I last flew Etihad in 2010. I know this because I traced my miles back to my Etihad Guest account only to realise it had been a long time so a trip to New York was a great opportunity to test their Business Class again on a double flight Singapore-Abu Dhabi-New York and back on the A380.
Check in and boarding
My flight from Singapore to New York was a true ordeal. Supposed to take off and land in the middle of a blizzard, I received a call four hours prior to departure announcing the flight cancellation. Although I appreciated their telling me ahead of time and saving me the trip to the airport, the communication was terrible and was anything but comforting or organised. I was told my flight was cancelled without any further details or alternatives. No clarity on whether I would get a refund, whether I would fly the next day or what the options were. This was not only unnerving, but also disappointing of such a high class airline. Surely there were protocols for such Force Majeur situations and a specific way forward beyond “We will contact you if we hear further developments”. It left me with a very bad taste in my mouth.
However, about an hour and forty five minutes before the flight departure, when I had already unpacked and cancelled my hotel room, I got another call asking me to rush to the airport and board my Abu Dhabi flight because the flight to New York had been reinstated. Understandably confused and annoyed, I threw whatever clothes I could find into my carry on, packed my personal belongings as I ordered a cab and headed to the airport with the promise that the counter would wait for me to check in, lest it not be a situation where I run to the airport to find a closed check in counter. Indeed, I arrived 50 minutes prior to departure and they were waiting for me to check in. Thanks to Changi’s neurotic efficiency, I still had time to shovel down some mashed potatoes and chicken at the lounge and make it to the gate just in time for boarding in the dedicated Business Class lane.
Onboard, I was offered a tall glass of champagne or juice and newspapers followed by a warm towel with the scent of calendula and witch hazel, the same mist available in the toilet. Planes and weddings are the only times I drink bubbly and, given the circumstances, I had very much earned it. But, I did not know at the time how much.
Etihad’s A380 service to Abu Dhabi or New York is a 2, 2, 2 configuration with the brand’s popular staggered layout with the seats facing front and back of the plane to maximise space and privacy. As an A380, the higher classes are in the top deck whereas the lower level is entirely made of Economy seats. If you are flying one of the premium classes you don’t even see passengers in Economy.
I quite liked the window seats in this staggered layout as they feel like you are in your own world. The middle seats, facing the same direction, are perfect if you are traveling with someone.
The Business Class area of the A380 Etihad is split into two sections with toilets in the middle. The front section includes a bar, which Etihad poshly calls The Lobby, and which is shared with First Class and serves a variety of drinks. The back section is just before Economy. The second section has a couple of closets where you can hang your coat or clothes as you get changed with the pajamas provided.
Of course, this is the aircraft with the world famous The Residences which was occupied in my flight. Shame, I would have loved to charm the crew into showing me.
To be noted that the overhead bins above the window seats are not big enough to fit my Tumi carry on so I had to place it in the middle bins which were taller. The side ones should be used for your handbag only.
The seats on the Etihad A380 Business Class
As I had not flown Etihad in a long time I was curious to see how the airline had evolved since launch, when I was flying them more regularly as I was living in Dubai and they had connections Emirates didn’t. I was positively impressed all round by the new A380 aircrafts, food and the seats.
The A380 seats were spacious and although they were not the First Class Apartments, or The Residence, I would be hard pressed to pay more than Business Class for any length of journey. The seat itself was not as wide as other products like the Singapore Airlines seats which can fit two of me, but they were much better because they did go completely 180 degree flat and straight. I never understood the point of Singapore Airlines’ diagonal beds that are so uncomfortable to sleep on. The design of the seats was done by Italian high-end furniture brand Poltrona Frau and come in a yellowish cream colour.
There were quite a few details that I loved about the seat area on Etihad A380. One of them was the compartment to store my handbag by the window, so I did not have to store it in the overhead compartment, something most airlines are obsessed with, even if you can perfectly fit it under the footrest.
Another one was the seat firmness which could be adjusted to four levels. I personally prefer softer seats to sleep on especially since I sleep on my side and my hip bones get smashed if the seat is too hard. It was also possible to get a thin mattress top for extra softness.
There were various lights all around the seat mostly indirect, making it quite pleasant and warm to read or work on your laptop without bothering too many neighbours. The crew remotely dimmed the cabin lights and lowered all the window blinds at certain points throughout the flight so the risk of a passenger keeping the blinds up when everyone is trying to sleep is minimised.
