Inside the aircraft cabin, airlines have two principal levers to affect the passenger experience: hard product, like seats, inflight entertainment systems and connectivity, plus soft product, like food, crewing, blankets, pillows and so on.
Getting the right combination to attract — and satisfy — the types of passenger an airline wants as customers is a delicate balancing act.
Abu Dhabi-based Etihad, the smallest of the three Gulf airlines, is pushing on the soft product lever with improvements throughout its first, business and economy class cabins.
As usual, the changes in first and business class lead the industry’s interest.
First class habitués will notice an updated cabin dressing — a smart choice to spruce up older aircraft when new aircraft like Airbus A380s and Boeing 787s join the fleet — with new throws and cushions. There’s a new menu for first class, extra canapés, new tea-and-nibbles options, plus new china from Nikko, flatware from Studio William and stemware from Normann.
Business class receives a bedtime upgrade, with a turndown service on ultra-long-haul flights, plus mattress, PJs and slippers. The current Dine Anytime menu sees the addition of an All Day option on longer flights, an important augment given the criticism from influential miles-and-points bloggers when food selections run out on ULH flights.
Even economy comes in for a refresh, with “new cabin interiors, and new colourful headrest covers, pillowcases and fleece blankets are now standard onboard. Menu cards, tableware and meal trays have been reworked to match Etihad Airways’ focus on contemporary design and functionality.”
Novel reversible eye masks let passengers signal whether they prefer to be left undisturbed or woken for meals. There’s also a new pillow that converts to a neck pillow. Overall, the move is a mark of innovative product design making its way to the cabin.
The problem in Etihad’s economy, though, is that it feels like a strange combination of rearranging the deckchairs on the passenger comfort Titanic and the bread-and-circuses approach to pacifying cabinfuls of flyers as seat sizes shrink.
Etihad reconfigured its Boeing 777s into the cramped ten-abreast configuration, and has ordered 41 787 Dreamliners with the same 17” wide seats.
Distracting economy passengers with on-demand entertainment and above-average meals has long been the tactic taken by fellow UAE carrier Emirates. The problem for Etihad is that many non-regular passengers can’t tell it apart from its larger Dubai-based rival.
Will that change with a new Landor-designed Facets of Abu Dhabi brand and livery “inspired by traditional Emirati design patterns, the landscapes of the desert and the geometric shapes found in the modern architecture of Abu Dhabi,” as well as the halo effect from the new first class Residence and Apartments products?
Etihad certainly seems to be pushing the brand throughout its aircraft, with premium dining “signature pieces including a stylised steel bread basket, salt and pepper shakers, and a hammered metal side dish which have been inspired by the airline’s Facets of Abu Dhabi corporate branding”.
Ten-abreast economy aside, Etihad has a lot to be proud of, particularly in business class where it currently offers Sogerma Solstys fully flat beds with direct aisle access throughout its long-haul fleet, with a slightly different forward-backwards product coming on the newer A380 and 787 aircraft.
Etihad’s consistency in business compares very favourably with Emirates’, where the A330 sees a remarkably narrow recliner in 2-2-2 layout, the 777 has an equally narrow angled lie-flat seat with middle seats in a 2-3-2 configuration, and only the A380 has fully flat beds with direct aisle access.
It remains to be seen whether new soft product will push the Etihad brand into passengers’ consciousness and make it an airline of choice.