Qatar Airways has reversed course and will include first-class cabins on its coming fleet of Airbus A380 superjumbos to try to woo wealthy leisure and business travellers.
Airline officials are tight-lipped about what offerings will be in store for the airline's version of the double-decker aircraft, but passengers choosing to fly first class will be chauffeured to the plane in BMW 7 Series cars.
Qatar Airways will compete directly with the A380s operated by Emirates Airline, with their enclosed suites and showers, and Singapore Airlines, where first-class travellers are treated to a full-sized bed, desk, seats and personal storage.
The plans come as the Doha-based airline carries out a wide-ranging programme elsewhere in its fleet to rely only on business and economy cabins as the global economy recovers from the recent downturn.
The A380 "will be the only model in our fleet which will have a first-class cabin", Akbar al Baker, the chief executive of Qatar Airways, said last week.
Mr al Baker added the premium cabin would have eight seats in first class from a total of 517.
A typical layout on the A380 accommodates 525 passengers, with 10 first, 76 business, and 439 economy-class seats, Airbus said.
But the European aircraft maker has long marketed the superjumbo as having enormous potential for customising to an airline's specifications. The superjumbo's size led to Airbus at one stage touting the scope for features such as relaxation areas, bars, duty-free shops and beauty salons.
Configurations for the world's largest commercial airliner vary widely, from Korean Air's 407-passenger fit-out to the all-economy set-up for 840 passengers planned by Air Austral, a carrier based in the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean.
In terms of luxury appeal, Air France installed an electronic art gallery exclusively for first class and business class on its A380s, while Virgin Atlantic has said it plans to put casinos, double beds and gymnasiums on its superjumbos.
Qatar has ordered five of the jets, which cost about US$300 million (Dh1.1 billion) each before standard industry discounts, and plans to order several more, possibly this year, Mr al Baker has said.
It has one of the fastest-growing fleets in the world with 93 jets, up from 80 one year ago.
First-class cabins are not being installed on its new Boeing 777s and are being removed from its fleet of Airbus A330s. In 2009, the airline ripped out the first-class lounges on its Airbus A340-600 jets to make more room for economy seats, with plans to eventually retire the planes.
The appeal of flying the A380 has led passengers to pay a premium for the flights, with Emirates charging nearly Dh40,000 for first-class travel between Dubai and New York.
The first commercial flight of the A380, by Singapore Airlines in October 2007, included a charity auction for seats. Passengers reportedly spent between $560 and $100,000 for the short flight between Singapore and Sydney.
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