Hangar 6 at Etihad’s Abu Dhabi home base was packed on Thursday – and not just because the airline’s newest Airbus A380 and Boeing 787-9 were parked inside.
Etihad had flown journalists from across the world to reveal three pillars of its new ‘Flying Reimagined’ strategy: the first of a 10-strong fleet of Airbus A380 aircraft to serve as its new flagship, the first of 72 Boeing 787 Dreamliners to serve as part of the backbone of its global network – and, in a surprise runway reveal, stunning new uniforms from an Italian couturier.
On the A380, Etihad is redefining first class, but elsewhere the results are mixed
If you haven’t heard of Etihad’s three-room first class Residence suite for two, welcome to 2014. With a pair of Poltrona Frau-covered leather seats in the living quarters, a double bed for sleeping and an ensuite private bathroom – plus a dedicated butler who is the only crewmember you’ll see during the flight – it’s the very definition of a passenger experience halo effect.
Having sat in the B/E Aerospace-designed seat for a few minutes and hopped onto the bed to test it out, the question is: does it replace the private jet for the super-privileged few? Despite the hype, the bed itself is surprisingly small: only slightly larger than a king single, and sleeping two would be a bit of a stretch.
In the merely private first class Apartment suites, the airline has achieved another first: a single-aisle widebody cabin, thanks to the separate sofa bed arranged perpendicular to the cabin centreline, with individual recliner seats that face alternately forwards and backwards, interwoven with yet entirely private from their neighbour. The sofa bed mattress, created by B/E Aerospace, inflates to give an extra few centimetres of that vital squashiness factor.
Between first and business classes on the aircraft’s starboard side sits the Lobby bar, arranged for five-six people to sit comfortably around a circular table. It’s a chic if cosy space, with sidewall and ceiling textures that reflect the ‘Facets of Abu Dhabi’ branding, with the galley inserts on the other side of the aisle in an attractive dark wood finish to complete the look.
Business class – now renamed from Pearl Business Class – is a custom-designed forwards-backwards staggered seat that converts to a fully flat bed with direct aisle access for every passenger. Designed by Sogerma, and unlike the previous Sogerma Solstys seat, the overlap between passengers is only at the feet, not the head as well.
Seats immediately next to the aisle face aft, while window seats and centre pairs face forward. A small gangway between the contained pods in the aisle seats allows window and centre passengers to slip past. Given that the gangway cuts into the aisle passenger’s space, those seats are 15-20cm shorter than the “up to” 204cm quoted by the airline. The fully contained footwells and semi-teardrop shape are a problem for tall passengers: Australian Aviation’s 188cm-tall reporter, whose feet poked out of the previous generation of seats into the open space between the footwell and cabin sidewall, couldn’t do the same with the new seats in either aisle or window.
Down the back, Etihad is continuing its strategy of offering a very average amount of space in economy class, with 31in seat pitch, though at least the A380’s wider seating is an improvement on the ten-across seating seen on its Boeing 777 and 787 fleet.
In addition to the wider seats, there are also a few cosmetic and usability improvements thanks to the Panasonic eX3 on-demand entertainment system, with more content, better navigation and larger screens – and the magnetic headphone connectors from Phitek, which attach magnetically rather than using the traditional 3.5mm pin. Think the audio version of an Apple MagSafe connector, resulting in fewer pins being snapped off inside the socket, and a resulting maintenance gain and fewer out-of-action entertainment systems.
The principal innovation (and it’s an impressive one) comes in the headrest, one side of which has a padded fixed wing – covered in local camel leather, no less – against which passengers can rest their heads when having a snooze. The A380’s version of what Etihad calls its Smart Seat has paired headrests in the centre – ideal if a passenger travelling with someone they care to quite literally sleep with, but perhaps less so if travelling with a friend or colleague.
There’s also an ingenious pillow that splits apart to become a neck pillow, as demonstrated by this flight attendant.
Of the 10 orders, one will arrive in 2014, four in 2015, three in 2016 and the last in 2017. Its inaugural flight will be on December 27 between Abu Dhabi and London Heathrow, with Sydney and New York JFK A380 flights starting in 2015.
The 787 is a slightly glammed-up workhorse of Etihad’s future fleet
First class on the 787 replaces the Residence and Apartments of the A380 with an updated set of eight first class suites manufactured by B/E Aerospace. The curve of the aisles, much-billed by the airline, is less significant than one might expect, varying only slightly from the airline centerline — but enough to reduce the box-within-a-box feeling that can often result from closed-door suites in first and business class.
The Business Studios on the 787 are a different design to the A380’s, and are manufactured by Zodiac rather than Sogerma. They sit in a cabin diameter slightly wider than the A380’s upper deck, which is closer in profile to an A330 cabin. As a result, the 787’s seats feel slightly further apart — less so than the difference between a Boeing 777 and an Airbus A330, though. As with the A380, window and centre seats face forward, with aisle seats facing towards the rear of the aircraft.
Economy is a narrower version of the Smart Seat on the A380: still with the winged headrests, but with all passengers leaning away from their neighbour. The entertainment is again the Android-based Panasonic Avionics eX3 system, but the seats are unfortunately in the tight nine-abreast configuration, leaving just 17in per passenger. It’s tight – very tight.
