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This past weekend, Etihad Airways announced the December 2014 launch of their new A380 Residence Class suite – which appears to be absolutely stunning – and Emirates has just followed up with (remarkably non-specific) news that they’ll soon unveil plans for a similar product. These announcements are part of a luxurious airline trend that’s taking the onboard experience an exclusive step above first class.
With the global economy rebounding, airlines are now focusing on the jet set crowd. As charter travel becomes more affordable, the gap between flying private and flying first class is starting to close, and airlines are upping their game to attract passengers willing to spend $20,000 on a one-way ticket vs. say, $40,000 to fly private.
The Abu Dhabi-based carrier is hard at work retrofitting its A380s and B787 Dreamliners in order to carve out its new Residence Class – including a new ultra-luxury suite on the A380, as well as apartment-style first-class suites and business-class studios on both types of planes – which they hope will provide the most exclusive commercial-flight experience available on the market.
The first of its ten A380s will fly this December between London and Abu Dhabi (LHR-AUH), followed by four more planes in 2015 that will add routes to Sydney, Melbourne, New York and Paris. Three more A380s will launch in 2016, and the last two will take flight in 2017. Etihad also plans to deliver a total of 71 new B787 Dreamliners between late 2014 and 2023, which will make it the largest B787 operator in the world.
Launching this December on London-Abu Dhabi routes aboard its new A380s, Etihad’s three-room Residence Class suite will sit in the front section of the upper-deck cabin, and will feature its own living room, separate bedroom and ensuite shower. This video shows off the suite in all its over-the-top glory:
Just down the aisle on the upper deck of the new A380s, the airline will also offer nine new First Apartments, private suites with a full-length bed and a separate, reclining lounge seat. Each of these apartments in the sky will have its own 64-inch-wide sliding door, minibar, personal vanity area and wardrobe, as well as a swiveling TV monitor that will allow viewing from either the seat or bed.
Also on the Airbus A380s, all first- and business-class passengers will have access to The Lobby, a serviced lounge located between the two cabin classes.
The airline’s new B787 Dreamliners, due for delivery this October, will have their own exclusive Residence Class offerings: First Suites will feature a large seat and ottoman combo that converts into an 80.5-inch lie-flat bed.
Check out this video to see these First Suites in action:
Etihad says these new Business Studio seats will provide 20% more personal space than its current Pearl Business seats, which is 20 inches wide with a 73-inch pitch and a lie-flat recline of 180 degrees.
The A380 Residence Suite is already sold out for much of December 2014 and January 2015, but I was able to find a roundtrip itinerary from February 7-14, 2015 (because really, who wouldn’t want this experience for Valentine’s Day?) for the Residence suite that costs 25, 456.11 GBP – or $42,940.67 US!
At present, Etihad says you can’t use miles to redeem for the Residence Suites in particular. I’m willing to bet, though, that their policy will change as this type of onboard experience becomes more common and the competition heats up (and as a way to encourage loyal flyers to book first, then redeem a crazy amount of miles or cash to upgrade into the Residence). For instance, Singapore Airlines (which spent $150 million upgrading its own premium cabins last year) has become a little more flexible with award redemptions for its A380 first-class suites, especially among their own frequent flyer (Krisflyer) members.
By the way, for all you art and culture fans, in case Abu Dhabi hasn’t figured highly on your travel bucket list up ’til now, keep in mind that by December 2015 this cosmopolitan city plans to launch a new outpost of the Louvre, with a Guggenheim Museum soon to follow.
Using Points (Note: Gird your loins, it ain’t gonna be cheap!)
However, you could still use flexible/travel points to pay for these suites, though it won’t be cheap! Let’s take a $20,000 one-way flight, it would cost:
1,800,000 BarclayCard Arrival Miles: 2,000,000 to cover the $20,000 expense, but then you get the 10% rebate (200,000 miles) for travel redemptions as a rebate. To accrue 1,800,000 miles, you’d need to spend $900,000 (you earn 2x points on every purchase). That may seem like a crazy amount, but for someone running a business that could be do-able in a relatively short amount of time- and hey, the 40,000-mile sign-up bonus is 2.2% of that off the bat!
