In the aviation world, the first class cabins of the Big 3 Middle Eastern carriers (Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways) are often lauded as some of the finest methods of aviation transport available to the public. Having not even flown in one of their business class cabins, I couldn't help but feel like I was missing out in some way since so many of my aviation fanatic friends had made the trek at least once. The surest way to make someone do something is to make them feel like they're missing out, so there we were with me waving my hands in the air wishing I was like the cool kids.
I'd collected quite a few American Airlines (AA) AAdvantage miles over the course of my travels around the globe, and AA has had a partnership for award ticketing on Etihad (EY) for a few years now. As I recently outlined on the blog, for a trip to the Middle East with friends I'd flown into Jordan with Royal Jordanian in business class and we'd flown onward from Amman to Dubai on Emirates in economy class. I still needed a way to get home from the UAE though, and I figured this might be an ideal time to spend some miles to try out EY's notoriously posh first class cabin.
Luckily EY releases award space pretty decently, and I was able to find a flight from Abu Dhabi to New York City in first class, connecting home to Chicago on AA. The ticket cost me 90,000 AAdvantage miles, which is a lot but at the time I had quite bucketload to use and the outlay didn't seem too expensive at all.
At the time my relationship with AA and its free wheelin' contribution of miles to my account felt a lot like....
Now that I'm no longer consolidating all of my travel onto AA though, the miles are no longer plentiful and I have to be much smarter about how I redeem them. 90,000 AAdvantage miles could get me two full round trip tickets to Europe during AA's off-season in economy class, so if given the choice today I would definitely make a different choice.
Regardless, the miles were spent and my ticket was booked! I was flying home from the UAE in EY's First class cabin.
While a bit more restricted in scope now, Etihad offers a free chauffeur service to customers in their first and business class cabins (with some restrictions). The service will pick you up anywhere in the UAE for departures from Abu Dhabi and within a certain kilometer distance from your departure city in non-UAE locations. This was a great service from EY as I was staying in Dubai. While taxis are very inexpensive, the free chauffeur service ended up saving me a good amount of cash for the transfer to the airport as well as the time and effort needed to organize the transit on my own with the hotel staff.
I wanted to have a leisurely departure, so I had arranged for the car service to pick me up four hours prior to take off. I became a bit worried when the car didn't show up on time, but I held my composure and fifteen minutes later he showed up with no apologies but a smile on his face. My friends were flying home from Dubai on a mixture of different airlines (Royal Jordanian, British Airways, and Turkish Airlines) later that day, so I was the first to leave the hotel and bid everyone adieu after our adventures in the Middle East.
The car they picked me up in was clean and comfortable but by no means very luxurious. I wasn't expecting Cleopatra's barge but for some reason I had this idea that the indulgences of the UAE would spill into this area a bit, too. The driver promised to make up for the slight delay in picking me up by going a little faster than normal on the giant expanse of highway between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Normally I wouldn't be pleased with a driver indicating he intended to speed while taking my safety in his hands, but fast driving and empty freeways are pretty status quo in the UAE and it didn't raise any ire on my end.
The drive took about 50 minutes and before long I was being dropped off right in front of the Etihad First class check-in area at Abu Dhabi International. A row of doors set into a white facade with big letters in English saying "FIRST & BUSINESS CLASS" with smaller Arabic letters saying the same above it greeted me and I grabbed my luggage and marched through the doorsA luggage porter called to to me to offer to help with my luggage but I travel light in general and would have felt awful having him take the time to wheel my little bag around. The doors swished open and I was ready for the good times to begin.
But not just yet apparently.
The check-in process definitely didn't start me off in that direction. It reminded me of one of those days where you're walking through Target and see two employees chit chatting and you walk up to them like, "Oh hi there, sorry to bother, but would it be too much trouble for you to help me with something....." only for one of them to exhale loudly, roll their eyes, and reluctantly start helping you all the while shooting a knowing glance back at the other one that says, "LOLZ, this bitch, am I right Ellen!?!"
That's exactly what happened with my check-in experience except instead of Target it was Abu Dhabi International and instead of a middle aged American woman named Ellen it was a young, blond Polish man that I'm going to assume as named Pytor. Despite my interruption of their coffee-klatching time, I had my luggage checked and a boarding pass in hand in around two minutes. With a delicate, dismissive wave of her hand, the agent sent me on my way down a hallway that deposited me into the terminal and almost directly in front of the access point to EY's lounges.
The Etihad staff working the lounge desk were much, much more friendly than their fellows working the check-in, and I was welcomed in with a smile and upon learning that it was my first visit (bless her heart for thinking I'm a regular on Etihad's first class product) an offer to show me around was extended. I declined the tour as I'm much more keen to explore both lounges and new locations on my own and at my own pace. I walked past the desk and found a nicely decorated yet relatively small area within which I'd be relaxing for the next hour or so. After I settled into a seat a gentleman came over with a cold towel and a menu for me to browse.
As I mentioned the lounge itself was nicely appointed but surprisingly small in my very humble opinion. For some reason I was thinking it would be a grand space and yet it was relatively cozy. There was a heavy use of white in the walls and furniture with earthy woods used to bring a slight element of nature into the space.
I had skipped breakfast at the hotel as I had woke up that morning feeling a bit queasy, and unfortunately it hadn't seemed to have subsided by the time I got to the lounge. I debating trying to force myself to eat something, so I cracked open the menu and took a quick look at what was on offer.
I was actually pretty pissed that I wasn't feeling well, because there are quite a lot of items on this menu I'd have loved to sample. Mee goreng?! Get over here and let me make mouth-love to you. Despite my proclivity for making poor dietary choices, reason won the day for once and I declined any offerings for food while in the lounge. I was going to give my tummy a little more rest before our time on the plane. I did ask for some hot tea and a glass of water though.
There did not appear to be any self-service selections available any where in the lounge unlike most other locations I've visited, which may explain why the made-to-order menu was so extensive. This meant that the lounge, despite being fairly full, never felt crowded or busy. In other lounges people are constantly getting up to go get a drink, pick up another egg roll off the hot buffet, or grab some extra ketchup for their sandwich. There's a lot of movement. EY's made-to-order style meant that for the most part people stayed in their seats and all drinks and food were brought to passengers. Less need to get up, less foot traffic around the lounge, and consequently less emotions related to being in a place where there's frenzied activity. You're actually lounging while in the lounge, imagine that.
My water and hot tea were monitored from afar by various staff members and whenever either got down to the 25% full level someone would inevitably come around with a refill to replace the glass. I spent my entire trip trying to hydrate myself and browsing the internet using the wifi on my iPhone. Wifi connection was pretty weak when I first arrived in the lounge but the connection seemed to pick up significantly about 30 minutes before I left.
The only time I did get up during my stay was to hop into the restroom quickly. The bathroom itself was very nice - jewel toned tiles and rose colored marble. Real towels available for drying your hands and an extremely spacious shower area that could accommodate as many occupants as your dirty little heart desires.
It was located inside the Six Senses spa directly behind the lounge agent desks. Many lounges are co-located with spas to help passengers relax, but the previously mentioned queasiness kept me from enjoying any of the offerings.
Soon enough it was time to head down to the plane. Etihad has since opened an immigration pre-clearance facility in Abu Dhabi which allows customers headed to the United States to be processed through immigration prior to arrival in the US, but that was not active during my trip. Instead I meandered down to my departure gate and went through a very cursory security screening of my luggage before being funneled into the holding area. Pretty much as soon as I picked up my backpack full of junk from the security table they announced that first class passengers were welcome to board the aircraft, so I hurried over to the window to snap a picture of our plane and then headed on to the aircraft.
My first impression of the cabin .....
EY's competitor Emirates has a reputation for being a bit over the top with its glitz and glamour in the first class cabin. It's all shiny and glittery like a disco ball, and personally I find it quite unappealing. EY's first class cabin on the other hand is quite classy and understated.
The varied tones of beige and the dark wood features worked in tandem to create a calm, luxurious setting. The supple leather within the seats and portions of the walls invited your eyes to relax and your body to sink into them. I was very pleased upon taking in the view of the cabin for the first time, it fit my sense of style quite well. I started to make my way down the aisle to my seat when suddenly I saw it - the one decorating mistake Etihad makes within their first class cabin.
It hung at the front of the cabin like the purple butterfly tattoo peaking out from under the waist band of a pair of yoga pants just above the ass of a 34 year old ex-sorority girl. Or the pancake-sized Confederate flag belt buckle on that girl's boyfriend. The most flagrant of eye sores. I understand that this is called your Diamond First Class, but still, why Etihad?! WHY?
