Is Etihad Operationally Awful? Here’s Why They Have Problems and How to Prepare.

Cranky Flier says says Etihad’s on-time performance is awful.

Their on-board product, especially (but not exclusively) the hard product is really good.

In my experience they do have some operational challenges, though for the most part I find that they ‘work’ if you build in an expectation that things take 30 minutes longer than they should.

What Cranky Flier shows is that their on time departure performance for flights leaving Abu Dhabi for the US is awful.

In my experience Etihad flight times are padded, and they’re still frequently a little late.

Some of that has to do with the US pre-clearance facility in Abu Dhabi, even the extra security screening prior to preclearance was a major factor, but that their operations generally (and not just US flights) run a little behind.

On flights to the US you clear immigration in Abu Dhabi before boarding your flight. US airlines hated this because they saw it as an advantage for Etihad, the only airline flying between Abu Dhabi and the US. Passengers arriving in the U.S. do so (in most cases, when the facility is open) as though they were just off a domestic flight. In theory that’s great for those without Global Entry, and airports without immigration kiosks although not really a help for frequent international travelers prepared to speed through immigration in one of these ways.

The reason the US offered preclearance there is two-fold: it’s virtually costless, since the UAE picked up the tab, and that allows people to be stopped from entering the US by immigration prior to even boarding an aircraft, rather than once they’ve arrived on US soil. (Etihad still has to run passengers against US ‘no fly’ lists but this allows passengers not on that list to be questioned.)

Even before preclearance the security situation in Abu Dhabi for US-bound flights is onerous. You clear security once going through departure immigration formalities, and then clear security again on the way to US flights. The US screening lines can be quite long, even in premium lanes, as staff take a fine tooth comb through carry on bags. In my case I had my laptop bag completely unpacked and repacked. Slowly.

Etihad’s performance issues don’t just affect US-bound flights. In my experience their operation is perenially delayed but just a little and flights are often late-arriving but not by very much.

One reason is that the Abu Dhabi airport simply cannot handle the volume of traffic it sees. Most of my flights arrive at a remote stand, where I get bused to the terminal.

Nearly all of my regional flights, and even flying to Europe, we’ve departed from an apron position as well. Busing adds time to the departure (and arrival) process.

My Los Angeles – Abu Dhabi flight this year even arrived at a remote stand.

Transfer security, moving from terminal 1 (where many regional flights depart and arrive from) to terminal 3 (which most long haul flights use) can get extremely backed up. Note that when security lines stretch around the terminal, premium cabin passengers should walk to the front and identify themselves to airport staff and will likely be expedited.

In addition to padded flight schedules they try to get passengers onboard quickly by publishing boarding times on boarding passes (and on airport departure screens) that are literally impossible. Expect to be told you’re boarding an hour before departure, something that’s generally just not true. Boarding for my Chennai – Abu Dhabi flight was listed as being before the inbound aircraft was even scheduled to arrive on the ground in Chennai.

Still, the flights aren’t often super delayed. My advice is simply:

  • Not to try to make 90 minute connections in Abu Dhabi. I prefer 2 hours.
  • Not to try to plan meetings immediately on arrival, assume a half hour delay.

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, 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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. Gary,

    Have you seen the same problems leaving US? Flying Ethiad JFK-Abu Dhabi-Mumbai in business.

  2. @Andrew I’ve seen some delays leaving the US but they generally make it up with padded schedules. I’ve arrived early as well. Departing other parts of the world besides Abu Dhabi I’ve also left late (due to late arriving aircraft) and made up the time pretty much.

  3. We just got back from JFK-AUH-JNB-AUH-JFK. 3 of the 4 legs were on time or early – largely due to their extremely padded schedules (they recently added 90 minutes to the AUH-JNB and JNB-AUH schedules!). Management of the gate and the boarding process varied from somewhat organized (JFK) to complete chaos (everywhere else). They clearly have never benchmarked the operations of any of the better-run airlines.

    Pre-clearance in AUH for US-bound flights is still a disaster. Plan on at least an hour to get through this process if you have Global Entry and longer if you don’t.