1,600,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points (with a Sapphire Preferred/ Ink Plus/ Ink Bold card): The 40,000 point signup on the Sapphire Preferred is 2.5% of the award and the current limited 60,000 point signup on the Ink Bold and Plus is a whopping 3.8%!. The Sapphire Preferred gives 2x on travel and a 7% annual dividend, so let’s say you only spent in those categories, you’d need to spend $747,664 to get the necessary 1,600,000 Ultimate Rewards points.
The Chase Ink Plus and Ink Bold have 5x points on office supply stores, Internet, phone, TV and cable up to $50,000 a year, and 2x on gas and hotel up up to $50,000. If you maxed out both categories, $200,000 in spend would give you 1,000,000 points, so just spend an extra $600,000 and you’re there!
1,600,000 American Express Membership Rewards points with the Business Platinum Card: This would require 1,600,000 in base spend since the card does not have bonus categories, but hey, at least the 40,000 point sign-up bonus after $5,000 spent within 3 months of card membership is a start!
2,000,000 Capital One Venture miles: This card gives 2x points on all purchases, so a cool million in spend would be enough for a one-way flight in The Residence! (Sigh.) The card gives 40,000 points (1% or the award cost) after $3,000 spent within 3 months.
See: Maximizing Fixed Value Points for more currencies that would allow you to book these premium flight.
Though its seats tend to be less expensive than Etihad’s across the board, Emirates is still known for over-the-top amenities and service. However, Etihad’s announcement of their new impending Residence Class seems to have taken Emirates by surprise: immediately after Etihad announced its new innovations, Emirates made its own announcement that they, too, plan to offer private suites aboard their A380s and 777s. I’d love to share more information with you about these private suites, but Emirates provided few specifics about this new (theoretical) product, neglecting to mention any dates when they might be either created or available.
Emirates already has 1,562 First Class Private Suites aboard its fleet of A380s, one of which I recently flew in from Dubai to New York’s JFK. Set in the front of the upper deck of the airline’s A380s, each first-class cabin has 14 partly closed-off suites arranged in a slightly staggered 1 x 2 x 1 configuration. Each suite features a sliding door and a huge gray leather reclining chair that stretches out into a lie-flat bed with a length of 78 inches, pitch of 86 inches, and width of 23 inches.
My experience in one of Emirates’ first-class suites was certainly positive – especially because I had a window seat off to myself – but it’s not as amazing as people make it out to be. The space is actually pretty narrow and there’s not much storage. While it’s cool that the first-class cabin has two spa showers (you book use of them through the stewards), it’s fun only until you hit turbulence mid-spray – like I did!
Here’s a video I shot of the bathrooms and spa showers…before it all went terribly damp:
Other premium products on my bucket list
I’ve already written about The Top 10 Airline Products I Can’t Wait to Fly, and though I can now cross Emirates’ First Class Private Suite off my list, there are two more premium products I’m eager to try.
TAM. Sadly, this Brazilian carrier is discontinuing its snazzy new 777 first class this November , so I’ll have to act soon if I want to experience it! The airline has nine 777-300ERs retrofitted with luxurious first-class cabins laid out in a 1 x 2 x 1 configuration, each with four all-aisle-access seats that have a pitch of 81 inches and width of 22 inches, and fold down to 180-degree (and fully ergonomic) lie-flat beds. Set in a homey, living-room-style environment, each of these seats features its own couch, closet and dining table, as well as a personalized entertainment system that includes two (count ’em, two!) screens so that passengers can view two things at once. I could go on about the Nespresso service, the custom tea-blend and the amenity kit from Rituals, but really, they had me at “couch.”
JetSuite. I’d love to fly privately with JetSuite, which launches daily, last-minute deals for “empty legs” on its fleet of private Cessna jets. In order to avoid having to fly an empty jet to pick up passengers, services like JetSuite (others include Jumpjet and Black Jet) allow you to book discounted seats on 4- to 6-seat jets without the hassle of a commercial flight, at prices that start at about $90 per seat or $536 for an entire jet. JetSuite serves 2,000 airports in North America, and each of its planes offers free Aircell Gogo Wifi. You can book a single flight through their site, or sign up for annual Suite Key membership, but keep in mind that you can’t pick your itinerary – you just have to keep an eye out for times and destinations that suit your needs.