Review: Flying First Class on the Third Longest Flight in the World

This post details my first class award redemption using American AAdvantage miles to fly Etihad, Los Angeles – Abu Dhabi … the third longest flight in the world.

Previous installments:

  1. Introduction, overview, and costs
  2. Star Alliance first class and business class lounges, LAX

After visiting the Star Alliance first class lounge, popping over to their business class lounge and outdoor deck, and returning to the first class lounge, the woman from Etihad who met us at the first class check-in counter came to collect us when it was time for boarding and escort us downstairs to the departures level of the terminal out out to our gate.

Once onboard I remembered that concomitant with the introduction of a new first class product onboard Etihad’s Airbus A380 (‘Residence’ and ‘First Apartment’) as well as on the 787 there were new service elements. The crew had new uniforms, there was new china, and also new pillows and blankets.

I love Etihad’s seats and color scheme. I find it soothing, and classy, very much not what you’d expect coming from a Middle Eastern carrier that does offer an over the top experience.

I’ve heard good things about the first class refresh although I’m not personally a fan on the new pillows:

Nonetheless it remains a gorgeous cabin overall. The seats are true ‘suites’ with doors that close. They’re comfortable, great for lounging and for sleeping.

One other cabin difference I noticed is that the old, giant ornament of a diamond in the back of the first class cabin was gone (Etihad calls their first class product ‘Diamond First Class’).

This flight was operated by a 777-200 with 8 first class seats, two rows of four seats across (a seat at each window and a pair of seats in the middle perfect for couples but with a divider that allows privacy if occupied by passengers not traveling together).

The day before the flight had shown a load of 4 passengers, but first class went out full. No airline is as aggressive as Etihad in selling upgrades — they have a bidding process in advance of travel, and then for remaining seats there will often be a sign at check-in suggesting passengers ask about a cash buy up. As a result I’ve been on more Etihad flights that have gone out full than that haven’t (though I’ve had those).

And though they’ve been opening more award seats close to departure on some flights recently, in past months I’ve found that Etihad rarely opened additional award space as travel approached — probably because they had other ways to monetize those seats.

There was a bit of shuffling around of seats, as a man and woman traveling together were not seated together. The woman had a middle seat and was seated next to a different man. Drama was avoided when the ‘man in the middle’ happily exchanged his seat for a solo seat at the window in row 1.

A flight attendant came around to distribute the various goodies for the flight, and the onboard chef came around to introduce himself as well.

Etihad’s CEO used to run british midland, and brought over the concept of the onboard chef. At Etihad that’s a flight attendant with culinary training, usually one who used to work at a restaurant. He dresses as a chef and has primary duty for cooking and is available to take your order and offer suggestions. (I’ve only ever had male chefs.) The chef also acts as a flight attendant in the cabin.

I’ve had some great chefs and others who were more mediocre. The best will get createive, take the ingredients onboard and make interesting things off menu. Others put a bit less effort into it and just prepare your meals as any other flight attendant would (indeed, when they’re off duty other flight attendants do cook throughout the flight and in those cases you might not know the difference).

Here’s the noise cancelling headset at your seat:

The seat has a minibar with still and sparkling water — not as ornate as the offerings from Emirates (which has a variety of soft drinks). In the past there were salty snacks, but mine didn’t have those on this flight.

Pajamas and amenity kits were distributed.

Menus were already at the seat.

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A tray was presented with dates and I had champagne poured. There was a hot towel and welcome note as well.

    (Click to enlarge the welcome note)

Afterward they came around with Arabic coffee as they always do.

We belted in for departure. Pushback was on time, and after an LAX standard taxi around the airport we were on our way.

Shortly after takeoff meal service began. Here were the new snacks to tide us over until the meal came out, followed by an amuse which you’ll see is on their new china.

I didn’t order a huge meal, I simply started with the prawns.

Now, since I hadn’t had several courses at this point but before the main the service standard includes a palate cleanser, so one was provided.

All that I wanted for my main was the biryani. It turns out they loaded only two for the flight and I got the last one. I had a fear that the plane was going to run out of food, something that Lucky from One Mile at a Time has had happen on Etihad several times and that I’ve never experienced. But this didn’t happen at all.

Etihad really does a nice job with their biryani, although I didn’t love this as much as the salmon biryani I had last year.

For dessert I ordered the ‘trio’ although I had asked what flavor the ice cream was so they brought that too unrequested. I also asked for baklava to go with coffee, so I had a veritable feast of desserts (which I did not finish).

Etihad’s baklava is interesting, I never know what I’m going to get. Some flights it is dense and gooey (my favorite). Other times light and flaky (in which case I’ll give it a miss). This time it was somewhere in between, though a bit closer to the dense and gooey end of the spectrum and quite good.

After the meal I changed into pajamas and had the crew make my bed.

About two-thirds through the flight I ordered up a couple of snacks, though didn’t have a final meal prior to arrival.

Soon enough it was time to land, and I changed back into my street clothes.

Though not the most ornate I do like Etihad’s first class bathroom. The 777-200 lavatory is a bit smaller than what I’m used to, but large enough to change comfortably.

We arrived in Abu Dhabi and deplaned. I was rather surprised not to get a gate, I’m used to nearly always having a bus gate when arriving and departing short haul but for long haul flights a gate is almost always a given. Not this evening.

I’ll admit to being a bit apprehensive about taking such a long flight. It isn’t really longer than flights I’ve taken before like New York JFK – Hong Kong. Nonetheless, it somehow seemed like it was going to be.