    As Gary mentions, they never board an hour before departure as claimed on your boarding pass and on gate monitors. The crew hadn’t even boarded at that point on any of our flights. However…..if you plan to show up at the gate at 30-40 minutes prior to departure, you will be at the back of one of several very long lines. No big deal if you’re riding in F. If you don’t check bags and you’re in Y, though, you will board last and they will check your bag. So, if you care about this, show up an hour before departure anyway – that’s when the lines start forming for boarding.

    Honestly, the whole experience (in Y) felt like flying United Airlines – disaffected staff, disorganized boarding, lackluster onboard service from staff that doesn’t really want to be there, “on-time” performance only because they write a schedule that is 1-2 hours longer than a properly-run airline would operate. I’ll do it again, though, and will later this year – only because we paid ~20% of the normal airfare on the “Christmas special.” 🙂

  4. Same thoughts here Gary!
    I think they’re doing a horrific job with the harware upgrade as well as the PR to make that effort known, but their operations is hardly keeping up…

    I was stranded in BKK in Jan this year during the closure of AUH during a severe fog. AUH shut down for 12 hours, and I got stuck in BKK for 48 hours.

    Their crisis management is EXTREMELY chaotic… There no skilled staff at the airport to direct the delayed passengers, it was a mess before someone showed up and sent us to a hotel without giving us any information about the following steps.

    The rebooking was quite messy as well. The social media sites were responsive enough, but not helpful at all. The rebooking staff at BKK got me a flight that departs only 48H after my scheduled flight, and also managed to have it cancelled without even notifying me… I had to find out about the cancelled e-ticket at the check-in counter!

    They really need to look under their glamorous campaigns and rethink their actual operations 🙂

  5. This is a timely post as I am now in AUH standing in a VERY longline for immigration from my IAD-DUB coach mistake fare. We paid extra for exit row and 787 seat not bad but food was poor and service was too. Including meals I was offered 4 beverages including water twice on 14 hr flt. Restrooms were also not cean. I liked flying business and first on Etihad but will never fly economy again.

  6. This is a timely post as I am now in AUH standing in a VERY longline for immigration from my IAD-AUH coach mistake fare. We paid extra for exit row and 787 seat not bad but food was poor and service was too. Including meals I was offered 4 beverages including water twice on 14 hr flt. Restrooms were also not cean. I liked flying business and first on Etihad but will never fly economy again.

  7. Had the bus gate problem with TK at IST this week. If you want to talk about an airline that has outgrown its hub…

  8. Gary, how much does Etihad pay you for constantly writing posts about the airline ?

  9. @bibi Gee I don’t think they’d be happy with this post at all! And for the record Etihad has never paid me anything.

  10. Hi Gary, in July I’m planning to fly JFK-AUH-PNQ (in J) and return and have 3.5 hour layover going and almost 5 hour layover returning, so the delays to transfer terminals and clear US Customs, while annoying, shouldn’t impact my travel. I have three questions. The AUH-PNQ-AUH flights are on Jet Airways, so was wondering if you or anyone has experience flying the two carriers on one ticket, i.e., interline baggage (claim and re-check?), seamless and reliable transfer, etc. I see trip reports about F class, but not too many in J, so was also wondering about your (or anyone else’s) experiences flying J. Y just seems awfull from what I’ve read. One last question or confirmation, I can use the J class lounge in AUH during my transfer in both directions, assuming there is also a lounge in Terminal 1 where my Jet flight could depart from, correct? Thanks for your insight and I always enjoy reading your trip reports and travel advice!!

  11. You’ll be able to through-check your bags and you’ll have access to the Al Dhabi Lounge in terminal 1 (the Etihad lounge is being renovated my guess is it won’t be reopened in time for your trip but if it is you’ll have access).

  12. Etihad’s PR machine deserves much kudos – they have really made many believe that Etihad is the only airline that is “redefining” travel. Give me a break. As a long time Gold and Gold Elite (now Platinum) member with Etihad (and Gold with 3 other carriers), Etihad has to be one of the most inconsistent airlines in terms of product, on-board staff, on-the-ground-staff, customer service, food, you name it.

    You just never know what you’re going to get.

    And regarding lounges and the waste of money….they are redoing the First Class lounge in Abu Dhabi…was supposed to be ready in Feb, then March, then April and now there is talk of maybe Sep…but they really want it ready before the F1 race in Nov. James Hogan – the Australian CEO bully (ask Etihad staff at the HQ what they think of him!) – saw the First Class lounge mock-up and told them to start again because it was not luxurious enough…cost of the mock up was about $800,000 (info from Etihad management sources!). And now they will spend god knows how many millions on this First Class lounge….only to move to the new Terminal in a couple years time.

