Etihad’s SkyPad May Force Skytrax to Add New Stars

Luxury onboard Etihad Airways is not a new concept.

Their well-established Diamond First, Pearl Business Class, and Coral Economy Class have always been a luxury product offering, featuring lush private suites in First, plenty of room to stretch out and work in Business and an ergonomic-design economy seat with on-demand entertainment and power outlets throughout.

Still, none of this has helped Etihad beat its Skytrax four star rating.

When Qatar Airways, one of the world’s seven SkyTrax five-star airlines, gave the world a sneak peek of their new A380 Cabins, with an open seat product in First Class it begged the question: “Is the Private Suite on the way out?”

After all, if Qatar, which has a well-deserved reputation for onboard luxury, decides not to feature this top-tier design element, popular on a number of world-class carriers, then perhaps the days of wine and roses, enjoyed behind closed doors at 30,000 ft, were nearing their end in the luxury skies.

Industry designers politely declined to comment on the future fate of the suite, when asked.

Today, it seems clear why.

Not only is the Suite remaining a luxury cabin feature, Etihad has just ramped-up the luxury to levels comparable only to the world’s most exclusive hotels.

Etihad has called them First Apartments.

As Etihad describes them:

  • The ground-breaking First Apartment will feature on the airline’s A380 fleet and offer a complete living space with a reclining lounge chair and an ottoman which converts to become a separate 80.5 inch long fully-flat bed.
  • Nine First Apartments will be located in the upper deck of Etihad Airways’ A380s, six of which have ‘connecting doors’ that allow them to create apartments for guests traveling together.
  • Benefitting from the A380’s size, each First Apartment has a total area of 39 square feet, offering 74 per cent more space than Etihad Airways’ existing First Class suite.
  • Configured along a single aisle, a first for the industry, Etihad Airways’ First Apartments include a 30.3 inch reclining lounge chair and separate full length ottoman which opens into an 80.5 inch long and 26 inch wide fully flat bed. The lounge chair and ottoman are upholstered by Poltrona Frau, the prestigious suppliers of Ferrari interiors.
  • First Apartment guests have an exclusive shower room. The Lobby is located between the First and Business Class cabins, featuring a lounge and bar area with leather sofas, marquetry table, and large-screen television.
  • Adding to the home design touches, the First Apartment includes a chilled mini-bar, personal wardrobe, and a separate vanity unit with lit make-up mirrors and stocked with luxury branded amenities.

Etihad’s new 787s are not left behind.  They have their own First Class Cabin Suite design.

More importantly, the improvements at the top end of service for these aircraft have trickled down throughout, with every class of service benefiting.  Etihad has also introduced a Business Class “Studio” apartment, and an updated Economy Class product.

As Peter Baumgartner, Etihad Airway’s Chief Commercial Officer says in their official announcement:

“Today is an historic day in the Etihad Airways story. We are the fastest growing airline in commercial aviation, and by unveiling our plans for this magnificent aircraft and setting new benchmarks in onboard product, service, hospitality and style, we have redefined what flying is all about.”

To ensure that no level of luxury is left behind, Etihad has introduced The Residence by Etihad™, the world’s first private multi-room cabin.

The Residences will be at the front of the upper deck of Etihad’s new Airbus A380s, will be 125 ft squared in total area, with a separate “living room” and “master bedroom” and an “ensuite shower.” All of this space complimented by a slew of comfort features, luxury limousine transfers, and, of course a private Butler, trained by the Savoy Butler Academy in London, who doubles as a Concierge and Maitre D’Hotel.  The features, as listed by the airline:

  • The living room in The Residence is furnished with a two-seat reclining sofa upholstered in Poltrona Frau leather, dual marquetry dining tables and a chilled mini-bar.
  • A touchscreen control unit operates the retractable ottoman, the ambient and mood lighting, window shading, adjusts seat position and firmness, and activates the in-seat massage functions.
  • A door and passageway separate the living room from the master bedroom and the ensuite shower room. The bedroom features a Poltrona Frau upholstered 82 inch long double bed with custom-made mattress, bedside unit, wardrobe, and under-bed stowage for hand luggage.
  • The living room features a large 32 inch LCD TV, whilst the bedroom boasts its own 27 inch LCD TV. The communications suite features broadband with internet mobile and data capability, Live TV, HDMI, AC outlet and USB ports.
  • The Residence is fully Wi-Fi enabled and equipped with the latest Panasonic eX3 entertainment system, controlled by video touch screen and handset.
  • In keeping with the cabin interiors in the rest of the aircraft, The Residence is decorated in a contemporary style influenced by modern Arabian design.
  • It also has unique décor elements such as custom carpets, table marquetry and soft furnishings, creating individuality and exclusivity. The Residence on each Etihad Airways A380 aircraft will feature a unique design inspired by best-in-class boutique hospitality.

