Etihad Chief Executive James Hogan conceded that offering what the airline says is the first-of-its kind multi-room suite helps generate buzz, but that ultimately it is a serious effort to bring in more cash.
"Obviously there's going to be a halo effect in the positioning of Etihad Air as a premium carrier," he said. "But we wouldn't do it unless we felt we could make money with it. ... This is a top-end market. There is demand here."
Etihad is the smallest of three rapidly expanding, government-backed Gulf carriers redrawing global aviation maps by funneling travelers through their desert hubs.
Its base in the Emirati capital, Abu Dhabi, this year became the first in the Mideast to open a U.S. preclearance facility staffed by American customs and border officials. U.S. pilots and members of Congress have criticized the facility, which is largely funded by the UAE, alleging it puts American carriers at a disadvantage.
Since starting operations in 2003, Etihad has built a fleet of 96 planes and carried 11.5 million passengers last year. It has ordered more than 220 additional planes, including 10 Airbus A380s and 71 Boeing 787s being outfitted with new interiors introduced Sunday.
It has been aggressively building stakes in foreign carriers, including Virgin Australia and Germany's second largest airline Air Berlin. It has for months been considering buying a piece of struggling Italian carrier Alitalia. Hogan had no comment on those negotiations Sunday.
Its bigger rival Emirates, based in nearby Dubai, has offered onboard showers to first-class passengers aboard its double-decker Airbus A380s since the plane joined the fleet in 2008. It also separates coach passengers from those in business and first class on an entirely different floor in its new concourse in Dubai.
Etihad's latest offering goes one step further.
One passenger — or a couple — aboard each of its new A380s will be able to book a three-section miniature suite that the airline is calling a "residence" at the very front of the plane's upper deck.
The 125-square-foot (11.61-square-meter) area includes a "living room" partitioned off from the first-class aisle that includes leather seating, chilled minibar and a 32-inch flat-screen TV. There is a separate bedroom with space for two that can be closed off from the rest of the cabin and a private bathroom with shower.
A personal butler trained in London will be on hand to wait on passengers in the suite, giving them what the airline promises will be "discrete personal service and attention to detail found in the world's most exclusive hotels."
Etihad expects to get its first of its A380s in December, which it will deploy on the Abu Dhabi to London route.
Chief Commercial Officer Peter Baumgartner said additional A380s will likely be deployed on New York and Sydney routes as they're added to the fleet.
The fancy new suite won't come cheap.
Baumgartner said it will likely cost three to four times as much as regular first-class seats, or about $21,000 from Abu Dhabi to London. One way.
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