Air travel in coach being more uncomfortable than ever, I was receptive when a woman with Etihad Airways flagged me down at the Global Business Travel Association trade show in Los Angeles recently and led me to a display of the newest example of luxury in flying.
That was the “Residence,” a three-room suite Etihad will install in first-class sections of its Airbus A380 superjumbo airplanes, the first one scheduled for service on Dec. 27. The 125-square-foot suite consists of a living room with two couches, a 32-inch television set and a refrigerator, a bathroom with a full shower and, just down the carpeted hall, a bedroom with a double bed. A private butler is included.
“I want them to forget they’re sitting on an airplane,” said Aubrey Tiedt, Etihad’s vice president for guest service, who helped create the idea and the design. The idea is to make the space seem like a hotel suite, she said.
A butler, Tomas Piroska, stood by discreetly in white gloves and a spiffy suit. “I’m also a chef,” Piroska said.
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“The Savoy, London,” Tiedt said.
Tiedt seemed a little perplexed by how amused I was at all this. She was unaware that on my most recent flight, I had been wedged between a sweaty man and a woman holding a wailing baby. The thought of a three-room suite in an airplane struck me as hilarious.
“It’s not just some wacky idea,” Tiedt insisted. “There is a market for this.”
The initial one-way fare for Etihad’s suite is about $20,000 — the same price for two sharing the suite as for one — for the first A380 flights, starting in December from Etihad’s base in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, to London. That is about a 6½-hour flight — not much time to fully enjoy those sumptuous meals and wines served by your butler, watch a movie on that 32-inch screen or use that double bed.
As Etihad receives additional A380s (it has 10 on order), each having a suite, there will be longer routes.
Emirates Airlines, a better-known rival to Etihad in the luxury long-haul market, set the standard in 2008 when it introduced a first-class cabin on its A380s that has sliding doors for privacy. The Emirates A380s (it now has 50, with an additional 90 ordered) also have two sleek bathrooms, each with a shower, in first class.
“There is definitely a market on selected routes,” said Ron Peri, the chief executive of Radixx International, a global airline-reservations systems company. “Emirates has a great first-class product, but this definitely ups the ante” for all airlines’ premium first-class or even business-class products on long routes, he said.
“In my opinion, it is both a marketing stunt as well as a clever use of the real estate of the A380,” said Raymond Kollau, the founder of Airlinetrends.com, a research company. “For many airlines, especially from the Gulf region, first class can be regarded as a sort of upscale loss leader that also serves as a flagship product, similar to flagship stores of luxury brands, which increases the overall public perception of the brand,” as Emirates did when it introduced showers on its A380s, Kollau said.