Fasten seatbelts for flight innovation
The fact the sign on the building says Innovation Centre speaks volumes for Etihad Airways but the interior says even more. I had previously received an emailed media release labelled Flying Reimagined and read through the words on the page — but here they are before me. Here, quite literally, are the products of reimagined flying.
For the designers’ brief in rethinking what was offered in Etihad’s A380 and 787 cabins was to not just improve on the industry-standard offerings but take a blank sheet of paper or, rather, a blank screen, and start again.
• A smooth, contemporary Arabic interior that makes it look more like a boutique hotel than an aircraft. Cupboards and trolleys covered by Arabian louvre screens. Walking on to the plane is more like walking into the foyer of a boutique five-star hotel
The elegant Airbus A380 galley. Picture: etihad.com/en-au
• An economy seat with one firm “wing” to rest your head on. A big touch screen and no controller in the armrest to take space and knock with your elbow. It has a 28cm flat screen and yet the seat is very slim, giving more space.
• Look at the width of these pages. Together they are 53.5cm. Well, the seat I am sitting in, in a Business Studio, is 56cm wide and upholstered in soft, supple Poltrona Frau leather. (Do feel free to sit on these pages and try it out, when you have finished reading.)
• And in that Business Studio, a lot of flat space — in fact, three separate areas in which you could put down this supplement. So, when you are eating at the table, your laptop can still be open in front of you on the big, curved shelf, your tablet beside you on a separate area. And there before you, a 45cm flat screen. Beside you, electric window shades. There are full stem wine glasses and no carts in the cabin. It all has what I’d call a “mini suite” feel.
• The Lobby on the A380, with curved seating for six people to sit, mingle, and with a service bar.
• The First Apartments, which give first-class passengers a huge armchair (77cm wide), a full-length ottoman, or sofa, where two more people could easily sit, room to stand and move, a 61cm monitor that swings so guests can watch from armchair or bed, a chilled mini-bar, a lit vanity unit with a big mirror, and a four-minute shower in a full-height shower room. The curving aisle sets the scene — this is not straightforward aircraft interior design.
• The one Residence feels more like a separate charter jet, or perhaps the interior of a yacht. There are three rooms — a lounge with sitting space, a bathroom with a full double shower, and a bedroom with a double bed. It comes with a chef and butler and feels very removed even from the rest of First Class. As one insider at the Innovation Centre put it: “It’s like a secret.”
• Throughout it all, clever lighting that really enhances, moulds and highlights the gorgeous spaces.
And now I see that the labels which looked just like catchphrases on the media release were, in fact, the philosophical foundations upon which all this was built.
• Economy Class = “simply smarter”.
• Business Class = “intelligent living”.
• First Class = “my private universe”.
And it was done in an unusual way — rather than choosing one design studio, Etihad picked three leading UK agencies to work together, in partnership, on what it says is: “The single biggest commitment to cabin interior product design made by any airline in the world.”
They asked Acumen, Factorydesign and Honour Branding to work together to innovate and redefine . . . to recreate a luxury boutique hotel experience that embraced Arabian modernism.
Etihad’s creative Innovation Centre. Picture: facebook.com/apex.aero
And here, in the Innovation Centre in Abu Dhabi, Etihad’s corporate communications manager James Sanderson is showing me around full-size mock-ups of all classes of the A380 and 787 cabins. I am sitting in the seats, moving around the cabin, experiencing the shifts in lighting.
Mock-ups were very much part of the design process, as ideas were tested with customers. It was a long process, with design concepts worked on through 2011 and 2012, before moving into the technical design phase through 2013 and 2014.
The results across the board really are outstanding, as you can see if you join me to “walk through the cabins” in our online Video Feature.
In the adjacent Training Academy, there are more full-sized mock-ups. But in these, groups of cabin crew are being trained to deliver impeccable service.
With 4500 crew expected to quickly rise to 5500 — with new recruits and refresher training — the Training Academy, which opened in 2007, is a busy place.
James Sanderson and James Gerber, manager business class training, take me through the Culinary Innovation Room.
“We don’t have to teach our chefs how to cook — they are qualified chefs, just as our food and beverage managers are qualified at that, ” Mr Gerber says.