Instead it was pretty much like any other long haul flight in first class. Get comfortable. Eat a bit. Settle in, watch some television, nap, watch television, have s snack. Maybe nap a little more. Land.

And in some ways a 15 hour flight doesn’t feel all that much longer than a five hour flight. In fact, by the time the flight has just five hours left it feels ‘almost over’. Traveling in a comfortable seat, and taking steps to get comfortable like putting on pajamas, makes travel feel like a lazy day at home. Time passes, everything you need is handy. And in this case there was even internet on the flight. Five hours flies by orders of magnitude more quickly than a similar time and distance flying domestic first class.

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 »

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  1. “The 777-200 lavatory is a bit smaller than what I’m used to”? At home? at the club? Thanks for the LOL!

  2. Gary: were you able to get pics of the wine list? What kind of bubbly were they serving? Did the flight have wifi?

  3. @robert – there was wifi on the flight, i have some pretty poor photos of the wine lists, let’s see what i can find but won’t be until i return to the states

  4. Did you get a look at the J cabin? I wonder if it would be comfortable enough for a 15 hr trip since it costs significantly more miles for F.

  5. Anticipating my Oct IAD-AUH-LHR RT 787-9 &380 in 1st. love the palate cleanser. but 1st to Tokyo tomorrow in JAL 1st suite 🙂

  6. Yes, the longest flights tend to be the 4hr 30min domestics. Even in first.

    Flat seats make all the difference.

  7. “Concomitant with” – seriously? Who exactly are you trying to impress? “Along with” would’ve done just fine. A buck gets ten that you’ve never actually spoken that word in real life.

  8. Is it just me, or do the seats in Etihad first always look a bit dumpy since the leather is inevitably loose and rumpled?

    @Andrew — Concomitant? Seriously? You’ve never heard that word before? I use it fairly regularly.

  9. Gary don’t apologize for using perfectly good words to express what you’re trying to say. There are plenty of educated people out there who understand perfectly, and if it makes the know-nothings uncomfortable that’s just too bad. I am so sick of the rednecks who’ve taken over our politics with talk radio and Faux thinking they can force us to dumb down to their pathetic morbidly-obeswe level, pretend we live in imaginary opposite-land where Obama is a conniving criminal instead of one of the most thoroughly decent people we’ve ever had as President.

  10. @Stannis I’ve done 13hours in J on EY and it passed by incredibly quick. As other people have mentioned, a (non angled) lie flat seats makes all the difference. Dine on demand snack menu and wifi helped quite a bit also.

  11. Very well written. Thank you for the detailed description of your trip.

  12. Gary, it would be nice if you could review some other airlines but Etihad ! … And avoid criticizing the ones you never travel with (ie Air France, Swiss etc.)

  13. @Katergo I’ve flown Air France several times in business class. What criticisms have I offered of Swiss? And the return part of that trip was on Emirates. I’ve recently reviewed Singapore and Qantas and American. And I’m right now on a trip flying Virgin Australia.

  14. @Gary you are right about Swiss 😉
    By the way, thanks for all the information you provide each day !

  15. Gary- Was that fish Biryani?

    Unlucky- I’ve worn shorts (dress shorts) in int’l first many times. I’ve also seen many others. In my Qantas A380 first cl last yr there was a guy in first wearing shorts who paid $15,000 for his ticket!

  16. @Greg–some of us in the hobby are morbidly obese (technically, according to BMI) Republicans with a concomitant distaste for the current inhabitant of the White House, but that doesn’t mean we all can’t get along here! Keep the partisan stuff off the blog, eh?

  17. My review on the new 787s – a bit disappointed
    I am waiting for the reply


    I flew on Etihad 131 AUH-WAS last week. This was a 787, a new plane.
    I have flown on EY on the 340 from DC, the 777 from JFK and the Jet airways plane to JFK (both in F class and in Business over time).
    I fly once a month for work and once a quarter for leisure.
    Just to compare, I have flown LH, SQ, CX, UA, AA, BA, NH, OZ, EK and QR (either in F or C -QR).
    While the plane is new, the design of the F class seat and space is poor.

    I went outbound to Asia on Emirates on the 380 in F Class from JFK.
    There was plenty of space for all my stuff and gifts.
    In contrast on the 787 Etihad plane, there was not enough space.
    The footrest is too low. so the area for bags is inadequate.
    A 22 inch carryon with stuff in it barely fits and juts out

    You should raise the foot rest by 4-5 inches, so the bags can just slide in and there should be space for both a wheel on and a carryon bag without having to put it elsewhere.

    The space in business class is more than in F class and that is not a good thing.

    Please do not take this as a biased criticism.
    I know this is an isolated opinion, but you should at least make sure there is enough space on future planes you receive and modify this design for future if possible before you receive them.

    The crew and food were both fantastic and overall EY is among the great airlines today. I can see the progressive and spectacular improvements over time in the 5 years I have been flying EY.

  18. Gary, I have this trip in first in a little over a week, and I am Vegan. The Etihad Twitter team said the on-board chef would accommodate and NOT to request Vegan meals.. What are you thoughts, pros / cons of requesting or winging it. I am sure they can accommodate and I wont go hungry but I want the real deal, and not sure if they would be better stocked for me if I request or if it will limit me? Need to decide soon. BTW Im returning on Qatar Business a350.. same question…

  19. @Tony Baker – have a look at menus online, what they can do is mix and match anything from the menu to meet your preferences [and what I mean is, any of the ingredients that go into any of the things on the menu]. Vegetarian seems fine you won’t go hungry IMHO

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