Boy, I was excited. I’ve flown nearly every great airline first class product in the world, but I’ve been flying a lot more business class lately. (Last summer’s American Airlines first class roundtrip to Sydney was more of a business class, to be honest.)
- Before the pandemic I was just flying with my wife, and then with my daughter as a lap infant. Two seats are much easier to find than three, and our daughter is now five years old needing her own seat.
- There aren’t as many airlines offering first class now, or as many first class seats in first class cabins. Many larger planes were stored or retired during the pandemic, and they haven’t all come back. Newer cabins tend to have fewer seats in first, with the global focus turning more and more to business.
So when Etihad brought back a limited number of their Airbus A380s, scheduling them on the London Heathrow route, and briefly opening up award space for entire cabins I jumped on the opportunity. That became a reason to organize a trip. We connected to London to pick up the London – Abu Dhabi flight, and booked the same flight for our return.
While my wife and I have been to the U.A.E. many times, we’d never taken our daughter. And there are plenty of activities that she loves in grand style there.
We’d flown British Airways business class to London, changed terminals, spend an hour in the Etihad lounge, and it was finally time for boarding. Except that we had an unexplained boarding delay of around 15 minutes.
With the A380 economy queues up at one gate, and premium cabins at another. There was no differentiated boarding for first class.
My wife’s boarding pass errored, and no one seemed to know the issue so the gate agent had to get a supervisor. They came over to let up know that there was a problem with my wife’s seat. The bench that turns into a bed was stuck not fully closed, so they were taking the seat out of service.
That was a problem for us, because we’d selected two seats where a barrier comes down and allows passengers to sleep beside each other (from the waist up). Those seats were assigned to my wife and daughter. There are two pairs of those seats in the cabin, and the other set was assigned to two passengers traveling together as well.
First class was full. They upgraded another passenger to the Residence, who was seated immediately behind my wife, and gave my wife that woman’s seat.
I wasn’t happy about this. If we couldn’t sit beside each other, at least give us the Residence – hah! But fair enough. What wasn’t quite as good was the confusion that followed. They actually told my wife that she wouldn’t be able to use the bed in her seat, but she could still sit there – which was great because it meant she’d be closer to our daughter for takeoff and landing.
But once on board, while she was getting settled in the seat, she was told that it was taken out of service and she wasn’t allowed to use it. This was all fine. Our daughter is perfectly capable of being in a separate suite on her own, as long as we explain to her what’s happening and what to expect. Nonetheless, the contradictory messaging, following being unable to sit in the seats we’d chosen, was frustrating.
The disappointment was quickly washed away, though, as we eased into the flight in our suites. While we’ve flown the Etihad First Apartment many, many times – it used to operate from New York JFK, and we’ve flown it to Australia as well – it felt even more special this time.
There’s a separate, large seat and a bench with seat belts for visitors during the flight that opens up into a bed. Rows three and four have a divider that comes down to allow passengers to sleep beside each other. Each seat has a vanity, where the amenity kit is pre-placed, a small closet, and a minibar.
Honestly I’ve never understood the minibar, except that Emirates has one. If you’re a first class passenger why are you pouring your own drinks? And the minibar is soft drinks only.
The cabin itself is also beautiful.
To me the greatest luxury on an airplane is space, and the Etihad Apartment offers that in spades. Between the separate seat and bed, and doors, you’re enclosed in your own space apart from other people without ever feeling claustrophobic. And you have crew available to assist in anything you’ll need throughout the flight, from making your bed to bringing you food and beverage. It’s really an incredible way to pass time on a journey.
If there are two criticisms of Etihad’s seat, I think that they are:
- The bed is hard. Honestly this doesn’t bother me. The bench itself that folds out is firm, and the bedding isn’t plush enough to offset that. I’ve always been perfectly comfortable, but this is a common complaint.
- The myriad doors and drawers inside the suite stick or don’t stay closed. The vanity doors will open up on their own during the flight. The minibar door gets stuck closed. Between the slow close drawers that don’t close easily to the magnetic-close items in the suite, these just haven’t aged that well and need maintenance.
One thing about the Airbus A380 is that the galley has plenty of space for food, and plenty of space to work in. That creates the conditions for much better inflight dining than you’ll find on most other aircraft.
