A Quick Jaunt to Southern India: Etihad First Class, Washington Dulles – Abu Dhabi

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I flew Etihad first class earlier this year both New York JFK – Abu Dhabi and also Abu Dhabi – Dusseldorf.

In some ways this Etihad first class flight was better than either of those, though my return flight to DC would be better still.

Etihad’s premium cabin award availability, certainly booking far in advance, is amazing. At times they’ve seemed to go through cycles where their entire first class cabin or at least the majority of it on both the New York and Washington DC routes has been open for awards. Most of the time there are 2 first class award seats. And from the US they partner only with American, which means the bulk of demand for the seats comes from American’s frequent flyers.

They aren’t a oneworld partner, I suspect that agents don’t often think to check on them as an option. And since American doesn’t permit transiting the Middle East enroute to Europe, Africa, or Asia as a single award, it’s really limited for the most part to folks going to the Middle East itself or to India and surrounding countries.

Taken together that means Etihad premium cabin awards are really easy to get. In fact, I helped a colleague at work to put together an award trip to the Maldives over the Christmas/New Years period for five people (using a couple of different flights) thanks to Etihad space.

I got another work colleague (“Pakistani Correspondent” for my regular readers) onto one of these same flights.

And I got still someone else I work with onto an Etihad itinerary over the Christmas and New Year’s period as well, first class outbound and business class return — and then when she had Visa issues I managed to change her flights just a few days before departure. Thank you, Etihad, for making so much award space available!

Of course it seems as though Etihad schedules flights for reasons other than making money (‘connecting the capital of the United Arab Emirates to the capital of the United States’) and so flights may not be all that heavily booked. These subsidies are so much the better for us.

The newly announced Los Angeles and Dallas flights are for the most part wide open on points. The Toronto and Chicago flights, which do not offer first class, tend to be tougher to book.

Etihad’s service isn’t as polished as the better Asian carriers. In my limited experience, the crews seem trained to be helpful and they try to be helpful but they are often confused, overwhelmed, and forgetful. The level of service also depends a great deal on the number of passengers in the cabin. They get overwhelmed by a full cabin and find it easier to handle a much emptier one. So variations by individual crew and by load up front.

The really unique thing about Etihad’s first class offering is their onboard chef concept. While the chef helps out as a flight attendant, they really are a chef — not someone with a few weeks’ training in reheating dishes, but someone with experience cooking at a restaurant. The quality of these onboard chefs varying dramatically, presumably in their skills but most noticeably in their interactions and the extent to which they try hard to offer to put their skills to use. That really showed itself on the flight back. Our chef onboard this flight was an Aussie fellow with experience in a variety of restaurants including a stint cooking Thai.

As I mentioned in the last segment, we boarded from the lounge right onto the jetway. We proceeded onto the flight and found that there was only one other passenger in the cabin. That was surely going to make for a great flight!

I love the Etihad first class cabin, I think it’s gorgeous, one of the most stylish there is (along with the British Airways first class cabin, probably the most attractive). Mostly I suspect it’s the color scheme.

Etihad First Class cabin IAD-AUHEtihad First Class cabin IAD-AUHEtihad First Class cabin IAD-AUHEtihad First Class cabin IAD-AUH

The first class seating is 1-2-1, with individual suites at the window and two suites in the middle separated by an electronic divider that you can take down for two passengers flying together. Clearly passengers together want the middle seats, and solo travelers want the windows.

Etihad First Class cabin IAD-AUHEtihad First Class cabin IAD-AUH

There’s a large television screen. Underneath is an ottoman, below which is personal stowage space. The cabin has no overhead bins, which creates a spacious feel, but it leaves that spot inside the suite as the only place to fit carryons. It works out well, though, easily fitting standard sized rollaboards. The suite does have a closet with a hanger, but it is extremely narrow and I can barely fit a shirt and pants inside on the same hanger — too wide.

Etihad First Class cabin seat IAD-AUH

Seat controls are electronic, and touch screen on the side of the seat. There’s a ‘minibar’ with packaged snacks and both sparkling and still water. I suppose this is a reaction to Emirates offering an inflight minibar and also presenting a snack basket pre-departure.

