Return to the Maldives: New York JFK – Abu Dhabi, Etihad First Class

Trip Report Index:

  1. Introducing and Strategy
  2. New York JFK – Abu Dhabi, Etihad First Class
  3. Park Hyatt Dubai
  4. Touring the Burj al Arab
  5. Tea at the Burj al Arab
  6. Abu Dhabi – Male, Etihad Business Class
  7. Male – Kaadedhdhoo, Maldivian and Transfer to the Park Hyatt
  8. Park Hyatt Hadahaa Maldives
  9. Kooddoo-Male-Abu Dhabi, Maldivian and Etihad Business Class
  10. Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi
  11. Abu Dhabi – Dusseldorf – London, Etihad First Class and British Airways Club Europe
  12. London Heathrow – San Francisco, British Airways New First Class

After checking in for my Etihad flight — a bit of a process in and of itself because the check-in counters are roped off and there’s a staff member there to keep people away who don’t belong, though I didn’t have to show him an itinerary to get through.. and then once through I queued up for first class but it wasn’t obvious who belonged in that line and who didn’t and it certainly appeared that some folks who didn’t were being helped first — I was given lounge passes to the airside contract lounge, The Oasis.

Now, any lounge using that name is probably making something of an overclaim. And when it’s a shared lounge that you can access with a Priority Pass card, it’s almost certainly so.

Chris Guillebeau described the Oasis lounge as “the Star Wars galaxy bar of middle-cabin travelers.”

And indeed it was a bit of a strange place, and a crowded lounge that reminded me of a mid-tier Caribbean resort rather than the Mos Eisley Cantina in one respect: just as those tend to have rows of beach chairs, and if you don’t go down after breakfast to reserve one by leaving your book on it you won’t have access to the front row when you’re ready to spend time there, so too the Oasis has rows of chairs lined up at the window, packed in tightly next to and behind each other. I got space in the third row.

Internet was spotty at best. I used my own Verizon Mifi device to get some work done and had the pleasure of spotting both Singapore and Emirates A380s from the lounge.

There’s television, some food to be sure though it didn’t strike me as especially appealing, I figured I’d get better food onboard the plane so I decided against. Fortunately soon enough it was -time to head to the gate — a long schlepp through the terminal and still a need to clear security much closer to the gates, so it’s actually necessary to leave the lounge fairly enough.

The boarding passes had boarding times better than an hour prior to departure, though of course that’s wrong. At check-in they explained, “that’s because it takes a while to corral people.” It reminds me of the departure boards in Asian airports — I’ve frequently seen flights showing “LAST CALL” as they’re just getting ready to open boarding. Got to scare infrequent travelers to the gates!

Once at the gate though, a bit of a madhouse, but… exciting!

I love the slogan on the side of all of their planes, “From Abu Dhabi to the World”

I also love the announcement on all of their flights that they are “serving the world from our capital city, Abu Dhabi” reminding that they fly to the UAE capital, in contrast to Emirates (as though that’s reason enough to fly Etihad, there’s no reason to travel to… Dubai!) and also somehow a differentiator from their competitor Qatar I suppose.

Onboard I was immediately struck by the gorgeous cabin. And I mean good looking. I think that British Airways probably has the classiest looking first class cabin (in their new first) but this is just down beautiful. It’s tight, space-wise — all those seats, all with doors, spacious private cabins but not a lot of room when you’re outside those cabins.

I had a glass of champagne – my only drink during the flight — which was 2002 Bollinger La Grande Annee.

While I was immediately impressed by the hard product, I also couldn’t help but notice just overwhelmed the cabin crew was by what turned out to be a completely full flight. When I made my booking there were at least 9 of 12 of first class seats available as awards, the first class cabin through remained fairly empty long after I booked it and long after award space dried up on the route. And yet it wound up completely full, I can only imagine that it’s the result of buy ups from business class, I don’t think there’s any airline that’s quite as aggressive with cash upgrades as Etihad (they have a ‘bidding’ system for it).

