Dubai's fast-growing Emirates has taken delivery of the first of its huge order for 58 Airbus A380s
Even before Emirates had started its first commercial Airbus A380 service, to New York JFK at the beginning of August, the carrier was already talking openly about the prospects for serving not just the eastern seaboard but operating non-stop to the US west coast as well.
The A380 is central to the carrier's strategy to allow trunk-route traffic to pour into Dubai and connect, in the classic hub-and-spoke model, with regional services from the emirate.
Delivery of the first of 58 A380s means Emirates is the only one of the Middle Eastern region's three most ambitious long-haul operators to put the type into service.
Qatar Airways has deferred its A380s until at least 2012, while Doha Airport is still under development, and Etihad Airways - having recently placed an order for 10 - has pushed back its own deliveries until a similar time.
While both rivals have rapidly-expanding long-haul fleets, Emirates president Tim Clark points to the traffic forecasts for the Middle East and believes that neither is necessarily an obstacle. "Etihad is a relief valve for us, and us for them," he says.
Emirates will serve JFK thrice-weekly with its A380 - the route chosen to maximise the advantage of the 489-seat jet's crew rest area - before the airline receives a second in September, and increases JFK to a daily frequency. Clark says London Heathrow will be served daily as the fleet rises to four, and a Sydney-Auckland service will begin in February 2009 with the arrival of its fifth A380.
The first 517-seat versions of the A380, without the crew rest area, will start arriving in August-September next year, he says: "Then we'll just start opening up various points on the network that are pre-planned." At a later date the carrier will introduce a two-class, 604-seat version for regional services.
Emirates has reserved the A380's upper deck for the premium cabins: 14 enclosed first-class suites and 76 business-class seats. Each suite has a wide video screen, vanity table, wardrobe and electric sliding doors, offering complete privacy. The first-class cabin includes two spacious shower-spas, for which passengers will be able to pre-book 25-minute slots including five minutes of shower time.
Each spa room is large enough to accommodate several people, although only two guests at a time will be permitted to occupy either. The fittings include full-length mirrors, wash-basins and hairdryers, and the A380's crew will include two dedicated attendants to maintain hygiene.
"We looked at executive jets and saw their shower facilities," says Clark. "I think that took Airbus by surprise a little bit, but we persuaded them that it would be a good idea. It's managing [the usage] that's going to be probably the most complex, because we think it's going to be extremely popular."
At the rear of the upper deck, aft of the business-class cabin, is a bar and lounge area designed to resemble the observation deck of a cruise liner, with the forward view provided by a tail-mounted camera projecting its image onto a wide, wall-mounted screen.
The business-class seats feature massage mechanisms, a mini-bar, a remote-control keypad and lie-flat beds - although the layout means the beds in adjacent rows differ in length by about 20cm. The carrier's A380s are also equipped with the carrier's integrated "ICE" in-flight entertainment system which - aside from an extensive library of some 1,000 on-demand audio and video channels - includes e-mail, text and will be adapted to retail in order to replace much of the in-flight magazine, part of an effort to reduce aircraft weight.
Weight reduction, combined with improved engine performance, will potentially allow the aircraft to operate at practically full payload to US cities including San Francisco by 2012. Clark also believes the jet could serve Los Angeles, albeit with a reduced 400-passenger load.
"I don't think we can justify a premium price. It suggests our normal product isn't as good, which it is"
He says several other US cities are being studied for inclusion in the Emirates network - among them Dallas
/Ft Worth, Atlanta
and Washington - and adds that "hundreds" of other destinations are open to the airline, including Amsterdam
, Buenos Aires and Algiers.
Despite the A380's capacity for one-third more passengers than the three-class Boeing 777-300ERs that Emirates already flies, Clark says: "It's light, spacious, airy, there's plenty of room to move around. I think you'll get a high degree of mobility in flight, which sometimes some airlines don't want." But he adds that, unlike Singapore Airlines, the carrier will not charge a premium on its A380 flights. "I don't think, at this stage, we can justify a premium price. It suggests our normal product isn't as good," says Clark. "Which it is."
As it puts its first A380 into service, Clark says that the carrier is still interested in the 650-seat stretched version of the aircraft. Emirates would consider converting some of its final A380 deliveries to the larger A380-900 model if Airbus opts to launch the variant, he says.
Meanwhile, Qantas Airways has announced that it will take delivery of its first A380 in mid-September, making it the third carrier to operate the type.
There are two shower spas on board each Emirates A380
Watch videos of the delivery of the first Emirates A380 and see inside the aircraft at: flightglobal.com/emiratesa380