Etihad First Class cabin seat control IAD-AUHEtihad First Class cabin seat mini bar IAD-AUH

At the seat already were menus and a welcome card as well as small box of chocolates. Pajamas and amenity kits were quickly distributed along with a hot towel.

Etihad First Class cabin IAD-AUHEtihad First Class cabin IAD-AUHEtihad First Class cabin amenity IAD-AUH

Pre-departure beverages followed by the flight attendant and chef coming around to offer Arabic coffee and dates.

Etihad First Class cabin IAD-AUH coffee dates

The captain announced that our departure would be delayed by a woman who was not going to be able to fly — she was nearing her delivery date, she was too late in her pregnancy, and they were going to have to offload the passenger and also her checked bags.

Shortly after takeoff dinner was served.

Here’s the menu from the flight, and the meal.

Etihad First Class cabin IAD-AUH menu

Etihad First Class cabin IAD-AUH menu

Etihad First Class cabin IAD-AUH menu

We began with a small tasting item, and I continued to drink champagne as I did for my pre-departure drink.

Etihad First Class IAD-AUH meal service

The table is set beautifully, and the first course is a mix of small tastes which went nicely with the bread.

Etihad First Class IAD-AUH meal serviceEtihad First Class IAD-AUH meal service

Many folks would have done other early courses but I didn’t want to overeat so late and yet so early in the flight. So I was ready to move onto my main, and was served the palette cleanser sorbet.

Etihad First Class IAD-AUH meal service

For those interested though, here’s the Arabic mezza:

Etihad First Class IAD-AUH meal service

I had the steak and fries for my entrée, which was quite good and the fries weren’t at all soggy.

Etihad First Class IAD-AUH meal serviceEtihad First Class IAD-AUH meal service

I didn’t finish off either, though, in order to have room for dessert.

Etihad First Class IAD-AUH meal service

After dinner I changed into pajamas in the first class oversized lavatory. There’s nothing ‘special’ in terms of features about the lavatory, just its size — it is one of the few that has well more than enough space to change comfortably.

When I returned to my seat I put my clothes away and asked a flight attendant to make my bed. Not quite the proactive service on Asian carriers where they might meet you on your return from the lav to put away your clothes for you, with your bed already made. But simple and smooth enough.

Etihad First Class bed IAD-AUH Etihad First Class bed IAD-AUH

By the time we were midway through the flight, rather than only a quarter of the first class seats being occupied half of them were. It seemed that a variety of airline staff took empty suites to rest in during the flight, and not merely pilots either. Not a disruption, just not really expected.

I slept on and off throughout about half the flight, alternating with watching season 2 of Magic City on my laptop. I never really made use of the inflight video other than for the flight map.

With a few hours left I tried the steak sandwich which is quite good, along with a cappuccino, and also snapped a few photos of breakfast (which I didn’t order myself).

Etihad First Class IAD-AUH steak sandwichEtihad First Class IAD-AUH steak sandwichEtihad First Class IAD-AUH breakfastEtihad First Class IAD-AUH breakfast

I 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 which ‘only’ flies to Dubai. Heh. (Etihad doesn’t just offer a car service on arrival at Abu Dhabi and for return to the Abu Dhabi airport to and from anywhere in the UAE for business and first class passengers, there’s even a complimentary bus to and from Dubai for coach.(I love the slogan on the side of all of their planes, “From Abu Dhabi to the World” too.)

Despite our late departure, we arrived on schedule. As a transfer passenger I walked through terminal 3, and made the further walk across to terminal 1 where my connecting flight would be leaving from. There’s no security or passport check transiting from term terminal 3 to terminal 1, and security checks are done at each group of gates, so there was nothing standing between me and the terminal 1 lounge where I headed next.

Overall, Etihad’s first class seat is good and their bedding ok, overall because it’s an attractive suite it’s a top product though I’d still take Cathay’s seat (lacking doors) for overall comfort and spaciousness.