Incidentally, Etihad used to be amazing for opening just about their whole first class cabin on the JFK route as award space. They’re not quite as generous anymore. However, Etihad is (1) good at releasing seats early, when schedules load, and (2) really generous in first class on the new Washington Dulles route.

I spent the time prior to takeoff exploring the seat, playing around with it, figuring out the controls which weren’t at all intuitive to me despite the pictures.

What surprised me most, though, was the prior to takeoff I wasn’t given pajamas or an amenity kit. The crew was scurrying around the cabin and just seemed too busy to help me, so I waited until after departure (mind you, it appeared as though all of the other passengers had been given these items earlier, some had even already changed into their pajamas) and I asked for these the first time anyone approached me for a service item or request. They replied, “Oh, I thought we gave those to you” and ran off, returning a few minutes later with the PJs and amenity kit.

I also asked about a second pillow in addition to the one at my seat but was told that since the cabin was full none were available.

I thought the male amenity kits were interesting (female kits were a bag that zipped). I don’t actually like the male kit bag for reuse since it doesn’t keep its shape — you open it, it fans out making all of the contents immediately available but it isn’t really a ‘box’.

Arabic coffee and dates were distributed across the cabin.

Shortly thereafter they began dinner service which took ages, not something I really like on a flight that departs after 10pm. In fact it was a full 2.5 hours after takeoff when the second course was served.

Still, I really like Etihad’s food service. I understand this used to be a weak spot for the JFK departure, since the flight would leave so late they only served a modest supper. But Etihad now has an onboard chef concept, where one of the flight attendants is trained as the chef (and at least in this flight’s case, had culinary training as well). He acted as a flight attendant in all other respects, too, but he wore a chef’s jacket and was in charge of meal preparation — and was there to make things to your liking, customized as you wished. Dishes were just all prepackaged, he handled plating adding garnishes from a separate supply. It was actually quite impressive.

Here’s the menu.

A LA CARTE DINNER

Appetisers
Arabic mezze – a selection of Middle Eastern hot and cold appetizers
Oven-baked chicken – roasted baby courgettes, yellow squash, red pepper dressing
Lentil soup – yellow pepper, chopped carrots
Pea and mint soup – sour cream with chives

Mains
Lam kofta – aromatic spiced rice and okra stew
Roasted herb chicken – sauteed wild mushrooms, potato gratin, balsamic jus
Al dente tagliatelle pasta – roasted cherry tomato on vine, basil pesto, mozzarella
Chef’s “Special of the Day” – combining their professional skills and freshly sourced ingredients, let your in-flight chef create something uniquely tempting just for you. Ask your chef about their “Special of the Day”

DINNER from THE GRILLE

Grilled beef tenderloin
US rib-eye steak
Mixed grill
Corn-fed chicken
Fillet of seabass

SIDES
Oven roasted potatoes with rosemary
Steamed green beans
Carrots cooked in honey and tamarind
Oven-baked fries
Roasted chat potatoes with rosemary
Creamy mashed potatoes
Steamed rice

SAUCES
Bearnaise
Veal jus
White cream sauce
Cafe de Paris butter

TASTE OF ARABIA
A tasting menu of our chef’s Arabic signature dishes

Arabic mezze – a selection of Middle Eastern hot and cold appetizers
Lentil soup – yellow pepper, chopped carrot
Lamb Kofta – aromatic spiced rice and okra stew
Warm sticky toffee pudding – chopped dates, toffee sauce
Sulaimani tea

DESSERTS AND DIGESTIFS

Cheese – selection of international cheese

Desserts

Fresh fruits with forest berries coulis
Providore natural ice cream – selection of flavours
Quattro of desserts – creme caramel, mngo moacchiato vanilla ice cream and spiced poached fruits
Chocolate and rosewater gateau – raspberry coulis and orange
Warm sticky toffee pudding – chopped dates, toffee sauce

KITCHEN ANYTIME

Morning bakery and patisserie basket
Energiser fruit smoothie
Assortment of cereals – full cream or low fat milk
Breakfast Quattro – muesli, yoghurt cream with granola, fruit salad, fruit smoothie
New York cheesecake – blueberry coulis
Fresh eggs cooked any way you like – chicken sausage, rostie potatoes, sauteed mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, baked beans, foul medames
Toasted bagel with smoked salmon, cream cheese, rocket leaves
Herb omelette – lamb sausage, potato gratin
Chef’s sandwich – your choice of filling served with oven-baked fries
The Etihad Steak Sandwich – rocket leaves, turkey bacon, red onion compote, melted cheese, mayonnaise, served with grain mustard
Pea and mint soup – sour cream with chives
Cheese – selection of international cheese

Nibbles
Potato chips – selection of flavors
Baked cookies and madeleines
Sweedish crisp breads
Arabic baklava

It was all plated nicely.

I’m not given towards Middle Eastern cuisine but I did think the food high quality, and I especially liked the snack menu options. They have a dine when you wish concept, and that menu was extensive enough. One of the real differentiators for me of a good first class product — and where Singapore falls flat surprisingly — is in the food options available between meal services. ANA’s snack menu is probably the most extensive I’ve seen, but Singapore’s reminds me more of a business class, with candy bars and crisps filling up much of the choices of things you can nosh on if you find yourself hungry in the middle of a 14 hour flight.

After the meal I changed into my pajamas. The cabin had 2 restrooms, the one on the left quite small though stylish in the colors of the cabin and the one on the right with darker colors but gigantic. That’s the one you want to change in! (Or, for that matter, do anything else in!)

Once in my pajamas I left the restroom, saw one of the flight attendants and asked if I could have my bed made. About half the time on Cathay when I go to change into pajamas they notice, and have my bed ready to go when I come out (and are waiting with a coat hanger for my clothes).

These seats have a built-in closet, but it is very, very small. There’s no overhead bins in the cabin, and the coat closet in the seat is barely big enough for me to fit my pants and shirt, I sort of stuffed them in there.

But with a bed ready to go, and since it was now nearly two in the morning for me, I slept on and off for 6 hours.

When I woke up I decided to have a snack and went with the steak sandwich. I considered having eggs but then I started musing on whether the onboard chef could make them scrambled with maybe swiss cheese. I wondered what cheeses were on the cheese tray. And then it just felt like it was going to be too complicated, I don’t know what their facilities are for cooking eggs and would they be able to scramble it with cheese reasonably? I abandoned the thought and figured I would see how Etihad’s steak sandwich compares to the excellent one offered by Qantas.

Indeed, it was quite good, and I also added on a dessert. Having done that I was pretty well finished with food for the flight, and didn’t order anything more. Although I do have to say that the baklava served with my cappuccino was outstanding and probably the best tasting example that I’ve had in fifteen years. It was sweet and dense just the way I like it.

So overall how was the product? I love the privacy of the suites with doors, being closed off from the world, and when in bed mode with the arm rests down the seat is wide enough (I was a bit worried about that, the key to my comfort usually is the width of the seat not because I’m that wide but for an overall feeling of spaciousness – my standard here is Cathay’s first class seat). I do like the stars on the ceiling, they add a nice touch.

The seat is one of the best I’ve flown in, though I’d still take Cathay’s for overall comfort. Very stylish cabin. Give me this hard product and the service of one of the better Asian carriers and I’d consider theirs one of the very best products in the world if not the best.

The entertainment is extensive but not as extensive as Cathay or Singapore, which is fine since I usually bring my own things to watch when I’m too tired to read or work anyway.

But that service… everyone was friendly and it came across as genuine but with a full cabin they just couldn’t handle it, service was uniformly slow (although requests were never forgotten). Service was also generally confused, lots of scurrying around and a general sense that no one quite knew what they needed to be doing next. Service expectations are high and it seems like the cabin crew just aren’t up to serving a full cabin everything that’s a part of the airline’s standards. And in fact I was never once referred to by name on the entire flight. And yet I still have a very high opinion of the product, the cabin is that gorgeous, the food options sufficiently extensive, and the seat that good!

Once landed it was awhile getting off the plane as we deplaned from the door behind the first section of business class and had to wait for a gaggle of other passengers to gather their life’s possession-s and disembark.