Extra seat privacy was provided by the sliding panel right next to my seat so I didn’t actually see the person seating next to me. There was a “Do not disturb” light to avoid being woken up for food. All the controls for the seat and lights were located in a panel by the wall so there was no need to fiddle around trying to find where everything was. I did have to investigate to figure out how to plug the noise cancelling headphones provided as they used a custom made plug that worked with magnets and was not obvious to connect. This custom built plug meant that I could not use my own headsets, something which I did not like as the noise cancelling ones made my ears hurt because of how hard they pressed against them and I had to take them off for a few hours on the 14h long journey. I would have appreciated the opportunity to plug my own in.
In my opinion the best seats were the true window seats. The airline calls window seats only the front facing window seats, the rear facing ones by the window, like the one I was seated in, are not considered window but aisle because the seat is not directly by the window but nearer the aisle. They indeed provide less privacy than those which are truly by the window, but you still get access to the outside world and to light, something which I prize because I can use it to help me beat jetlag and acclimatise to the destination.
Aside from the seat itself, there was also a counter top that could be used to place items and another storage compartment where the amenity kit and headset was. As this was quite spacious I felt like I had my own little private area to turn away from the rest of the world.
Lastly, there were two USB ports that worked all the way until landing and an electricity outlet by the side of the seat that was quite hard to reach.
Etihad has partnered with Luxe City Guides and Scaramouche + Fandango for the in-flight collectible amenity kits. The cosmetics part is provided by the hip UK-based brand Scaramouche + Fandango and the kit is completed with a guide by Luxe for one of six cities: New York, Abu Dhabi, Bangkok, Rio de Janeiro, Rome and Melbourne. The guides are both in English and in Arabic and especially designed for Etihad. Luxe City Guides are my go-to favourite for cities all around the world. I love their concise witty humour and the way they describe the places plus I almost always agree with their taste so they are the perfect companion for short city breaks. The pouches are colourfully designed and each have different colours and patterns matching he guide’s cover. Aside from the guide, there was a facial hydrator, a very rich lip balm, ear plugs, eye shades, socks, a toothbrush and toothpaste. I found the pouches to be very useful for travel and the Luxe matching design made it a not-so-obvious amenity kit, so I am sure I will re-use them for storing jewelry and even liquids.
For added comfort, each Business Class seat comes with a high pillow and a thick, warm velvety blanket that made sleeping very cozy and soft. I found the pillow to be too hard and high for my taste and impossible to sleep on if you sleep facing up as my chin was almost touching my chest as a result of the pillow’s height. To complete the outfit in the air, Etihad provides pajamas to each guest, but I did not feel like dressing in a Business Class uniform in terracota colours and look like a high-class prisoner in the air, joining the rest of the passengers who boarded wearing suits and had no choice but to get changed. I stayed in my comfy, soft pants.
The food on board the Etihad A380 to New York
Etihad’s premium cabin food service is based on an a la carte list of options plus an all day dining selection of snacks and other items. That means that you do not see the cabin crew going up and down the aisle with trolleys and food but just trays when the passengers choose to eat. It makes the entire experience less cattle class and more personalised and it means you can eat whenever you want not when the food is served. However, it also means that there may be someone eating throughout the flight.
As I slept on the way back and we suffered from terrible turbulence on the way to New York, I could only enjoy the a la carte service and was offered packed madeleine cake and cookies as replacement for a proper meal when service had to be completely cancelled two hours before landing.
Etihad has taken a segmented crew approach. Some of the crew members were F&B Managers, Onboard Nannies or Crew Heads. My flight had two dedicated F&B Managers who came to take my order and managed the entire food service. Although this sounded like a nice additional service, I did not see the added benefit of that and could not tell what they were providing that was not already possible with regular flight attendants. The order was taken before we took off and I was asked when I wanted to eat. As it was evening time, I had my meal after take off. As a result of a mix up, my food choice was not available, something quite surprising on premium class, so I had to settle for a different option. This was not the case on the way back.
Before the food was served, drinks and warm almonds and cashew nuts were provided to entertain hunger.