With my mouth scrunched up in a befuddled expression, I pushed the decal out of my mind and started to make myself at home and explore the Etihad first class seat.
Etihad calls this product a suite, and it makes sense considering the seat is encased with walls and a sliding door that allows you to hide yourself away from the rest of the cabin at your leisure. The suite-style is available on other carriers but is still not a common product among airlines so it still carriers a bit of uniqueness in that regard, at least for users of American miles.
One of the quirks of modern travel is that you can get just about anywhere in the world in just two flights, and the destination you're headed toward may have very different weather than the one you're leaving. This was the case on this particular trip, as the weather was showing a blustery 42 degrees Fahrenheit for my arrival in New York whereas the early afternoon temps in Abu Dhabi where just beginning to crack 100 degrees. I had dressed for the New York though, and consequently was already burning up in my sweater and trench coat. I ripped both of those off of myself and placed them in the closet located in the compartment on the left hand side of my seat - 1K.
The closet was narrow but sufficient for holding my coat and sweater, or if you are more like EY's more traditional suites class passenger, it will nicely fit a suit coat or suit bag. The hanger attachments are permanently affixed to the bar, but much like some hotels you can remove the lower portion of the hanger with ease.
After I had hung my own coat the flight attendant (FA) that would be helping me throughout the flight made her first appearance. She was a Kenyan named Aluna, and much like the other foreign workers I'd met throughout my trip in the UAE, she worked with a smile but seemed quite distant and detached from the job. She welcomed me aboard, offered to show me the features of the suite, and then asked if I'd like anything to drink prior to departure.
This is about the time most people would rip into their first glass of expensive whisky or champagne, but not this card carrying non-drinker. Instead I requested a cold glass of water to help me replenish myself from all the sweating I'd done in the sweater that morning. She provided the glass immediately and even threw in a cold towel in what I'm assuming as a very polite way of telling me to get a grip and clean my disheveled face.
We were a good ways into boarding the aircraft at this point and I was still the only passenger in first class. I stood up to take another look at the seat and the cabin and really began to admire it. It really does touch on an aesthetic appeal within my inner interior designer. Even the bold black and white pillow provided just the right level of contrast to the complementary colors that bathed the cabin.
I was starting to get the idea that I might be the only passenger in the first class cabin on the flight, but as soon as I snapped another photo of the empty cabin a man and woman boarded the plane and took the adjoined seats in the second row of the cabin.
With an audience now, I became a bit more self-conscious about my photo snapping and I retired back into my suite to explore the seat and features a bit further. I did notice that the FAs had actived the mood lighting above the cabin though, which glowed a vibrant shade of pink.
The soft leather that envelopes the suite's seat is also used on the permanently fixed foot rest as well. It was here that a "wrapped for your hygienic pleasure" blanket was awaiting me. It was full-sized, much like yours truly, not of the smaller size you can often find on some airlines.
Directly above the ottoman was a very large screen for the in-flight entertainment (IFE). It was playing a loop of images welcoming passengers aboard. I can't recall whether programming was available while we were on the ground though.
The little cupboard to the right of the IFE was a mini-bar, chock full of goodies to keep you sated throughout the flight. I know others have reviewed business and first class cabins on various airlines that offer this mini-bar and wondered "why bother" since the ideal would be that FAs take care of these desires for you. To be a bit of a contrarian, I actually appreciate the option. Sometimes you wake up from a groggy nap over Iceland and just want to guzzle some water and nosh on Doritos without having to wake up the entire crew.
Sadly EY's suite's mini-bar had a pretty light selection - sparkling water and some trail mix. Better than a stick in the eye.
Aluna made another appearance and offered me the menus for today's flight as well as a little gift box with a ribbon tied around it.
As tempting as a present is to unwrap, I placed it to the side and continued my exploration of the seat.
While many seats feature a seat back pocket where the in-flight magazine and safety instruction card is stored, EY's suite has a built in magazine folder behind your arm rest.