On the way out I had a look at business class as a result, which looked really good:

Despite being behind a bunch of passengers when deplaning, since it was a good length walk to immigration I had plenty of time to outpace those that had gotten off the flight before me. Once there the line for premium passport control (we had been given invitation cards prior to landing) was non-existent and we were through in a moment.

Interestingly, we had to have our carry-ons x-rayed on the way out, presumably looking not just for items that are dutiable but for items prohibited to bring into the UAE. But I had no pornography, and I’m not sure the guy manning the x-ray machine was even looking at the screen.

Once through, the Etihad limousine desk was apparent. I walked up and since I had a confirmed reservation already (which I had made online, and they sent me a followup email on) my wait was short. I had to wait only about a minute before it was my turn to speak to someone at the desk.

They had a pre-filled out card regarding my journey so I was taken straight through the limousine departure lounge and out to the waiting fleet of vehicles. The gentleman escorting us out misread and thought we were headed to the Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi and was going to assign us to a Toyota minivan. When I corrected him that we were going all the way to the Park Hyatt Dubai he decided one of the better sedans would be more appropriate for the journey. And we were off for the hour-long drive to Dubai..

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community Milepoint.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. It is not clear, but Qatar is not part of the UAE, so of course they would not say they are the capital 😉

  2. Great TR about an F cabin/seat/experience I’ve been very interested in, Gary. Thanks for the info and photos.

    Not clear on whether you were alone on this trip, but regardless: Is the footrest in the F suite such that a companion can sit across from you in it to drink and dine?

  3. @Brian sorry that my verbiage was a bit unclear, I meant to suggest it was somehow a competitive advantage in their minds/marketing versus their main Middle East rivals. Thanks for reading closely!

  4. @Southside – On Cathay they have a table extender to install for companions dining together, and the ottoman actually has a seatbelt for someone else to come and sit down with you for their meal. They don’t seem to have that on Etihad. I imagine one could sit there but I think it might not be comfortable, I am not aware of it formally being offered as an option but didn’t ask.

  5. Great report! It seems like the suites have doors but no roofs, and someone walking down the aisle could see into the suite. Is that right?

  6. Great report.. love it..

    Have you flown EK first? I’m flying them in the summer (2 X 380 and 2 X 777) how would you compare hard product and service?

    Thanks

  7. No caviar offered for the appetizer? Very surprising as Emirates always offers caviar in P class for their U.S. flights.

  8. Gary..you were on the A340, right? I know they started to put the new 77W’s on this route. Is the first class cabin the same on 77W or have they updated it all?

  9. @Beachfan If I am not mistaken, among all of the airlines that feature suites with doors, none have ceilings. The FAs can see into them from above.

  10. @Beachfan you’d have to be pretty tall, when I walked out of my suite I would have had to make a real special effort to see someone in their suite (I didn’t make such an effort)

  11. I flew EY in J from SIN-BNE recently (loving 5th freedoms). Unfortunately, they only use a 2-class A330-200 on their AUH-SIN-BNE flight, which means no F 🙁 would love to try EY F one day!

  12. One of your better trip reports, Gary. I like how you described everything well, but even though you didn’t booze on the trip after your bubbly, a run-down of the liquor cabinet would have been nice. Looks like a great product and I want to fly them someday!!

  13. I flew Etihad biz class LHR to Abu Dhabi in 2008 and found the hard product great but the FA’s were former Warsaw Pact Europeans who hadn’t passed their auditions at the Cyclone in Dubai. One of them actually spilled an entire glass of OJ on my lap before takeoff and simply told me I could sit somewhere else.

  14. I’ve flown CX First Class many times and its the best First Class product in the world.

  15. @Tony Jones – they offer my favorite seat for sleeping, even though it isn’t a true suite with doors. I enjoy their breakfasts, but on the whole lunch and dinner service isn’t world class. The amenities and pajamas and entertainment system are very good. Ground service is fairly non-existent, though the first class side of the Wing now that it’s been renovated should be quite good (but not top of the world). A very good, very sold, top of the line all-around first class product. And very consistent. And reasonable to obtain on points.

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