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One way to soften the blow to the pending end of a vacation is to look forward to a long haul first class flight – and thankfully, that’s precisely what I had booked to cap off a wonderful few weeks in the UAE and Pakistan. In fact, the entire trip was sandwiched between two Etihad (“EY”) first class flights – the first was a 6.5 hour outbound journey from London to Abu Dhabi, with the second a 14.5 hour inbound flight from Abu Dhabi to Washington DC. Given the remarkably consistent experience I had across both flights, I’ll be offering some quick aggregated thoughts on this Etihad First Class review of the two experiences. For more details on the booking process of these flights, take a look at my planning post for this trip.
Lounge Experiences: London & Abu Dhabi
Let’s start with the weakest aspect of Etihad’s first-class experience – the ground experience. In recent years, Etihad embarked on a series of significant cost-cutting initiatives which greatly affected the airline’s ground experience – especially at its international lounges – leaving the experience solid, though not memorable.
Etihad First and Business Class Lounge in London Heathrow is situated in Terminal 4 and, as the name suggests, is a shared lounge for passengers of both cabins. In 2018, this lounge had been rebranded as “The House,” and management handed over to No1 Lounges – though unbeknown to me – Etihad had retaken control of this lounge back in Dec 2019 (or maybe I had known at the time.. but then ‘know.. 2020 happened).
The lounge has a variety of seating areas alongside a dedicated dining room where the buffet is situated. However, passengers can also order off an a la carte menu – which the servers are happy to bring to you in any lounge area. As we were visiting close to Christmas, the buffet had some holiday themed items alongside the usual Middle-Eastern and Indian fare that Etihad lounges frequently feature. The buffet options were generally good – as were the a la carte options – with an especially yummy sticky toffee pudding. While we did have a pleasant experience during the layover – there wasn’t anything there that was unique. Service was attentive and polished throughout our time, and the food offerings were really good. During our layover, I did opt for a shower to refresh myself ahead of the next flight. Overall a fantastic lounge experience if flying a business class cabin – but an unmemorable one when viewed from the lens of a first-class lounge.
Abu Dhabi International Airport:
The Etihad First Class Lounge in Abu Dhabi can be accessed right past security in the Etihad Airways Terminal and is open 24/7 for passengers. Our flight this morning was to Washington DC – and the less said about the lounge situation after US preclearance, the better. Consider spending as much time as reasonably possible at the First Class Lounge before passing US immigration.
Being on an early morning flight and with US immigration still to clear, we had some breakfast – an excellent egg benedicts and a crepes suzette and then proceeded to nap on some couches. For a flagship first-class lounge, the lack of sleeping rooms or even nap rooms is a glaring omission. There was a relaxation room with a handful of recliners and some mood lighting happening – but during our visit, it was particularly stuffy in the room, nor did it seem easy to try and nap with the images being projected on the screen.
Other amenities included a kid’s play area, the much talked about gym, shower rooms and some hidden away VIP spaces. Much like our experience in London, we had a nice stay – but not a particularly memorable one – acknowledging fully that the early morning flight timing probably contributed to this.
Ultimately though – in a landscape where your competition includes Michelin star cuisine (Air France), tarmac drop-offs to your plane (Lufthansa), private sleep rooms (Qatar Airways/ Swiss Airways), exclusive lounges within lounges (Singapore Airlines) – Etihad comes up short.
The first-class cabin on Etihad’s 787-9 features 8 suites across two rows in a 1-2-1 configuration. The seats alternate between being forward and rear-facing and come with doors, making them fully enclosable. The same product is more or less also featured on Oman Air’s 787s.
Each suite covers 3 windows and has closet space to hang up one or two garments and some stowage under the large ottoman across from the seat. Storage space is tight in general in Etihad’s first-class cabin on their 787-9’s primarily because there are no overhead bins, the result of which is that the cabin feels remarkably spacious – which is fine with me, especially as the crew is happy to stow away any additional items you don’t have space for. Adjacent to the windows (or middle divider if seated in the middle seats) is an entertainment and seat control, alongside several smaller storage compartments and an unrefrigerated minibar.
Both flights had me seated in 1A, a rear-facing window seat, with my partner seated on the other side in 2A. Abu Dhabi to Washington DC was a daytime takeoff, and she loves her daytime plane views too much to want to give it up, so window seats it was for both of us! The middle seats also have a large privacy divider, which can be lowered depending on if you’re travelling with a companion.
Overall I’m a big fan of Etihad’s cabin finishes. The suites are extremely spacious (especially considering the 4 across the layout in a 787) and provide great privacy with the doors closed. The colour scheme and finishes of the suites are stylish and smart, and the seat itself I’ve found to be very comfortable. The airline does a great job with the bedding they provide, making for a very comfortable bed when converted. Though not Cathay Pacific’s comfort level – I could easily pack in 6-7 hours of proper sleep on my return leg.
This is, for me, the aspect of the EY experience that shines brightest – the onboard catering and the ability to have a companion dine across from you. Etihad features a “dine on demand” concept allowing you to order from an extensive menu whatever you want, whenever you want. The menu also features an extensive snack selection and a “Lounge and Grill concept that allows you to choose a combination of protein, side and sauce. The menu below is for the Abu Dhabi – Washington DC inbound leg (the outbound leg was similar, albeit with slightly fewer options than what’s shown below)
A highlight of any first-class flight for me is the elevated dining experience which becomes all the more memorable when you can share it with a companion. The over-sized ottoman in the suite is a comfortable seat for the companion, and it’s exactly what we did for most of our meals. Across both flights, the crew couldn’t have been happier accommodating our requests and contributing to the experience of providing wonderful and proactive service.
For our meals on both flights, we started with Etihad’s signature Oscietra caviar service and then, over the combined 21 hours of flight time, did a mighty impressive job working through most of the menu items. The lamb shank dishes on both flights (two delicious Middle-Eastern variations of Mandi and Mashwi) and the black cod features were particularly memorable. Etihad’s popular steak sandwich was also fantastic, as well as the steak frites – something that Etihad consistently does better than any other airline in my experience. Special mention for the desserts – every single one was an absolute knockout on the return leg.
Whilst I can’t opine on the alcohol selection, I’ve long considered Etihad’s in-flight catering to be head and shoulders above that of Emirates and even Qatar Airways, and it was great to see that this hasn’t changed. Now if only they could match Emirates in offering unlimited caviar servings for first-class passengers…
Amenities & Inflight Service
Etihad’s Acqua di Parma amenity kit has not changed much in recent years, and compared to the loot bag that Emirates gives you – it does seem to be on the skinnier side. Etihad’s pyjamas are designed by an Emirati company called “A Friend of Mine” and have now firmly become my absolute favourite airline pi’s that I’ve received to date. The style is inspired by the Emirati “kandora” and the fabric is extremely soft and so comfortable!
Some final thoughts on Etihad’s inflight service. It had been a while since I had flown with the airline, and we left so impressed by the service provided across both flights. The flight crews were fantastic Service was professional, diligent, and warm without being too intrusive. It’s such a contrast to Emirate: find (of which I’m also a huge fan). Where Emirates cabin crew is friendly and chatty, Etihad’s cabin crew is more reserved yet still extremely attentive – similar in some respects to the contrast between Cathay Pacific and ANA. In a strange coincidence, we also had the same purser for both of our flights – so not sure how much of the consistency of our experience was down to that.
Final Thoughts: Does Etihad First Class deservedly get overlooked?
There is no denying that Etihad Airway’s cost-cutting measures over the past number of years have significantly impacted its standing as a leading first-class cabin. And while it doesn’t have the flash and pizzaz of the world’s leading first-class products – or even its own First Class Apartments cabin on the A380, the product on the 787-9 is still an absolute top choice of mine to fly on.
I know my opinion won’t be popular with Emirates’ slammer-timing, champagne-toting fanbase. Still, I frankly prefer the EY product to that provided on Emirates 777’s (in some circumstances, maybe even over Emirates A380 cabin as well). Ultimately, as with most things, it will be driven by your preferences. Despite an average ground experience, the ease of securing multiple reward seats, the quality of Etihad’s inflight service and catering, along with the ability to dine with a companion firmly places this as a product I would happily fly over and over again – though fully acknowledging that it never quite hits the highs of the likes of the Emirates “Gamechanger,” Singapore Suites and others in the top echelon of first-class products being offered in commercial aviation.
For my wife and I, we had two wonderful flights. We arrived at our destinations sufficiently rested, pampered and fed, leaving us with amazing memories and eager anticipation for our next go-around with Abu Dhabi’s flagship carrier. Until next time Etihad (hopefully in the A380 Apartments in Jan 2024)!