The a la carte menu featured starter, main and dessert and a large selection of snacks and stand alone dishes. The starters, as is traditional on Etihad and Emirates, included a traditional Arabic Mezze, a soup and a meat dish. The mains selection had a vegetarian option, a fish dish and two meat choices. Desserts were beautifully presented with cakes, ice cream and a cheese selection. The meal was accompanied by warm bread and olive oil with balsamic vinegar. I will admit the olive oil was of high quality and I could not help but dip the bread generously in it. A circle of butter is also provided as are salt and pepper shakers.
The wine list was pretty extensive with three options for reds and whites, two champagne and one or two dessert wines to choose from. There was also a cocktail selection and juices. Twining teas and decent freshly brewed coffee completed the offer.
I did not want to write this review until I flew the four segments of this journey so I would have at least four flights and corresponding crew teams to have a more completed opinion.
I will start by saying that I am a huge fan of the Asian and Middle Eastern airlines and I dread the times when I have to fly any of the American or European airlines, especially on economy. I simply detest the fact that they make passengers feel like they are doing us a favor by servicing us. This is never the case with Singapore Airlines, with whom on top, I have a premium status, or Emirates, Qatar or Cathay. I was first positively surprised by the crew from Singapore to Abu Dhabi on the A380 service. The lady that was in charge of the F&B service and the rest of the crew members I interacted with were friendly and pleasant with a warm attitude. However, my flight to New York and back, as well as the last leg from Abu Dhabi back to Singapore on a Boeing 787 were disappointing and I found myself feeling exactly like on those horrible European Airline flights.
Every time I asked for something I would get it without even an acknowledgement. When we were landing, a crew member literally pressed the button on my seat to bring my seat back, reaching all the way on front of me with her arm without a word. It felt terribly rude. The F&B Manager interrupted me half way through a phone call to take my food order, something which was hardly necessary. And I was told to store my bag up without any assistance offered. Nobody offered a mattress for my bed, I did not even get pajamas or sleepers for my first overnight flight. There were just no details or gestures that showed service levels matching Business Class.
To top it all off, when I told the F&B Manager that it was my colleague’s birthday, they did nothing to make her feel special and when I said I would take her to the bar after take off for a drink all they did was bring us two mimosas and a bowl with chips and nuts, which is the standard service. No birthday cake or message, no card, nothing. I would have expected something to be done proactively, after all, they had her birthday date in the system and should/could have planned for at least a message on her dessert plate.
I was disappointed by the overall service and it did not meet my expectations built over years of flying Middle Eastern and Asian airlines. I waited for the four trips to verify if it was a one-off but the feeling remained in all of them.
The entertainment system on board the Etihad A380
Etihad e-Box entertainment system was not as good as the Emirates or Singapore Airlines equivalent. It had a few movie classics and some recent Hollywood releases but there were not that many options and I could easily have watched them all in the long journey I had. The series selection was more extensive but also had some old seasons. I found this a slightly toned down version of other airlines of the same caliber.
Arrival at Abu Dhabi Airport
Abu Dhabi airport has not changed a bit since I first flew Etihad ten years ago. They are building a new flashy terminal but the existing one is small and efficient. Other than Etihad, very few airlines fly from Abu Dhabi with Dubai Airport providing the majority of the international connections from the UAE to the world, despite the claim from Etihad, on every announcement for landing, that Etihad is the National Airline connecting the UAE capital city to the world. As a small airport, Abu Dhabi is very efficient. Specific Business Class buses were waiting by the aircraft when we disembarked far from the terminal and whisked us through. We were given fast track landing cards but they were largely unnecessary as the immigration area was practically empty. Within minutes from Immigration I was at the baggage collection belts and then the exit. I was out and into the street within 15 minutes from landing. If you have bought a full fare, Etihad provides chauffeur services to your hotel which must be pre-booked in advance. The service if offered at both ends is also available when you are returning. Lower fares do not include the chauffeur.
Here’s my complete guide to Abu Dhabi if you’re heading out there next.
I find the Etihad Business Class product to New York to be of high quality and at very competitive prices. The flight from Singapore to New York with a stopover in Abu Dhabi was USD2,500 cheaper than the Singapore Airlines equivalent and offered a similar value. The seats and aircraft were much more spacious, length wise, providing a very comfortable setting to catch some shut eye. The food, as was the case with Etihad since inception, was of high quality and all meals I had were cooked properly, were delicious and had a beautiful presentation. The amenities and blanket were fantastic and actually useful. Where it lacked was on the service side and the entertainment system which had very few movie options.
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