But they do have to be trained in Etihad presentation and approach, and need to train in a confined space as they cook on board, at the “front end of the plane”, from a set of ingredients which include fresh, top quality and vacuum-packed proteins such as rib-eye steak and chicken breasts.
Premium crew go through wine tastings, so they can advise guests, and the week after my visit there’s to be a “plating workshop”.
The Flying Nanny training room is like a kindy. “But Flying Nanny is not just a title, ” Mr Gerber says. The Flying Nannies on board do this on top of their usual duties. They spend two days in the classroom, the second with outside trainers who give insight into child psychology and family dynamics. Then they dig into their Flying Nanny Kit for face paints, to run colouring competitions, which the flight’s captain might judge, and to show children how to make a hat like theirs from a paper coffee cup, with string under the chin and toilet paper for the veil.
In the Style and Image Suite the women are advised on the best lipstick shades, make-up to suit their complexion, and how to put their hair in a French twist, plait or bun, and the men on skin care and to shave after breakfast, “when the skin has woken up”.
For new recruits from 125 countries, but with the common language of English, there’s six and a half weeks initial training at the academy, and four and a half weeks of it is aircraft training, in a variety of mock-up aircraft, from the relatively small A320 to A380s.
First there’s full first-aid, from CPR to delivering babies. There’s general cabin training from catering and heating food, to handling turbulence and “guest scenarios”.
Then there’s cabin decompression, nose wheel collapse and firefighting — right down to a mock cabin which is filled with smoke, and which they have to enter to fight a fire. There’s ditching, where they will be screaming commands in the cabin, using chutes and treading water in the ditching pool before learning how to care for people and the life raft that the chute becomes.
In fact there’s so much training going on that the academy runs with two full sessions a day, one from 3.45pm to 11.45pm.
And with that, I arm doors and cross check . . . and finally know what that means.
Etihad's open secrets
Abu Dhabi transformation
Abu Dhabi International Airport is undergoing a major transformation, for which $US6.8 billion has already been allocated. After its Terminal 3 was opened in 2009 it was capable of handling 12 million passengers a year but the additional Midfield passenger terminal will take that to more than 20 million, with the possibility of doubling it to 40 million. The 1.8km-long terminal is under construction and due to be opened in July 2017 — in fact, as we land in Abu Dhabi and pass it, I count 38 cranes at work. The development also includes a second 4100m runway, parallel to but 2km away from the existing runway.
US Immigration Pre-clearance
As regular readers may know, we are keen on “flying backwards” to North America, from Perth to the Middle East, to the east coast of America. Here Etihad Airways has a real point of difference with its US Immigration pre-clearance. Passengers travelling to the US basically go through US Customs and Immigration before boarding their flight in Abu Dhabi and arrive as a “domestic flight”, avoiding the queues at those immigration counters in America.
Amenities with meaning
It is more than just a bag of goodies. The amenities kits on Etihad planes are designed to reflect the airline’s culture. “Respect”, as one insider puts it. For the woven patterns on the little bags are Emirati “sadou” by weaver artisans at Sougha, a social enterprise funded by Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development. Sougha aims to revive Emirati culture.sougha.ae.
Cuisine on board
Etihad’s corporate executive chef Thomas Ulherr has designed a menu across the fleet that blends Arabic hints with modern European cuisine. There will be a choice of three meals in economy class.
Try this in business class — for entree, a choice of Arabic mezze, smoked Baltic salmon or artichoke soup. For main course, perhaps the black truffle ricotta ravioli or braised lamb shanks in Arabic spices. For dessert, Um Ali, which is a flaky pastry baked in rosewater-scented cream.
• Etihad Airways flies direct between Perth and Abu Dhabi, and then connects to what is expected to be 102 destinations. etihad.com.
• For more information on visiting Abu Dhabi, see visitabudhabi.ae.
In our Video Feature at thewest.com.au/travel, join Stephen Scourfield to ‘walk around the cabins’— on the A380 and 787, from the economy class ‘smart seat’ through the Business Studios, to the First Apartments . . . and that three-room Residence.
Stephen Scourfield was a guest of Etihad Airways and Abu Dhabi Tourism.
© The West Australian
More Travel news: thewest/travel.com.au