Etihad’s first class cabin is stylish, everything is high quality, and I love the dine anytime concept along with a chef who knows what they’re doing in food preparation. Give me this hard product, an extensive menu to order throughout the flight, 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.

As it stands, they are very very good and I’m happy flying Etihad first class any time.

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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 InsideFlyer.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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  1. Very useful, Gary! Would you know offhand whether, using AA miles, Etihad and AA flights can be combined as part of one ticket? We’d be originating in San Francisco (on AA) and connecting to Etihad in LA or some other departure point.

  2. Does the Emirates minibar include booze? I thought it did not. I would assume it would not as some of their customers might not want alcohol at their seat.

  3. @CW – I don’t know what I was thinking of course it doesn’t… water, sparkling water, soda, juice. I don’t know why I was thinking otherwise. Fixed.

  4. I’m surprised EY didnt offer caviar. Regardless, this looks like an awesome flight! Even with one other passenger in the cabin, did you still wear shoes in the restroom? 😉 happy new year Gary!

  5. Thanks for posting this report. I’ve booked award space on Etihad returning to the US from a trip to India next October, business class Delhi to Abu Dhabi connecting to first class Abu Dhabi to LAX.

    My one concern is the comfort of the seat when sitting and not fully reclined for sleep, as, with Singapore Air, I find that my legs don’t reach the ottoman when the seat is only slightly reclined. Since I find it difficult to sleep on a plane, I spend most of my time (when not eating) seated upright or partially reclined watching the video monitor and on a long flight the inability to use the footrest leads to some discomfort.

  6. As to caviar, it’s been suggested that one reason it’s not served is that all food is Halal, but I’ve checked and it seems that caviar would be considered Halal, so I’m surprised too at its omission, which I truly doubt is to to cost factors.

  7. Happy New Year Gary. Wishing you unlimited award inventory, suite upgrades, and huge point bonuses in 2014!! Thanks again for sharing all of your knowledge with us.

  8. Gary, what sort of aspirational awards can be obtained via this award travel with Eithad? In particular I am looking to go somewhere once the Eithad LAX flight is in service. It sounds like the Maldives is the obvious one, but where else can we go? Is Seychelles an option? It sounds like South Africa is not an option, correct? Are there any other obvious options?
    Thanks and Happy New Year

  9. @Stuart Falk I found perfectly comfortable sitting positions by raising up my legs, not going all the way into bed mode

  10. @john – this was the airbus, there’s not really a difference in terms of the cabin, though there’s a version of the plane with just 8 rather than 12 first class seats

  11. @Jen – you’re only going to be able to go to the Indian Sub-Continent / Middle East zone on one award (you can go anywhere you wish but they’ll charge more miles). That’s:

    Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Maldives, Nepal, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan

  12. Gary- being a guy you didn’t mention the cool women’s PJs with swarovski crystals and the woman’s amenity kit also with swarovski crystals that looks like an evening bag. We loved the food and service in first from auh-iad; one of the rare times I thought a flight was too short…

  13. Ah I remember back in the day bmi had an onboard chef – obviously not as luxurious as here, but definitely improved the quality of the food in my MAN-ORD trip!

  14. @Alan – someone pointed out to me yesterday that when bmi introduced the onboard chef, the airline was run by James Hogan… who now runs Emirates.

  15. Ahh, interesting Gary – he obviously likes having nicely cooked food when he travels! 😉

  16. Worth a mention — although transiting T3 to T1 doesn’t require a security check, the reverse is not true AND the line is very poorly mismanaged. Nearly missed a flight a few days ago due to backup here.

  17. If you are on an award in Biz/First, do they still over the chauffeured car, or is that reserved for paid passengers. Looking to do a long weekend in Dubai and want to take advantage of the service. I have a First award on hold IAD-AUH and Biz return (that’s all they had available). Thanks

  18. Thanks Gary. That’s a great deal. Virgin doesn’t let you use the chauffeur service if on awards. Going to book First to AUH and Biz on the return. Will keep an eye out for First opening up for the return. Thanks again. Happy Flying!

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