    They need to focus on the service…any airline can copy the lounges if they want to. Service is the differentiator.

  13. Not surprising that they would have operational issues. The growth at these Middle East airlines is mindboggling, and it would be very difficult for even an experienced management team to pull it off. Add in the lack of homegrown talent and problems are to be expected.

    Everyone always criticizes US airports and thinks foreign airports are wonderful, but in my experience, about half the time I fly overseas I wind up on a bus to my airplane. That experience is inevitably time-consuming and unpleasant. Until the rest of the world gets enough jetways, nobody should think the grass is greener at foreign airports. You can keep all the bells and whistles — just give me a jetway.

  14. @iahphx different regions of the world, different airports. Abu Dhabi’s airport can’t currently support its traffic without a substantial portion of its flights involving busing passengers. European airports are mostly awful (London Heathrow, Frankfurt, in my view Paris Charles de Gaulle) although some quite decent (Munich, Vienna). Singapore, Hong Kong, and Seoul airports on the other hand are phenomenal. Truly special places.

  15. “Boarding for my Chennai – Abu Dhabi flight was listed as being before the inbound aircraft was even scheduled to arrive on the ground in Chennai.” This is Standard Operating Procedure for Allegiant, at least at one of its outstations (XNA — Northwest Arkansas Regional). Before the inbound flight arrives, the gate agent “boards” all the passengers into a holding room. By the time the flight gets in, the passengers are already “boarded”, so the gate agent can close shop as soon as the inbound passengers have deplaned.

    Nice to see Etihad taking a play out of Allegiant’s playbook 😉

  16. I just flew RT from jfk-auh in economy on the Christmas special fare. It was a terrible experience. The JFK ground side was fine, aside from boarding which was all zones at once. Onboard were mostly Indian families with dozens of small screaming children. Arrival in AUH was a disaster with nobody providing guidance on which immigration form to fill out. The shuttle service to Dubai was effective and on time, though.

    On the return, the second security checkpoint at AUH is terrible. The security screeners don’t know what they are doing, and Etihad rushes passengers to the front of the line if they are on an earlier departing flight. Part of the security delays seem to be due to all the children and all the homemade food being brought on board these flights.

    I will agree that the flight attendants are a miserable group of people and service from them was generally terrible. I was offered two drinks in 14 hours, and the second meal was not distributed. It was stacked in a pile on the galley counters and you were left to help yourself. Although, playing devil’s advocate, the FA’s might be so miserable because they live in semi-prison camps and have to deal with Indian passengers all day.

    The hard product was actually not too bad, and I was on the crappy Jet Airways plane. I enjoyed the large VOD screen. I was able to watch videos of Nicole Kidman pitching Etihad’s premium products while I sat in economy with Indians pushing random buttons in the galley and dumping their leftover food into the aisles. I have never seen a dirtier airplane at the end of a flight. It almost defied belief.

    Lavatories were also appallingly dirty on my flights, and there was no soap.

    I also called Etihad customer service before my AUH-JFK segment to change my seat. The agent cancelled my previous seats, and was then unable to assign me new seats. I was informed I would have to go to airport to get seat assignments. Great. Luckily it worked out, though, and I was able to snag two exit row seats. Little did I know that the Indian passengers had already designated the area in front of the exit row as a sock changing station, and the exit row door became a piece of stretching equipment.

    Does anybody know if Emirates economy flights are this bad?

  17. While returning from South Africa three weeks ago, we had first hand experience of pre-clearance at Abu Dhabi due to change of flights, and it was SIMPLY HORRIBLE!! Even with Global Entry, we had no advantage. We were flatly told that Global Entry is not recognized here, so, with our luggage, we went through long lines of passangers arriving from ALL corners of the world, many of whom had problems passing through Immigration and our flight had to be delayed by 45 minutes with an announcement made that the delay was specifically due to that reason!

    Once checked in, we were like prisoners, with no shops, lounges, or duty-free shops available, except a single coffee shop and restrooms downstairs. Etihad had generously provided free bottles of water in the waiting area, but otherwise there was nothing.

    If similar scenario happen at other airports, it will be unfortunate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *