin, the airline’s interior design philosophy, Facets of Abu Dhabi, becomes immediately evident. It really is a welcome change from the conventional design of aircraft interiors and, even in economy class, it creates a homely feeling.
The economy class cabin consists of 415 seats with a rather generous 31-33 inches of seat pitch. The IFE system has also been significantly upgraded over previous offerings in the older aircraft such as the A330 and 777. Etihad refer to their economy class seats on the A380 as “Smart Seats” as they have a few nifty little features such as winged headrests, as well as a unique pillow that can be converted to a neck pillow, something which many economy class passengers will come to appreciate when trying to sleep.
Following the walkthrough of the economy class cabin, it was time to make my way upstairs to business class. Etihad has configured their business class with 70 “studio” seats.
Etihad has faced some recent criticism over the option to place rear-facing seats in their business class cabin. Despite this, the seats are still incredibly spacious and comfortable and they convert to a full-flat bed. Having said that, I would still say that the forward-facing seats are the ones to go for, particularly in the forward cabin. I feel that this business product is actually better than numerous first class seats I have experienced in service today.
The real highlight was the first class cabin. An industry first, Etihad is the only airline to operate a single-aisle first class product on board the A380. This unique design concept ensures a truly reimagined travel experience. The cabin is designed with a mix of light and dark colored seats. The single-aisle concept and only nine first class “apartments” make this really the most exclusive and private first class cabin in service today.
Each apartment is equipped with a large reclining lounge chair as well as a separate bed, vanity cabinet, chilled drinks cabinet, and 24-inch flat screen TV that can be viewed from the chair or the bed. The only real negative with this cabin is the fact that Etihad has configured the first cabin with rear-facing seats; however, if you are traveling with a partner this can be a welcome option, as you are able to open a privacy screen between the apartments.
It really is hard to top the first class product on the Etihad A380 but they did it. There is, of course, The Residence, which provides an even more exclusive travel experience. Located at the front of the first class cabin, the Residence consists of a lounge room, bathroom with shower, and bedroom. Up to two passengers can travel in the Residence for the same price.
Not only is the hard product outstanding and an industry first, but so too is the soft product. When guests book the Residence they have 24/7 access to a VIP travel concierge. Guests can also chose what meals they would like to have on their flight as well as any special requests for various beverages, etc. Guests also have a choice of three different brands for bathroom amenities. Perhaps the coolest feature of the residence is the individually monogramed bathrobes that are provided to guests.
The on-board showers are available for first class and residence guests. The first class limit is six minutes of running water per passenger (which is one minute more than on the Emirates A380), while the Residence shower has no time limit and guests can take as many showers as they wish. Based on my prior experience with on-board showers however, six minutes really is more than enough time for a good soak on a long flight.
Etihad, like many other airlines, has also opted for an on-board lounge for its first and business class passengers. The lounge is located in the center of the aircraft behind the first class cabin – this adds an extra layer of privacy. The lounge may not be as big as on other airlines and there is no bar, however it is still a very cozy place to spend a couple of hours, and the addition of the round table gives guests the option to bring their laptop and do some work in a different location than at their seat if they wish.
The Etihad A380 really showcases the airlines philosophy of Flying Reimagined. This is seen across all three cabin classes, but none more so than the first class and Residence products. Etihad really is delivering on James Hogan’s promise during the A380 product launch in 2014 that they are striving to be the best airline in the world, not the biggest.
The product enhancements and design philosophy also give a feeling of hope in that not all airlines are following the path of sacrificing premium passenger experiences for the sake of profitability. One can only hope that this is not just a one-off concept and that it will engage other airlines to review their product offerings and perhaps offer a true first class experience like that of Etihad.