It’s been 14 years since Etihad’s first order for the Airbus A350, and despite the first five rolling off the production line in 2019, none have yet flown revenue service for the airline. All five are currently having a brand-new cabin outfitted in Abu Dhabi, with the first expected to enter service in the next quarter.
The changing landscape of Etihad’s A350s
Etihad made a big splash at the Dubai Airshow in 2013 when it placed an order for an incredible $52 billion worth of new airplanes. The firm order was for 56 Boeing and 87 Airbus aircraft, including 50 A350s. The order was split between the -900 and the -1000, taking its total orderbook for the type up to 62.
But all was not well at Etihad, and its financial problems were beginning to catch up with it. Amid something of a cash crunch, James Hogan was ousted as CEO and Tony Douglas brought in to undertake one of the biggest restructuring efforts seen in the modern industry.
Just over a year after taking post, in February 2019, Douglas moved to cancel a number of Etihad’s outstanding commitments. The A350 order was cut by 42, leaving just 20 aircraft on the books with Airbus. All 40 of the A350-900s were dropped, along with two of the -1000s. Douglas noted at the time that the airline would only commit to five of the A350-1000s, but the other 15 remain on the books.
In September that year, the first of the A350s began arriving with the airline. Well, they began leaving the Airbus factory anyway, but they didn’t exactly make it as far as Abu Dhabi. Their flights out of Toulouse were rather shorter in duration, heading just 30 minutes across France to storage in Bordeaux.
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The A350s arrive
Despite spending a couple of years parked up in France, Etihad remained committed to the A350s – well, the first five at least. Speaking to Simple Flying in April last year, Douglas outlined his fleet plans, noting that the backbone of the fleet would be the 787, with the A350-1000 in the mix as well.
By the height of the summer last year, Etihad’s A350s had begun flying to their Middle East home. Speaking to Simple Flying in August, Douglas said,
“We accepted our first two into Abu Dhabi just three months ago to undertake the cabin fit-out and configuration. We have a large-scale MRO here, Etihad Engineering. Not surprisingly, I’ve been in the first one, and the product is absolutely incredible, as you would all expect from Etihad. We’ll look to schedule those into service probably next year.”
Indeed, by the end of September, the final A350 had left Bordeaux for Abu Dhabi. There, they were to undergo cabin fit out and finish ahead of entry into service later this year. But for some lucky attendees, a sneak peek was provided at the recent Dubai Airshow.
Etihad brought its first A350-1000 to the Dubai Airshow this year, an aircraft registered A6-XWB which was delivered in May 2019. The 2.8-year-old Airbus has had a special livery applied celebrating the ‘year of the fiftieth’ – the UAE’s 50th anniversary. The decal includes the number 50, the colors of the UAE flag and a ‘year of the 50th’ slogan on the engines.
While there were no tours of the interior, at least not for the general public or press, Etihad struggled to keep its interior under wraps. During a private tour for Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum and his entourage, a member of the party leaked video footage of the business class cabin online.
الشيخ أحمد بن سعيد آل مكتوم الرئيس الأعلى الرئيس التنفيذي لـ #طيران_الإمارات والمجموعة، برفقة السيد/ توني دوغلاس الرئيس التنفيذي لمجموعة #الإتحاد_للطيران يطلعان على مقصورة ومنتجات أحدث طائرات #الإتحاد_للطيران طراز الإيرباص #A350 على هامش #معرض_دبي_للطيران_2021 pic.twitter.com/KkitedhW0G
— سالم بن تميم الريامي (@salim_bin_tamim) November 14, 2021
The seat in the premium cabin is the Collins Aerospace Super Diamond mini-suite, a popular choice for the A350. Indeed, the new British Airways Club Suite is based on the same product, albeit with more customization than Etihad appears to have indulged in. While Etihad’s brand pallet has been brought into the cabin with deep brown leathers and gold touches, the seat itself looks relatively standard.
Each seat can be seen to have noise-canceling headphones provided, as well as reading lights and a marble (effect) topped storage spot. The gold lamp at each seat features the same faceted design found on the lighting of its A380s and 787s, perfectly offset by the gold and white seat cushion.
Interestingly, the airline seems to have gone for a doored suite choice, something that was also a choice for British Airways. Combined with a central divider, this can make for a very private and personal experience. Unfortunately, the experience for the baggage won’t be so private, as Etihad has done away with the central bins, leaving two passengers to share one facility.
As the video nears its end, we get a glimpse of the economy cabin on the A350 too. The cabin appears to be in a similar brown and black pallet, and Douglas can be seen checking out the extra legroom seats. The audio confirms that these seats have 33 – 34” of pitch, while further back the standard seats will have 30-31”.
Interestingly, the airline has gone for a winged headrest, which will serve more effectively as a head and neck support than some of the adjustable headrests out there. However, it does dictate to some extent to which side passengers can rest. There are some interesting uses of fabrics, and likely plenty more features to explore once the cabin is fully revealed.
When will the A350s fly?
Douglas hasn’t put too much of a timeline on the introduction of the A350, saying only that it will begin operations in 2022. However, in an interview with The National, he stated that he hoped for the first to enter into service by the second quarter of 2022. This will come with the phase-out of the 777-300ER.
Etihad is struggling, as all airlines are at present, with balancing the reintroduction of capacity against the market demand. As such, Douglas has said that the introduction of more of the fleet of five will happen when market conditions allow. However, he has said he hopes to have four in service by the end of this. Year.
When the A350 is officially revealed, we can expect more detail on both the Super Diamond product in the premium cabin and the airline’s choices in economy. So far, Douglas has remained tight-lipped on the specifics, saying only that it will be ‘exceptional’, and that it will include recycled and sustainable products onboard.