Abu Dhabi-based carrier Etihad Airways has pushed luxury to a sky-high new level with the unveiling of its new 'residence' class on board its Airbus A380 superjumbos.
The three-section private cabin features a lounge area, a bedroom and a bathroom with shower. There is also an onboard butler solely to service passengers in the 'residence', trained by the Savoy Butler Academy in London, part of the Savoy Hotel.
Each of the airline's A380s will feature just one residence, which can be occupied by two people. It will be located at the front of the upper deck on board the double-decker superjumbo.
Unveiled at an event in Abu Dhabi in front of more than 100 journalists from around the world, the residence class is the centrepiece of the new interiors Etihad has created for its A380 superjumbos and Boeing 787 Dreamliners.
The residence bedroom features a double bed, joined to the living room by a short corridor. The living room features a two-seat leather couch, a dining table and private minibar. Both the living room and bedroom feature LCD television screens for inflight entertainment.
The space, covering almost 12 square metres on the aircraft, is unprecedented in commercial airline travel. Etihad's Australian-born president and CEO James Hogan said the aim of residence was to provide an experience more like flying in a private jet than flying in first class.
Naturally, there are prices to match and a flight from Abu Dhabi to London in the residence class is expected to cost more than $20,000. Wealthy Australians will be able to fly the kangaroo route in this class, with Etihad planning to bring its A380s to the Abu Dhabi-Sydney and Melbourne routes, beginning with Sydney in 2015.
Peter Baumgartner, the airline's chief commercial officer, said that pricing for the Australia-London route had yet to be worked out. Given the price estimate of Abu Dhabi to London, expect it to be in the vicinity of $40,000.
"We believe we've raised the bar," Mr Hogan said. "There is a market for this type of product."
But don't expect to get upgraded from economy or even first class into the residence. "No, we're going to be very pure on the pricing of the residence. It's something exclusive. We want people to aspire to it and we won't be giving upgrades - and that includes staff," Hogan said with a laugh.
The airline also unveiled new first class, business class and economy class seats for its A380 and Dreamliner aircraft. The seats were designed over a five-year period by a consortium of three British design firms.
The airline's A380 first class seats, dubbed 'apartments', are 74 per cent bigger than the carrier's existing first class and feature a reclining lounge chair and expanding ottoman. It is the ottoman, not the seat, that expands into a bed. The private space, which can be closed off from the aisle with sliding doors also features a vanity unit with lighted mirrors and amenities from luxury brands.
The first class cabin also features a bathroom with a shower for guests.
Business and first class passengers on the A380 will also have access to 'the Lobby', a lounge and bar area designed for relaxing and socialising, featuring a semi-circular leather couch.
Though there are less revolutionary changes in economy class, the airline has introduced a 'fixed wing' headrest to its economy seats - an innovation created to simulate the experience of leaning against the cabin wall in window seats, or your neighbour's shoulder. The airline said research had shown passengers found it much easier to sleep in economy class with the fixed headrest to lean on.
Etihad has 10 Airbus A380s on order and plans to commence flights with its first superjumbo between Abu Dhabi and London in December this year. The airline's first 787-9 Dreamliner will also commence flights that month. With the superjumbos bound for Sydney and Melbourne, Etihad plans to fly Dreamliners, which is has placed 71 orders for, to Perth and Brisbane (the latter via Singapore).
The Airbus A380 is the world's largest airliner, measuring 72-metres long and with a wingspan of just under 80 metres. Etihad's A380s will carry up to 498 passengers, with two residence guests, nine first class, 70 business class and 417 economy class passengers.
The size of the A380 has allowed airlines to do things with the interiors that would have been impossible previously. Singapore Airlines, the first airline to take delivery of A380s, set the precedent by creating private "suites" in its first class cabin. Emirates, too, broke new ground with its A380 by becoming the first airline to install showers on board.
Carriers in the Middle-East and Asia are increasingly competing on their premium offerings in order to attract lucrative high-end travellers, even as airlines in other parts of the world, including Qantas, have reduced the number of planes offering first class seats to put a focus on mid-range premium economy seating.
The writer travelled to Abu Dhabi as a guest of Etihad Airways.