Etihad Airways's US$70 million (Dh257.1m) investment in a new first-class cabin last year has already begun to pay off with the Abu Dhabi airline winning one of the most coveted awards in commercial aviation: the best first class in the Skytrax 2010 World Airline Awards. Qatar Airways took the top spot for best business class and best Middle East airline, while Emirates Airline won best inflight entertainment for the sixth year in a row, as the Gulf's well-financed and state-backed carriers continued their climb up the rankings at the industry's largest awards event yesterday.
"We are exceptionally proud," said Peter Baumgartner, the chief commercial officer at the six-year old Etihad Airways, after receiving the award in Hamburg, Germany. Etihad won a trio of awards for best first-class catering, seat and overall product, demonstrating that its recent investments in service and equipment delivered results, he said. Its 208-centimetre-long, first-class suite includes leather upholstery from Poltrona Frau, which also outfits Ferrari sports cars, and a changing room with a full-length mirror and wash basin.
"We introduced things like an on-board food and beverage manager not just to create a talking point but to deliver service that is meaningful," Mr Baumgartner said. Skytrax, a UK-based consultancy, draws its results from an eight-month survey from more than 18 million air travellers. Its World Airline Awards are considered the top industry event. The results this year challenged the reign of the Asia-based carriers such as Singapore Airways and Cathay Pacific Airways, which dominated the top spots since 2007.
Etihad, Qatar Airways and Emirates are investing heavily in their products and services to gain market share for long-haul routes between Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas, particularly in the lucrative business and first-class segments. In the affluent GCC market, premium travel is especially important, with the UAE alone being home to 79,000 millionaires, according to the latest wealth report by Merrill Lynch and Capgemini.
Although first and business-class travel declined during the global downturn as companies and individuals tightened their belts, both are recovering, Mr Baumgartner said. Qatar Airways's awards, which this year include best business-class catering and the Middle East "service excellence" award, helped it ascend to become the number three airline in the world, according to the survey. Etihad is now ranked as the sixth-best airline in the world, up from 23rd spot in 2007.
Edward Plaisted, the chairman of Skytrax, called Etihad's clean sweep in the first-class category a "fantastic result". Last year, Etihad won best business class in only its fifth year of operation. With its accolades in first and business classes, Etihad was targeting the two categories it has not yet won - best airline in the world and best economy cabin, Mr Baumgartner said. "We are aiming to be recognised as the best airline in the world and our ranking is trending toward that."