At each seat was a small pillow. There was also a pillow for the bed and bedding. Underneath the bench is where you can store personal items, though the crew can also take anything for you for takeoff and landing that you wish. There are no overhead bins in the cabin to create greater spaciousness.
As we settled it, menus were distributed, along with an Etihad shopping bag, pajamas and slippers.
Here’s the menu:
At my seat was a code for free wifi. Internet on the flight worked very well.
Predeparture beverages were offered, along with some dates. Arabic coffee was offered as well, but I skipped it on this flight.
Once we were up in the air, another drink was served along with canapes.
I’d eaten half of a burger in the lounge. Though I didn’t eat breakfast, and it was now afternoon in London (morning at home in Austin) I wasn’t quite up for a full meal. So I decided just to start off with a snack at the start of the flight. Though in some sense that was “meal time” this is first class, so you can have whatever you’d like whenever you wish. I opted for the caviar starter, the lobster tail appetizer, and a glass of white burgundy.
Etihad has an onboard showed on the A380, I presume also because Emirates has showers on its A380s. However Emirates has two showers, in large restrooms at the front of the cabin. Etihad, on the other hand, uses the space that’s an Emirates shower spa on the left side of the cabin to extend a first class suite into the Residence (which is a seat, private shower, and bedroom).
Meanwhile, Etihad has two lavatories on the right side of the cabin – one large one, and one smaller one with the shower. There’s not a lot of space to move around in, change, or to store a change of clothes and toiletries when going for your shower.
With the long transit from terminal 5 to terminal 4 at Heathrow, taking over an hour and a half, I was pressed for time in the lounge and hadn’t showered after my British Airways overnight flight from Austin. So the opportunity to shower on board wasn’t just a gimmick, but something I really appreciated. Either way I wasn’t going to miss it.
There wasn’t much competition for shower times, maybe one other person in the cabin took one? Generally I like to request a specific time at the beginning of the flight, usually the last one prior to landing, but this time I didn’t and just asked for a shower midflight and a crewmember set it up for me. You’re allotted ‘about’ half an hour, which includes five minutes of what that you can start and stop.
A crewmember ensures that the lavatory with shower is clean, and places a bath towel and bath mat inside along with bath amenities (shampoo, conditioner, bath gel) inside the shower. The water gets warm quickly. And there really is nothing like having a proper shower in a plane, shaving and brushing teeth, and changing into fresh clothes from your carry on bag. After a long day of travel, this is an incredible pick me up.
After my shower I opted to have the balance of a meal, so I ordered the steak (medium rare) with fries, and the sticky toffee pudding and a glass of sauternes. The steak was quite excellent. I’ve had far better fries on Etihad – they looked great but were soft rather than crisp. (Still, a lot better than the fries on United!)
There seems to be fewer food items than there used to be. There’s duplication between the main meal menu and the ‘lounge and grill’ menu, though you can mix and match across each. But it was all plenty for an 8 hour flight.
Meanwhile the wine and spirits options weren’t as high-end as you’ll find in first class on Emirates, but the two glasses of wine I had were quite good and thoughtfully chosen.
After finishing up my meal I decided to lay down for a brief nap. There were a couple of hours left in the flight, and I’d only slept a couple of hours on my BA flight. Somehow it didn’t seem ‘worth’ having the crew make up my bed, though that was a bit silly. I didn’t change into the pajamas they’d given me either. I opened up the bed, and laid down on it with my pillow.
An hour later I woke up, covered in a blanket and with the doors to my seat closed. A flight attendant had seen me sleep, and apologized for not having made my bed. She had covered me up, careful not to wake me, and closed the door so I wouldn’t be disturbed. I thought that was sweet.
I relaxed at my seat, flipping through inflight entertainment on the airline’s E-BOX system for the remainder of the flight until we landed in Abu Dhabi.
Around 1 a.m. taxi to the gate was quick. It was time to say goodbye to the Etihad First Apartment. I’d missed it so. The crew on this flight were absolutely outstanding. In addition to one of the most spacious hard products in the sky, the soft product was excellent. Food, service, internet, shower, I really couldn’t have asked for more. The seat’s cabinets and drawers need to be a bit better secured, and confusion over our seat assignments at the start of the flight was less than ideal (I’ve never found Etihad as good on the ground as in the air) but overall it seemed as though Etihad is back, baby!
We walked over to immigration and found no line at all, and there was no line for screening our carry on bags either. Then we collected our luggage and headed out to the Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi.