Ten-across doesn’t compromise on comfort, Etihad CEO says

6 May 2010 by BusinessTraveller
Etihad Airways’ move to ten-abreast seating in economy class on its B777 fleet does not affect customer comfort, according to the chief executive of Abu Dhabi’s flag carrier. Speaking to Business Traveller at this week’s Arabian Travel Market in Dubai, James Hogan said the decision to follow the likes of Emirates, Air France and KLM and move to a 3-4-3 configuration on the aircraft (see online news November 17, 2009) was an economic one. “We obviously get a better return on the two-class B777s with ten abreast – we use them predominantly on routes over south-east Asia and out of Canada, on which there is huge demand,” he said. “Our economy seat is comfortable and lightweight with a nice recline and 600 hours of in-flight entertainment (IFE). We’ve also just introduced our Inspired Service concept in economy which is a unique service – we’ve restructured to ensure people are getting served within an acceptable period. So to me it’s a win-win.” Inspired Service, previously introduced in the premium cabins, has been rolled out on more than 40 of the airline’s routes in economy class and is due to be network-wide by the end of May. It provides an improved food and beverage choice, including menus of up to three courses, a more personal style of service from cabin crew, larger pillows and amenity kits for overnight flights. Hogan disputed that narrowing the aisles to accommodate the extra seats would leave passengers feeling constricted. “The seat pitch and width is still the same – the aisles have been narrowed but in terms of comfort it’s the same. With our product you’ve also got laptop and iPod connections – I would say it’s one of the best economy products, if not the best, in the world.” At the front of the plane, Hogan reported that the rollout of the airline’s new business and first class products was complete on the A340 fleet, with the A330s to be finished by the end of the year. Feedback from passengers had been outstanding, he said: “In first class, to be able to dine with someone else, to have a huge table for working and have service on demand – there’s nothing like it,” he said. As for business, the changes to which include a wider TV screen and improved seat, Hogan said: “The comment I’m getting regularly is that our new business class is better than most European airlines’ first class. It offers the same space as before but you’re in a cocoon – you’re in your own suite and you’ve just got your own space. It’s like being on a cruise at 35,000ft.” (For reviews of the new business class product, visit Hogan reported that demand for the top two cabins was on the up again. “In the first quarter of this year our premium sales in first class were back to where they were in 2008, and out of London in particular, our business class cabin is consistently 80 per cent full.” He added that being a young airline gave Etihad an advantage in the current climate. “I’m not a legacy carrier. If you are you’re facing different challenges – structural issues, work agreements, age of aircraft. In starting up in the past six years we have a clean sheet of paper. We’re very bullish and excited about the future.” Having launched routes to Baghdad, Tokyo, Nagoya and Colombo this year, Hogan said there were no plans to add more cities to the network. “This year the focus is on consolidation – we’ve built up the number of destinations we serve to 61, and at least 30 of those have opened up in the past three years. That’s it for now – we’ll just continue to build the frequency and depth of the network,” he said. Hogan also spoke about the steps the airline took to look after passengers during the volcanic ash crisis. “We took the view that duty of care [was essential] straight away,” he said. “I authorised that all transit passengers were to be immediately accommodated, primarily on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi. We then took the view that we would look after people within the system who couldn’t get home and were caught at airports. In some cases in Bangkok and Australia, we actually boarded people and brought them through to Abu Dhabi and put them into hotels there instead of creating a backlog in South East Asia. And that’s why when we were cleared [to fly] we were able to put on extra flights out of Abu Dhabi, London, Thailand and Sydney. Within 36 hours we were back to normal.” The airline worked with Abu Dhabi Tourism to lay on tours, golf and shopping trips for stranded flyers. “We didn’t take any short cuts – when passengers are in this situation, our responsibility is to take care of them and communicate regularly,” he said. “And I think the overall reaction to the way we handled it was very positive.” Hogan also hinted at forthcoming improvements to be made to the Etihad Guest loyalty programme, revealing that a new “digital strategy” would be launched at the end of the year. “I can’t tell you too much about that yet but how we take that next step in engaging our customer, we are going to be at the cutting edge,” he said. That follows the recent introduction of Etihad Golf Club, which provides discounted access to selected courses around the world to Etihad Guest members. Visit Report by Michelle Mannion
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