x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

View from the comfort zone

Crammed with too many people, or the luxury of full-stretch legroom, the new Airbus has it all.

Emirates airline has a roomy business class lounge area, with its own bar and bartender.
Emirates airline has a roomy business class lounge area, with its own bar and bartender.

Travellers may be of two minds over the commercial introduction of the A380, the world's largest airliner. Now that it is being flown by Singapore Airlines, Emirates and soon Qantas, they may ask themselves: do I want to fly on the A380 because it has the most space, or do I shun it because it will be crammed with so many people? Travellers now have help. A proliferation of websites scrutinises every aspect and every minute of an airline's service. The advent of the internet has created a colossal, global water cooler where recent flyers can parse through their 14-hour flight from Doha to Washington DC in intimate detail.

With names like FlatSeats.com, SeatGuru, FrequentFlier, AirlineQuality and FlierGuide, the sites post floor plans of each aircraft type for each airline and offer discussion boards and reviews where people can exhort their fellow flyers to choose seat 16E, for example, instead of 16D. With the A380, reviews are beginning to flow in, and none more than for business class, where airlines haul in a disproportionately large amount of revenues.

A typical post, on Singapore's A380 service: "The washroom was quite big," wrote Zachary August, on FlatSeats.com. "The snack bar was very disappointing." With so much attention given to outfitting the first aeroplanes, the reviews are overwhelmingly enthusiastic, said Peter Harbison, the executive chairman of the Centre for Asia-Pacific Aviation in Sydney. "These first aircraft are being used to showcase the A380 and to generate as much novelty premium as possible," he said. In the future, passengers may expect denser configurations, such as Emirates plans to fly 604 passengers per flight - compared with the current norm of 450 to 500 passengers - on high-demand routes.

There are seven A380s in the air today, with Emirates airline operating one A380 and the rest run by Singapore Airlines. By the end of October, Emirates will have its second and Qantas will have begun flying its first. These companies have scrutinised every square inch of the aeroplane's cabins to throw in all available accessible luxuries, working hard to design interiors that are stylish, functional and with a certain bit of "wow factor" in each cabin.

Everyone may know first class passengers on Emirates will be able to have a shower mid-flight, but airlines have sought to add small details, too. Emirates business class suites have lockers where customers can stow away their shoes, said Terry Daly, the senior vice president of service delivery at Emirates, who has worked on the design of Emirates's A380 for the past five years. "Those little sorts of things make a difference," he said.

Fashion designers have been brought in to help outfit the cabins at all three airlines. Givenchy, the French fashion house, designed the sheets, dishware and other amenities in the business class suites for Singapore. The rest of the interior was designed by James Park Associates, the same designers on the Eastern and Orient Express train service. Qantas's interior designer, Marc Newson, added a twist to the standard economy class seat with extra legroom carved out of the back of each seat. The front of the seats also angle up as the back reclines.

Mr Daly at Emirates has also tapped the fashion world for guidance in the form of Jacques Pierre Jean Design Studio in Paris, which has designed interiors for Amiri Flight, the Federal Government's royal flight service, and on million-dollar luxury yachts. The airline said it had received enthusiastic reviews to its inflight business class lounge area and bar, which comes with a bartender. Both Emirates and Singapore have gone for polished metal finishings, wood panelling and gold flourishes, while Qantas has adopted more simple tones.

To date, Emirates flies the A380 on one route, from Dubai to New York. A business class ticket costs roughly Dh24,222 (US$6,600), the same fare on other aeroplane types that the carrier uses on the route. Rows of Emirates A380 business class seats are staggered, and passengers stick their feet in an enclosed space right next to the passengers in front of them. The top of this capsule serves as a credenza for the passenger sitting in front to put a personal mini bar and other items.

Some reviews give the business class cabins at Emirates and Singapore a cramped feel. Emirates's business class seats do not have much more width than in economy class. Also, the distance between seat rows is 122 centimetres, which is below the industry average. Mr Daly said the amount of seat pitch was no longer the only measurement to use to evaluate comfort. "The business class seat is not a wide-open seat where one may look out across the cabin, but instead holds a high degree of personal space and privacy. Is is comfortable? Yes. And it also an absolutely horizontal lie-flat product."

Singapore Airlines flies from Singapore to London, Tokyo and Sydney with the A380, with a business class seat to London costing roughly $6,700, slightly more than the same seat on older aircraft in its fleet. Singapore's A380s have been in service longer and reviews are now being posted and shared online. One traveller, Gilbert Schwartz, gave Singapore a five-star rating across the board. But he noted that the seat turned into a bed through an unfamiliar process. "Oddly enough, the seat reclines only slightly so to fully recline, you need to have the seat converted to a full bed. This is a rather complicated process that needs to be done by the flight attendant. [The] service sets a new standard in comfort for premium class travel."

In Singapore's business class cabin, the legroom between rows measures 140cm - which is about the industry average. But Singapore compensated for this by making the seats an ample 86cm wide. The wide seats were designed to provide space for travellers to stow books and laptops, and Singapore provides cushions and pillows to help fill the space. Qantas business class flights from Melbourne to Los Angeles will cost roughly $18,000, once flights commence on Oct 20. The airline has said it may charge customers more to ride on premium class seats on the A380 versus older aeroplanes.

Its business class seats will look more standard than the innovative designs at its two rivals. But one thing it has in droves is legroom. The bed is 203cm long, the biggest on any A380. In the first round of the battle for comparative space, Qantas may have emerged victorious. But the Australian carrier may have to wait until after its A380 commercial launch, when places like SeatGuru and FlatSeats.com begin issuing their own verdicts.