Twenty years ago the idea that routes from Dubai, Doha or Abu Dhabi to London Heathrow would be some of the busiest trunk operations in the world would have been hard to imagine. Fast forward to 2015, though, and that faintly ridiculous notion has become an impressive reality.
It’s no secret that the big three Gulf carriers are doing well on their operations into the UK’s capital. Emirates has been operating its 489-517-seat Airbus A380s on the Dubai-Heathrow route since late 2008 and Qatar Airways introduced its 517-seat double-decker from Doha in October 2014; Etihad finally completed the trio in December 2014 by deploying its 496-seat superjumbo on flights from Abu Dhabi.
The A380 was intended to improve the passenger experience in all classes of the aircraft, but because of the extra space the aircraft provides, the premium classes offered the biggest opportunity for the airlines to deliver something special – an experience perhaps more akin to traveling on a Boeing Business Jet or Airbus Corporate Jet than on a commercial airliner.
When the Emirates A380 was presented to the world it was widely hailed as a game-changer. Every example offers a 1-2-1 configured cabin demonstrating just how comfortable first class can be, with 14 B/E Aerospace Super First Class seats. Each seat has a pitch of 82in (208cm) and a width of 21.6in, is fully lie-flat, and is fitted with a 23in or 27in Panasonic eX2 IFE system featuring Emirate’s ICE entertainment system. The majority of Emirates' A380 fleet also offers premium passengers enhanced connectivity through Internet OnAir (currently being offered free on board), as well as Mobile OnAir for telephones.
Emirates didn’t just wow their passengers with the seats, however. A fully-stocked bar at the rear of the upper deck, courtesy of Aim Altitude, provides lounge seating and a relaxing area for both first and business class passengers. The Emirates A380 offered another real first with the first-class “Shower Spa” positioned towards the front of the upper deck.
Inevitably, the other Gulf airlines followed suit. In 2014, Qatar Airways revealed what first-class passengers aboard its A380 could expect. With just eight seats in the first class area of the cabin configured in a 1-2-1 layout, Qatar provides a slightly roomier berth than Emirates with a 90in pitch and width of 23in. Each seat also offers 180° lie-flat functionality. Entertainment is courtesy of Qatar’s Oryx system, supported by the Thales TopSeries IFE platform; OnAir internet and Mobile OnAir mean connections to the ground are always available. An impressively large bar and seating area – another effort from Aim Altitude – is situated aft of first-class but in front of business-class on the upper deck.
And then there’s Etihad. Coupled with a complete rebranding across the entire company – including a new livery, interior and cabin crew uniform – the A380 first-class product demonstrates the carrier’s commitment to excellence. Etihad chose to split its high-end cabin into nine “apartments” and an exclusive two-berth cabin named “The Residence”.
Each apartment offers an exclusive 26in-wide B/E Aerospace-manufactured seat with 80.5in pitch and positioned in an impressive 1-1 configuration, complete with a separate bed and privacy screen that can be retracted to create a double bed with the neighbouring seat, if desired. Each seat is fitted with a 24in Panasonic eX3 IFE system as well as a connection to the on-board Panasonic eXConnect in-flight broadband service. Passengers can also socialise in the upper deck’s spacious bar area with lounge seating, which Etihad terms “The Lobby”.
The Residence suite, meanwhile, is in a class of its own. Featuring two rooms and one bathroom, the private area of the cabin comes complete with a butler and chef to cater to the passengers’ every need. The living room area offers a 32in flat-screen TV, a two-seat sofa made from exclusive Poltrona Frau leather, a drinks cabinet and two dining tables; next door is are the bedroom and en-suite bathroom, elegantly furnished with a double bed, another 32in flat screen TV and shower.
To accurately compare each offering one would have to travel in the first-class cabin of an A380 from each airline. However, that would also require a significant financial outlay and a refined perception of what value for money represents. That said, it is clear that the concept of premium-class air travel is being rewritten by three carriers from the Middle East. Seats are more private, service is more personal and the prices are more exclusive than ever.
Aside from the impact they may have on the bigger legacy carriers, these products may also pose a question to the wealthy and famous: is there really a need for that Gulfstream anymore?
This article has been updated to correct the seat counts in the second paragraph