No one can accuse James Hogan of being backward in coming forward. ‘We want to be the best. We are the best,’ he says. That’s some boast when you consider that ten years ago no one had heard of the Australian or the company he runs.
Hogan is the hard-charging boss of Etihad, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates. Like a latterday Bond villain, he has spent the past five years holed up in his secret desert lair coming up with a fiendish plan to rule the world — OK, the skies — and now he’s ready to show it off. ‘Welcome to innovation,’ he says as he walks into a giant hangar in Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, where two $10 million replicas of his airline’s new Airbus A380 super-jumbos and new Boeing 787 rise to the ceiling.
Hogan thinks airlines have become too much like, well, airlines and not enough like hotels. ‘We’re not an airline. An airline is airplanes. We are a hospitality company. We want to create more of a boutique hotel experience.’
It starts when you board. Premium passengers entering Etihad’s new A380 walk into what Hogan calls a lobby. There’s even an area called ‘The Lobby’, with seats and tables and a TV that screens live sports. The galleys are hidden by modern Arabic carved screens. There are no ugly, clanging carts.
Turn left into first class and there is an elegant line of white lattice sliding doors and lattice lights that cast mosaic patterns on the carpet. It’s the only single-aisle first-class cabin in the sky. Open the front left-hand door and you step into the only private apartment in a commercial airliner.
The 125sq ft Residence has a sitting room for two, with a champagne fridge and vast TV. Behind a door, a corridor leads to a bedroom with a 7ft x 5ft double bed, a wardrobe and another TV on the wall. There’s an en suite bathroom with a shower with separate his and hers amenities. The Residence has its own Savoy-trained butler, a first for a commercial airliner. He or she will arrange bespoke menus, wines, music and movies and will take care of hand-luggage in the airport, so passengers can walk on carrying only their ticket and passport.
‘We have created an experience better than a private jet for a fraction of the price,’ says Hogan. The Residence costs around $20,000, for single or double occupancy for travel to and from London, which will be its first route starting in December. That’s a quarter of the price of a private jet.
Behind the Residence are nine First Apartments, each with their own doors. They come with a Poltrona Frau leather seat and separate chaise longue that converts into an 80in-long bed. As well as a TV and wardrobe, there’s a minibar and vanity unit. The bed can be made up before take-off, so customers can get their heads down as soon as it’s safe. You sleep with your head to the wall of the aircraft, so you are not woken up by crew or passengers walking down the aisle.
Adjacent apartments can be joined to create a double bed so that couples can sleep together — but a divider runs down the middle of the bed from the waist down, making hanky panky a challenge. ‘You can always book the Residence,’ grins Hogan, who is clearly looking forward to scaling new heights of passion.
GULF IN THE MARKET
Many airlines have abandoned first-class cabins in recent years. The recession has killed demand, they say. Hogan disagrees. With the centre of gravity of the global economy shifting eastwards and more and more companies setting up in the UAE, he believes CEOs, government officials and wealthy families will choose to upgrade.
‘Most airlines run around 50 per cent occupancy in first class in peak season,’ he says. ‘We believe that if we raise the bar, we will get high penetration and higher fares.’ Wealthy Gulf families already book the entire first-class cabins on Etihad flights and Hogan believes they will be keen to travel on the A380 and the 787. He adds that a billion people live within three hours’ flying time of Abu Dhabi. Some 40 million Indians travel each year, mostly through the UAE to Europe and the US. ‘We are in the right part of the world, at the right time, for this product,’ he says.
Behind first class lies Eithad’s new Business Studios. These mimic BA’s back-to-front arrangement but the seats are in a 1-2-1 configuration, so everyone has direct aisle access. ‘You don’t have to sleep with someone’s feet in your face and step over their feet to get to the aisle,’ Hogan says.
All Etihad’s new planes — it has ten A380s on order and 71 787s and will retrofit its existing long-haul jets with all the new products — will have Wifi in all classes, and passengers in business and first will be able to eat when they like. Meals are prepared by a dedicated onboard chef.
Not all passengers will enjoy the ‘cubicle’ approach in Etihad’s new first class. Some will feel that shutting yourself off behind walls and doors reduces the key appeal of the A380: the vast, airy cabin. It also makes it impossible to catch the eye of staff. You have to press a call button, which many will feel impersonal. Hogan’s claim that Eithad’s new business class is ‘better than first class on European carriers’ is the most wishful of thinking, as anyone who has travelled on BA’s, Lufthansa’s or Air France’s excellent new first-class products or had a sneak peek at Virgin’s spiffy new upper class will know.
But these are minor quibbles. Etihad’s new products, which will come into service in December when its 787 starts flying from Abu Dhabi to Düsseldorf, followed by the A380 to London, are the most comprehensive attempt any airline has made to make us actually look forward to going to the airport. And it is not stopping with aircraft. Hogan is working closely with Briton Tony Douglas, who is building Abu Dhabi’s new Midfield Airport, which will open in 2017. It will have some snazzy new features, including customs and immigration pre-clearance for those travelling to the US.
Until recently, Emirates and Qatar Airways (whose new Doha hub airport, Hamad International, has just opened) have made the running in the Gulf’s race to fly us to the future. But watch out. There’s a new kid in the souk and he’s not looking too shabby.