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First-class upgrade: Etihad Airways adds luxe suite

Bedroom on Etihad plane
Source: Etihad Airways
Bedroom on Etihad plane

How swanky can first-class travel on a commercial airline get?

Etihad Airways, the national carrier of the United Arab Emirates, will soon let passengers book a three-room suite with a living room, bedroom, bathroom and shower. Also included: a personal butler, trained at the Savoy Butler Academy in London.

"This is unheard of for a commercial airline," said Raymond Kollau an analyst at Airlinetrends.com. "At $20,000 for a single journey it is aimed at dignitaries and high net-worth individuals on the Abu Dhabi to London, Paris and New York routes, which are among the very few routes where such 'beyond first' class will meet demand."

"The Residence" will be available on the airline's new A380 airplanes in a 125-square-foot cabin on the forward upper-deck. Available for single or double occupancy, each Residence will have Ferrari-quality leather, table marquetry, custom carpets, a two-seat reclining sofa and an 82-inch-long double bed.

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"The new Residence calls into question just how much pandering to the super rich is enough," said aviation journalist Christine Negroni, author of the forthcoming book "CRASHED: What the World's Most Mysterious Airplane Disasters Teach Us About Design, Technology, and Human Performance."

"That said, at $20,000, the super-luxe three-room suite actually is cheaper than flying the same route in a private plane, so maybe for the bargain-hunting billionaire, the Residence may be just the ticket," Negroni said.

In addition to the Residence cabin, Etihad on Sunday also introduced the First Apartment for A380 passengers in the first-class cabin.

Nine of the First Apartments will be along a single aisle, on the upper deck of each A380 and each will have a 64-inch high sliding door, reclining armchair and a full-length ottoman that transforms into a separate 80-inch long flatbed. First Apartment passengers will also have access to a shower room and a common area, located between the first and business class cabins, with a lounge and bar area.

"These suites are a step beyond the First Class Suites offered by the likes of Emirates and Singapore Airlines on their flagship A380s because they offer a luxury train-like experience by providing passengers with a separate seat and bed," said Kollau.

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Etihad's first A380 is scheduled to begin service to London Heathrow in December, with a second A380 operating on the same route in early 2015. By the end of 2015, the airline plans to have five A380s in service, with added flights to both Sydney and New York's Kennedy Airport.

Although new and improved in-flight entertainment systems might distract economy-class patrons from the fact that they are seated in slim 17.2-inch-wide seats on Etihad's 787, with 31-33 inches of seat pitch, "the gulf between what's offered in premium classes and coach is now even wider, and frankly, all the more glaring," said Mary Kirby, founder and editor of the Runway Girl Network.

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—By Harriet Baskas, special to CNBC.com. Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas. Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.

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