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The Middle Seat
Airlines Compete to Become First in First Class
From the Wall Street Journal of Thu, 18 Dec 2014 00:22:41 EST
Airlines battle to bring the most first-class experiences to high-paying customers. WSJ's Scott McCartney reports. Photo: Mohamed Somji/Getty Images Assignment for The Wall Street Journal

Abu Dhabi

There’s an arms race in the air fought with butlers, chefs, gold-plated cutlery, Chanel toiletries and private beds for couples.

The latest escalation: On Dec. 27, Etihad Airways is launching a 125-square-foot apartment called “The Residence” in the nose of its Airbus A380 superjumbo jets, staffed by a Savoy Hotel-trained personal butler. One person or a couple gets to order whatever they want to eat or drink, enjoy a living room with a 32-inch television, a private bathroom with a glass sink and shower and then retire to a bedroom, which also has a big-screen TV. They have complete privacy, never seen by other passengers or crew.

A ground mock-up of the drinks available in the Etihad Airways A380 Luxury Lounge.
A ground mock-up of the drinks available in the Etihad Airways A380 Luxury Lounge. Mohamed Somji/Getty Images Assignment for The Wall Street Journal

The ticket price for one or two people is $20,000 one-way for the eight-hour flight between London and Abu Dhabi, Etihad’s home in the United Arab Emirates. Half of the flights to London are already booked through the middle of January, Etihad Chief Executive James Hogan says.

The Residence, built into the nose of the double-deck airplane, will start flying between Abu Dhabi and Sydney in May and New York before the end of next year. Passengers range from government officials to investment-firm executives to celebrities and some wealthy passengers who just want to celebrate an anniversary in style.

“We saw an opportunity to use that space to create something different,” Mr. Hogan says.

Airlines around the world are one-upping each other on first-class perks to attract big spenders and lure people away from private jets, which may cost $100,000 to get to New York from the Middle East and require a fuel stop.

Business class has become what first class used to be—rows of big seats with attentive service and good food. That means first class has to be something really special to justify a higher price, which can be as much as 20 times what a coach ticket costs. On larger new planes capable of flying longer distances, airlines have more cabin space to play with for premium customers.

“There is an increased focus on service standards, quality and food on airlines that wasn’t there a couple of years ago,” Emirates senior vice president Terry Daly says.

Lufthansa has put sleeping beds separate from seats in first class on its Boeing 747-400s. Seats that fold down into beds on some other aircraft get foam mattress toppers.

A look at a first-class private suite on Emirates.
A look at a first-class private suite on Emirates. Emirates

Singapore Airlines has first-class suites on its A380s with large seats, separate foldout beds and sliding doors with window shades for privacy.

The divider between suites in the middle of the plane can be lowered for a couple to enjoy a double bed. Flight attendants can see over the top, however, and the suites aren’t soundproof. Singapore asks first-class passengers to keep things PG-rated out of respect to other passengers.

United and American, the only big U.S. carriers with international first-class service (Delta is all-business class on long international trips) have stepped up their first-class game a bit but are still far from offering enclosed suites. American’s Flagship Suites on Boeing 777-300ER international flights offer a seat that swivels and folds out into a 6-foot, 8-inch long bed, but without privacy doors.

Emirates’ A380s have two showers for first class. Passengers get a water allotment that lasts about five minutes at full pressure. A meter goes from green to amber to red as water is used. In all, passengers get about 20 minutes in the shower, and most don’t take that long.

The plane typically carries 132 gallons of drinkable water for shower use, which adds about 1,100 pounds in weight. That’s about the same as carrying five extra passengers and their baggage. “The cost is less than people think,” says Emirates Senior Vice President Hubert Frach.

Emirates is developing new premium products, too, he says, noting there’s a limit on how much space his airline is willing to give customers. “We have to make money,” he says.

Etihad claims it will. The airline’s 10 upcoming A380s from Airbus will have 70 business-class seats on the upper deck, plus nine regular first-class cabins and the Residence. The new, regular first-class seats on the A380 will be ensconced behind sliding doors and will have 74% more space than a typical first-class cabin on Etihad.

A first-class bed on Singapore Airlines B777-300ER planes.
A first-class bed on Singapore Airlines B777-300ER planes. Singapore Airlines

Etihad already has a corps of flying chefs for first class. They start with chicken, meats and fish already seared on the ground, then cooked in the air. Enrico Nanchioli, a chef from Turin, Italy, who has worked restaurants in Switzerland, Germany, Brazil and Napa Valley, talks to passengers about what they want and then creates. “It’s like you have your own restaurant,” Mr. Nanchioli says.

His proudest concoction: Arabic tiramisu. He uses cut up breakfast waffles, Arabic coffee, chocolate, dates and ice cream to make a layered dessert.

The three-room Residence is laid out in an area that’s been hard for airlines to use well on the upper deck of the A380, above the cockpit. The space is too narrow for regular seating, and some airlines have chosen to use it as a communal lounge, with a long couch on the plane’s sidewall. Others use it for showers or bathrooms.

Mr. Hogan says the area was essentially “dead space.” A seven-year development effort for the A380 led to the Residence, which the airline initially thought about calling the Penthouse.

The Residence’s butlers, like the airline’s flying chefs, are trained as flight attendants, but have their own specific duties. Etihad sent 13 flight attendants, all trained as chefs or food and beverage managers, for three weeks of training in London by Savoy Hotel butlers. Before a flight they call or visit a passenger or his or her assistant to find out preferences like favorite drinks before takeoff, favorite colors, foods, magazines, newspapers and toiletries.

“If they want everything Chanel, it will be Chanel,” says Tomas Piroska, from Slovakia, who is one of Etihad’s butlers.

During the flight, the butler attends only to the Residence. (If there are no passengers in the Residence, the butler changes jackets and works in regular first class and business class.) From an iPad, the butler can make London dinner reservations in-flight. He or she can mend clothing, shine shoes, press shirts and arrange flowers.

The Residence has Wedgwood china, Vera Wang crystal glass and a bed wide enough for two and 82 inches long, or enough to fit a 6-foot-10 passenger, with Egyptian cotton sheets. The shower works on a 4-minute cycle, but you can use as much water as you want.

And breakfast in bed is routine.

The butler is the only crew member allowed to interact with Residence guests, and just like a hotel room, he or she knocks before opening the door to the apartment. An Etihad spokeswoman calls the Residence “the most private space in the sky, and we respect our guests’ privacy.”

Write to Scott McCartney at

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