Etihad has 41 787-9s on order plus 30 of the double-stretched -10, with the first two 787-9s arriving in 2014, three more in each of 2015 and 2016, plus nine in 2017. The first 787-10 arrives in 2017, while at least the first five 787-9 aircraft will be three-class.
Crew certainly look the part in new colour-coded uniforms
Etihad’s old grey uniforms were certainly starting to look dated, so Milanese designer Ettore Bilotta’s stylish new outfits come as a welcome change.
The base colour for both women’s and men’s uniforms is a deep chocolate brown, beautifully textured in a diamond pattern that catches the light – again, the ‘facets’ theme – and is repeated in the women’s bright magenta neckscarves.
Accent colours for the women’s skirt suits (though it’s inconceivable that a trouser suit will not be forthcoming) are a dusky magenta, with very on-brand triangle flashing just below the elbow that brings the Facets of Abu Dhabi brand to mind, and a vertical stripe in the middle of the skirt. Matching long brown leather gloves with a diamond texture at the forearm complete the look. The men of the cabin crew onboard, meanwhile, wear a three-piece suit with a golden orange tie following the same diamond patterned theme.
Gone are the white looped veils on round hats – there’s a double cut-out of the retro hat that calls to mind a beret, with cabin managers wearing a bright magenta hat to distinguish from the brown of regular crew.
Etihad’s various sub-branded crew are also included: the new A380 Residence butler has a chocolate brown frock coat over cream chino trousers, with white gloves. The onboard chef has a white smock instead of the three-piece shirt and waistcoat. The food and beverage manager has a white jacket and magenta tie. The flying nanny, meanwhile, is resplendent in a rather 1970s orange tunic.
All in all, it’s a fresh, modern take on a classic look — as the vintage photoshoot in the desert that accompanies the uniform attests.
Rebranding and updating existing product needs a lot of work
Etihad’s new aircraft, cabins and uniforms come at a turning point for the airline, with its new Facets of Abu Dhabi branding, an enormous order book, an increasing stable of airlines in which it holds equity growing its Etihad Airways Partners mini-alliance, and the 2017 opening of its new Midfield Terminal Building home.
The new brand reveal was followed quickly by a new range of soft product, with particular emphasis being placed around the meal concept. The return of Calum Laming as vice president guest experience after his year with Air New Zealand shows much promise.
Yet at least in the Boeing 777-300ER business class cabin Australian Aviation experienced, Etihad’s recent refresh of its soft product ups the style quotient, but doesn’t push the airline ahead of its competitors.
There’s a new cushion, one side of which is covered with a shiny satin fabric in the new Facets of Abu Dhabi colours. It looks great, but as the pillow in bed mode it’s as practical as satin sheets at home: not very. The feeling of five o’clock shadow stubble rasping over the satin isn’t a pleasant one.
The new mattress can’t really be called a mattress: it’s a fitted sheet to cover the seat for ultra-long-haul flights. When airlines like Air New Zealand have a memory foam mattress to add to their already well-padded flip-over sleeping surface, this is a disappointment that’s a missed trick.
More impressive is the statement place setting, with its three piece metal breadbasket-plate combination that looks like hammered chrome, a pattern and texture that also extends to the flatware. In the cabin, its firmly on-brand facets reflect the light magnificently, and the knives and forks have a weighty, premium feel that wouldn’t be out of plane in a high-end restaurant.
Yet the food on the Sydney flight Australian Aviation experienced didn’t match the place setting’s elegance. The lamb dish on the menu turned out to be an enormous shank that nearly went past moist and juicy to oily and fatty — not to mention more than a trifle inelegant. The wine selection, too, disappointed, with a cheap Besserat de Bellefon Champagne that didn’t improve from the first warm glass served on the ground, even when it reached the proper temperature.
These might seem like first class problems – or at the very least, business class ones – yet the investment in soft product needs to be consistent across the fleet to achieve the desired results, and can’t rest on just the impression of luxury from the flagship products.
Will it be enough to move Etihad apart from Emirates?
The big question for Etihad’s identity is twofold: whether it can suitably distinguish itself as different to the airline Goliath up the road in Dubai, and whether it is offering an exceptional product that will make it an airline of choice. In many ways, Etihad needs to work twice as hard as its larger rival: it’s not fair, but it’s the status quo.
Etihad’s extensive sponsorship and co-branding activities from Melbourne to Manchester City mean that its name is beginning to penetrate global consciousness – underlined by the fact that a search on Instagram or Twitter for the #Etihad hashtag during the event revealed as many people in football shirts worldwide and at the RMIT graduation ceremony in the Melbourne Docklands stadium as it did pictures of aircraft and cabins.
The halo effect of its A380 flagship cabins will reflect through its 787 suites and both new business class cabins, even despite the latter’s length issues. On balance, Etihad is doing good work in its premium cabins, and economy is no worse than many — though with less pitch than Emirates on both the wider A380-style seats and the tighter 787 seats (when compared with Emirates’ similarly narrow 777 product).
Yet after the wow factor of the new planes, seats, pillows and plates wore off this week in Abu Dhabi, the question that kept coming up was: what will Emirates do in response? Until that question is answered – even more, until it stops being asked – Etihad will need to continue innovating.