Etihad turns A380 delay into a chance for improvement

The Abu Dhabi airline does not receive its first superjumbo until 2014, but in the meantime it is busy customising its passenger cabins.

An aircraft mechanic checks the interior of an Airbus A380 at a new test site of the IABG company for the Airbus A380 in Dresden, 05 April 2005. During the following three years, around 47 500 flights of the super-size airliner will be simulated at the new hall to check the world's biggest ever passenger plane's structure and capacity.    AFP PHOTO    DDP/NORBERT MILLAUER    GERMANY OUT

In a nondescript warehouse on the outskirts of London's Heathrow Airport, Etihad Airways is putting the final touches on its A380. The centre is one of two the Abu Dhabi airline uses for full-scale mock-ups of its A380 interiors including first, business and economy-class cabins, as well as lavatories and galleys.

"I'm a big believer in being able to see and touch things to believe it," says Peter Baumgartner, the chief commercial officer of Etihad and part of the team overseeing the entry into service of the world's largest passenger aeroplane. Etihad does not receive the first of its 10 A380s for another four years, but its work has already begun. Selecting designs for interior components and the companies to make them is under way, while an immense aircraft maintenance hangar is being built at the Abu Dhabi International Airport to service the A380s.

The superjumbo, which sells for the hefty price of US$300 million (Dh1.1 billion) each, has been in service for two years and is operated by five carriers: Lufthansa Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Qantas Airways, Air France and Emirates Airline, the largest customer for the Airbus airliner. Each carrier has used the plane as a brand ambassador, seeking to leave its mark on the customer experience as it woos lucrative premium passengers.

Emirates provided the first on-board showers and Singapore the first double bed. Mr Baumgartner's reaction to his competition? "The world was watching what product experience airlines deliver with the A380, and I was expecting a breakthrough. I was a little disappointed." Etihad aspires to be the "Apple of the airline world", a company that offers innovative products year after year, Mr Baumgartner says.

The airline has previously won awards for best business class and best first class from Skytrax, considered the most independent airline ratings programme. Etihad took cues from the hotel industry and offered levels of service that include cabin crew making up the beds of first-class passengers and leaving chocolates as personal touches. The airline will no doubt aspire to win acclaim for its superjumbo, a plane that offers more space and therefore more opportunities to deliver customised, innovative features.

"I think we will have a breakthrough which will become standard in the industry," Mr Baumgartner says. This could come from space-saving designs such as having beds and tables that turn into something else, again borrowing from other industries - in this case luxury yachts. Whatever the airline decides, it must do it quickly. Etihad plans to lock in the product design this year and already has tenders out with manufacturers, Mr Baumgartner says.

The superjumbo can theoretically hold up to 800 passengers in an all-economy configuration. The plane's existing operators all opted for a seating capacity of about 500 seats, and the Abu Dhabi airline will offer a similar number, Mr Baumgartner says. Etihad also plans to choose four seating configurations to outfit the 10 aircraft, with each seat layout depending on the route being served. The addition of the A380s, as well as Etihad's overall fleet growth, has helped spur a huge expansion at Abu Dhabi Aircraft Technologies (ADAT), which received a $500m service contract from the airline three years ago.

ADAT is building a hangar, due for completion in October, that is big enough to handle three superjumbos at a time. An A380 has a wingspan of 80 metres. Etihad's planning for the A380 goes back several years and has undergone several permutations. The airline surprised the aviation world in 2004 when, just a year after being launched, it placed its first order for A380s. The four that were to have been delivered to Etihad were test planes Airbus used for certifying the aircraft.

They were due to be handed over last year, but in 2007 Etihad delayed delivery by several years, saying it wanted to build up its network before taking on the high-capacity A380. Two years ago at the Farnborough International Airshow, it effectively cancelled the original order for the four test planes and made a fresh order - for 10 new planes. Finally, in the past year, it pushed back its deliveries to 2014 so that it would be able to take advantage of Airbus improvements to the plane, including a payload heavier by several tonnes.

The later delivery should also see Airbus correct production problems on the aircraft. Last year, it delivered 10 A380s, two fewer than in 2008. Its target was 18. Perhaps most important, however, the extra time until delivery will allow Etihad to craft a memorable cabin interior and service offering. "We now have more time to push the boundaries," Mr Baumgartner says.

When it made its debut on the world stage in 2007 it was hailed as the queen of the skies. The Airbus A380 was the first new aircraft type to be introduced in years and it was the largest passenger aircraft ever. It pushed the 747, known as the king of the skies, off centre stage. But now the A380 must prepare for a young prince in the name of the 787 Dreamliner, which Boeing introduced at the Farnborough International Airshow, marking the aircraft's first international flight. The two aircraft do not directly compete. The 787 is designed to address the 200-300 seat aircraft market, while the A380 is a superjumbo jet with two levels and enough seating for between 500 and 800 passengers, depending on the layout. But in the rivalry between Boeing and Airbus, generating a buzz for their own cutting-edge aircraft and downplaying the gains of their competitors has been central to their marketing efforts. "I'm not over-stressed about [the Dreamliner]," Charles Champion, the executive vice president of engineering at Airbus, told British media this week. "We've got 6 million passengers that flew on the A380 - they love it - and there are 33 aircraft flying." In the orders race, the two planes also have nothing in common. Airbus has logged about 240 orders for the A380, while the Dreamliner is the fastest selling plane ever, with about 850 sold. But Airbus should not have to wait too long to regain the limelight: its next new plane, the A350, which will target Boeing's 777 aircraft, is due for its first delivery by about 2015.