WARNING: Those with Sensitive Hearing Should be Aware that Danii Minogue screeches with excitement loud enough to shatter eardrums.

Of their new Sky Apartments, Baumgartner says:

“The Residence will set Etihad Airways apart from the rest of the industry and allow us to provide the complete range of world-class products and services to cater for the individual tastes of every VIP traveller. This is the culmination of five years of intensive effort and research into how Etihad Airways can provide an unparalleled VIP experience. Without doubt, we are ushering in a new era of luxury travel in commercial aviation.”

The program to introduce this complete redefinition of luxury in the skies has been running quietly under the radar since 2008, when Etihad, realising that a project this ambitious could not be managed by one design firm alone, put together the Etihad Design Consortium (EDC), consisting of Acumen, Factorydesign and Honour Branding.

Acumen were responsible for seating for First Class, Business, and Economy.  Factorydesign were assigned passenger experience and interiors elements such as galleys, lavatories and passenger destination zones.  Honour Branding, was responsible to ensure that the Etihad Brand became a full sensory delight for passengers, resulting in an unforgettable travel experience.

Honour inspired attendees at this year’s Passenger Experience Conference in Hamburg with their presentation on generating brand loyalty by invoking a strong emotional response to build brand memory.  They concluded their presentation, defining their brand philosophy by quoting Maya Angelou:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Factorydesign are also responsible for bringing the Four Seasons Private Jet Program to life.

During the development and design phase, the EDC team partnered with Promise Communispace to conduct comprehensive consumer research and held workshops in Abu Dhabi, Sydney, London and New York, to define the “perfect flight” by “asking consumers to design the perfect airline.”

Judging from today’s numerous reveals, the data and feedback gathered were put to good use and the EDC excelled in fulfilling their mission.

The star of the show is obviously the Residence by Etihad™ the private jet experience brought to commercial airline service.  It is a very interesting development, following the recent entry by Four Seasons in the skies with their private label jet aircraft service introduced last month.

But the relatively more affordable First Apartment and Business Class Studios far outshines the offering of other First Class and Business Class products on the world’s top airlines, and the Economy seat product is superior to the greater part of Economy Cabins flying today.

Etihad was named the World’s Leading Airline by the World Travel Awards for the fifth consecutive year this past December, and this new design standard is certain to secure its spot at number one.

So why are their Skytrax ratings so off the mark?

It’s worth pointing out that, despite its four-star rating, Etihad is in the number seven position of the world’s top ten airlines, as ranked by SkyTrax.  But that is still far from the number one slot.

The secret lies in who gets to cast the votes.

The World Travel Awards are decided by a select group of 500,000 travel experts and “high-end consumers.”  And even those “high-end consumers” don’t rate as high as travel experts for this award.  As they reveal on their website: “Votes cast by travel professionals count as two votes while the votes cast by non-industry voters count as one vote.”

The SkyTrax awards, on the other hand, are based on the cumulative votes of millions of passengers from 160 countries who voluntarily judge the airlines on non-commissioned surveys.  Skytrax’s Edward Plaisted addresses the question of why their rankings may not reflect the rankings of other awards, or even the feelings of some passengers on their site:

“We operate these Awards on a not-for-profit basis, and apply the most rigorous monitoring to the survey process, and we can guarantee that there is no outside influence or airline involvement.  The integrity and reputation of these Skytrax Passenger’s Choice awards relies on our ability to maintain transparency across all areas of the survey and awards format.  We know that some Award winning airlines are not the favourite of everyone, and we receive vocal feedback and complaints from a few users each year when the results are published.”

From this perspective, SkyTrax may more accurately reflect the views of the majority of consumers.  Because Skytrax judge a great number of factors in service, beyond the cabin design, it does give an overview of the complete package of the airline’s performance.

Even so, with Etihad making these unprecedented levels of investment to redefine the passenger experience, not only on this previously unheard of Residence product, but on all classes of service onboard their aircraft, Skytrax might have to consider adding a new star to their ratings system, maybe two.

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