x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 February 2018

Etihad Airways ready to roll out luxury Airbus A380

Analysts say that Etihad Airways has an opportunity to outshine its rivals by offering another level of luxury at the world’s largest passenger aircraft - the A380.

Etihad Airways' The Lobby on the Airbus A380, which can seat six, will allow first and business class guests to gather while onboard the plane. Delores Johnson / The National
Etihad Airways' The Lobby on the Airbus A380, which can seat six, will allow first and business class guests to gather while onboard the plane. Delores Johnson / The National

Etihad Airways has an opportunity to outshine its rivals by offering another level of luxury when it begins operating the world’s largest passenger aircraft – the Airbus A380 – later this year, aviation analysts said.

Etihad will roll out its first two-deck superjumbo aircraft Thursday and deploy it on its three-times-a-day flight to London and its Sydney route. The Abu Dhabi carrier will also revamp the upper deck of the Airbus jet as it seeks to raise the stakes of luxury travel with a flying hotel suite on the plane.

“Many people have already found Etihad to have a superior premium product than Emirates,” said Will Horton, a senior analyst at the Sydney-based Capa Centre for Aviation. “Etihad may not have Emirates’ A380 bar, but people like Etihad offering lie-flat, direct-aisle-access business class seats across its long-haul fleet. Emirates and Qatar don’t have that.”

Qatar Airways, which received its first A380 last week, had failed to impress or fallen behind on the interior spec, according to analysts. But this can also be attributed to the airline’s rather “practical” strategy.

The Qatar Airways chief executive, Akbar Al Baker, had said that his A380 was not coming with butlers and other goodies. The airline is now keen to optimise revenue.

It will start flying its A380 next month from its Doha base to London Heathrow. The carrier has ordered 10 A380s and has options for three more.

“Differentiation in strategies is clearly paramount in succeeding with the Middle East big three at each others’ doorsteps,” said Daniel Tsang, the founder and chief analyst at the Hong Kong-based aviation consultancy Aspire Aviation.

“Etihad is adopting an equity-alliance and luxury approach. Emirates is offering the most comprehensive network connecting virtually every port on Earth, and Qatar is seeking to deepen its ties with IAG’s British Airways unit on a possible joint venture between Doha and London Heathrow.”

Emirates, the world’s biggest operator of the super-jumbo plane, already flies 50 of the aircraft and awaits 90 more in its book order.

“It was the Emirates A380 that became the symbol of the region’s airlines,” said Addison Schonland, a founder and partner of US-based AirInsight.

“The colours on the tail of an Emirates A380 have probably been the single greatest item to ‘show the flag’ worldwide,” he added.

As for routes, Emirates has spoken of an operating cost advantage for the A380. It can provide more seats at peak times, which a higher frequency could not necessarily do, according Mr Horton.

Another advantage for the double-deck plane is its larger capacity. It provides more seats in cases where a country’s bilateral aviation agreement does not allow higher frequencies.

“Many airlines continue to look at the A380 with some fear – it’s big and expensive,” said Mr Schonland. “Yet we see Emirates has successfully deployed it all over – on routes nobody would have thought of, like Manchester.”

Mr Schonland added that Emirates tends to build traffic on routes. The airline will switch from the smaller Airbus A330 to the Boeing 777, then switch again to the A380, which makes competitors “dread the arrival of Emirates” on a route, he said.

As for space, airlines that operate the A380 have tremendous flexibility with the seating. They can redesign the seating to optimise economics on routes. “The A380 to India is quite different than the A380 to New York in Emirates’ fleet,” said Mr Schonland.

Richard Aboulafia, the vice president for analysis at Teal Group Corporation, said that the A380 works only if an airline is growing. If the business is flat or declining, “it’s a disaster”. For the A380, an airline needs to focus on premium traffic, not economy; otherwise, buying a bigger plane just means more “low-margin backpackers”.

“The A380 works for the Arabian Gulf carriers, and pretty much nobody else,” said Mr Aboulafia.

“This is largely because of geography. What kills the A380 for the legacy carriers in Europe and Asia and the US is that you’d bring people into hubs, and then you’d need to send a large proportion of these passengers out again on smaller flights that are less efficient.

“However, for Gulf carriers everyone coming in arrives in long-haul twin jets, and they leave on long-haul twin jets. There are very few short-range smaller connecting flights,” he added.

selgazzar@thenational.ae

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