Aluna makes her third appearance to quickly drop off the headphones for the IFE. While some airlines really go the extra mile with the headphones and provide Bose for use, Etihad opts for a lower quality product. This always puzzles me as it's an easy way to upgrade the quality of the service offered in business or first class. Even podunk American Airlines offers Bose in both business and first class, and that's an airline that serves cardboard pizza to first class passengers.
If you lift the wood panel directly in front of the magazine rack, you'd find an IFE controller as well as a variety of outlet options for your charging pleasure. You'd think that one of my biggest fears as a traveler would involve something like losing my passport, being involved in a plane crash, or to be kidnapped by Somali pirates, but you'd be wrong. All of those things rank below "my cell phone runs out of battery" on my travel panic scale, so needless to say I was happy with the outlet situation.
Set against the arm rest area and easily within reach of any passenger's hand was the seat control remote. While other airlines often have buttons built into the seat or IFE remove to control the seat, EY's suite has a touchscreen remote exclusively for that purpose. Again, not a feature unique to Etihad, but rare enough that it was an interesting feature to this traveler.
The majority of the seat features are along the cabin wall, but on the suite wall there was also a reading light and air nozzle fixture, which is a godsend on a long haul flight as many foreign airlines keep the cabin temperature higher than I prefer. A steady stream of air blowing in my general direction helps keep me sane and dry.
Feeling that I'd full explored the seat, I turned my attention back toward the gift that had been dropped off earlier with the menus. It came with a card from the cabin manager and it notified me of her name and wished me a pleasant flight. Inside the box were an Arabic date and a truffle for my chewing pleasure.
An announcement was made that boarding was complete and ground crew were requested to leave the aircraft. Aluna stopped by my seat again to offer me some Arabic coffee to go along with my date, which I happily accepted. When she dropped off the coffee she encouraged me to give the menu a quick perusal and to think about when I'd like my meal served as food was presented to passengers a la carte and at any time during the flight. No set meal service times, it's truly dining on your leisure.
As we pushed back from the gate the cabin manager stopped by my seat to give me a personal welcome on board and also hand over an amenity kit. While I always appreciate the personal welcome from staff, it really takes a certain type of personality to walk up to people you don't know very well and engage them in conversation that isn't centered around providing set service. Most of the time I end up feeling super awkward talking to people in these settings, and that's saying a lot since generally I do not struggle meeting new people at all. I think it says a lot about how important sincerity is when engaging in this type of customer service activity, and many FAs lack the ability to seem genuine when talking to customers casually and setting them at ease. It's much easier when there's a set script about drink service or seat functions, but much less so when they're asking you about your stay in the UAE or why you're traveling. I suppose it may not be so much that they lack sincerity, but it is probably difficult to be so interested in the interaction when it's done repetitively day in and out.
Sadly this cabin manager definitely had me hoping the conversation would end quickly.
I started the conversation off on the wrong foot though as I started unpacking the amenity kit immediately due to my sheer curiosity, which I think made the CM think I was a bit odd. The amenity kit was to date the nicest kit I've ever received. It was an upholstered leather box, matching the theme of the first suites, and was chock full of your standard amenity kit items - eye shades, ear plugs, etc. The real money portion of this kit were the La Prairie products, which are some of the nicest toiletries I've ever received while traveling across the globe. I was pretty stoked to get these, even if they were tiny samplers. The price these products normally run for is well outside my budget for skin care products!
As soon as the CM had stepped away from my suite Aluna reappeared and offered me some pajamas and slippers. Both were black, which is great in the sleek and slimming sense but awful in the "my dogs are going to get hair all over these damn things" sense for future use. The materials were breathable cotton and seemed like they'd be nice to wear. Later in the flight when I threw on the pajamas I was comfortable with the fit and material but it did make sleeping a bit of a sweaty affair once the seat is converted to a bed and you are no longer able to have the air nozzle sweetly caressing your face, so they're not as breathable as they appear at first blush.
The captain came on the PA and welcome us aboard. He informed us that our flying time was going to be as expected and that we were first in line for take off today at Abu Dhabi International. He said he'd be back on later in the flight to update us if our arrival times were expected to change.
Much like my previous experiences with airlines based in Muslim countries, Etihad plays a Muslim travel prayer on the IFE screens prior to take off. I'm not a religious person at all, but I kinda of like this traditional aspect of the flight. I don't think it has any bearing on the safety of our flight at all, but tradition and ritual are things that I fully support.