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Well-traveled TPG Contributor Richard Kerr shares his experience of snagging a mistake fare and flying to/from Tokyo Narita and Abu Dhabi—with his baby in tow.
Etihad, one of the so-called “Big 3” carriers in the Middle East, has been in the news quite a bit lately. Its innovative A380 has taken in-flight luxury to the next level, the airline has been a target of legacy US carriers and there’s been a round of mistake fares which the airline has honored. Getting in on the action, I recently had the opportunity of a lifetime to fly Etihad first class round-trip from Tokyo Narita (NRT) to Abu Dhabi (AUH), and Etihad’s business class round-trip from AUH to Male (MLE) in the Maldives. Today, I’ll bring you into the magical experience that Etihad calls Diamond First Class.
I’m perhaps the only benefactor of an excellent Etihad business class fare mistakenly sold as a first class ticket via the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal. Last fall, I was searching for good premium fares out of Tokyo, and Chase’s website showed a round-trip fare of $1,500 for two people for Tokyo-Abu Dhabi-Colombo, Sri Lanka in first and business.
I booked this fare and received confirmation emails from Chase that showed first class instead of business class for the Z fare I purchased; Etihad’s website, however, listed me as booked in business class. I called Chase and described the discrepancy, and about a week later the Chase “executive research team” emailed me new tickets with my wife and I in first class — including a receipt showing that Chase had paid Etihad the fare difference between business and Diamond First! I managed to further the deal by paying $200 to change my destination from Colombo (CMB) to the Maldives (MLE). Thus, I flew on full-fare first-class tickets with the NRT-AUH legs in Diamond First and the AUH-MLE legs in Pearl Business. Needless to say, I’ll be doing business with Chase for a long time to come.
Flying outbound from Narita, Diamond First passengers don’t have access to special ground service or the Etihad Chauffeur executive car service, but they do have access to ANA’s business-class lounge at NRT — a very fine example of a business-class lounge, but decidedly not a first-class experience. Upon landing in Abu Dhabi, I booked Etihad’s chauffeur service to take us to our hotel in Dubai, but it was a bit hard to find at first; signage in AUH between customs and the Chauffeur desk is lacking, so you’ll need to go into the Arrivals lounge where you’ll be led to the Chauffeur desk.
The return leg out of Abu Dhabi, as expected, offered quite a different ground experience than in Tokyo. Etihad’s Terminal 3 has a separate entrance and check-in area for business and Diamond First customers, followed by a fast-track customs desk.
Unfortunately, Etihad’s First lounge is under renovation until this fall, but Etihad’s Premium Lounge in Terminal 3 has a cordoned-off area reserved for first-class passengers. It’s an impressive lounge boasting a full bar, more than enough food stations and a barber, nail salon and spa. Diamond First passengers receive a complimentary shave, haircut or manicure and a complimentary 15-minute spa treatment. There’s also a family room staffed by a couple of Etihad’s trained flying nannies to keep the kids entertained.
If you haven’t flown Etihad, be aware that the airline likes to board early — about an hour before departure time. I believe this is a protocol borne of flying out of the airline’s Abu Dhabi hub, where most flights require you to catch a bus from the gate to the plane.
Upon boarding, we were warmly greeted by the crew, served Arabic coffee and dates, given magazines, newspapers and pajamas and were acquainted with the suites and airplane itself.
Etihad currently flies the Airbus A340-500 on the 12-hour outbound and 9.5-hour inbound flight from NRT to AUH. I flew the same route in economy last year when it was served by Etihad’s A330. I’m glad the airline made the switch, as I enjoyed the quad-engine plane this go-around — not to mention the upgrade in class. (Note that you can book this 12-hour flight in business for only 30,000 AA miles.)
The Diamond First cabin has a 1 x 2 x 1 layout with a total of 12 closed-door suites. On the outbound leg, the cabin was completely full — and I was the only male in it. Apart from my family, everyone in the cabin seemed to be traveling together back to the UAE, and each had more shopping bags (and onboard duty free purchases) than I could count.
The 6-foot, 8-inch long bed, 30-inch wide seat, built-in massager and about 20 different adjustable parts made the seat and converted bed the most comfortable I’ve ever experienced. Each suite has a 24-inch TV monitor, USB ports, power plugs, a mini-bar, ottoman and table to host dining for two, a coat closet and closing doors. Unlike Thai Airways’ leased 777s and Singapore’s A380 suites, the Etihad doors didn’t rattle during take-off, landing or turbulence.
Etihad’s E-Box inflight entertainment system had more than enough new releases and classic movies — as well as TV shows, foreign cinema, music and games — to keep anyone busy for a few hundred hours. Happily, I finally caught Interstellar and the new Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1.
Limited-edition, hand-stitched Sougha his and hers amenity kits were passed out upon boarding. The amenity kits sport a centuries-old Emirati weaving design, and contain New York-based Le Labo products.
Etihad’s service definitely didn’t disappoint. An onboard chef, purser, two cabin attendants and one of Etihad’s orange-smock-wearing flying nannies took care of me, my wife and 5-month-old son on the flights. (Did I mention we did this trip with a 5-month-old?)
Among all the crew, the flying nanny was especially fantastic. I was thrilled my son slept the vast majority of the flight, but even so, the nanny came by to check on my son and wife at least four times. When my son was awake during breakfast, the nanny took him so that my wife and I could enjoy the meal. The nanny seemed to genuinely like her job and adore my boy — evidenced by the perfectly shaped red lipstick mark she left on his cheek when returning him to us.
For the flight back to Tokyo, the three of us had the entire Diamond First cabin to ourselves — quite a difference from the full cabin to Abu Dhabi. I honestly felt bad, as our assigned stewardess and onboard chef were rather bored by our profuse sleeping and few demands. On the other hand, having the window suite as my dining room table and designated man cave while the center suite served as a permanent bed didn’t upset me too much.
For the meals, I wholeheartedly enjoyed Etihad’s “dine anytime” program, where there are no set meal times. It was extremely helpful on the return flight to Tokyo which departed at 10 pm, leaving us little appetite for a big dinner. We told the onboard chef we’d like to eat a few hours before landing, but he still took our order before departure so he’d be ready to go whenever we wanted to eat.
My tenderloin on the outbound and ribeye on the inbound, cooked perfectly to medium each time, were some of the better pieces of meat I’ve had, period. I expected the onboard chef to be just that, a designated cook. In reality, they seemed to serve all the functions of a regular flight crew: welcoming guests onboard, serving drinks, arming doors, etc.
After enjoying more hours of good sleep than we’ve ever had on flights, we landed 20 minutes early in both Abu Dhabi and Tokyo. Prior to landing, first and business class passengers are given fast-track immigration line passes for Abu Dhabi airport. As mentioned earlier, most flights at Abu Dhabi require busing from the tarmac to the terminal, but the good news is that the first bus is for first and business class passengers and leaves once the premium cabins are deplaned. We were through AUH and to the chauffeur desk in about 30 minutes.
The Complete Package
There’s really only one thing that stops me from crowning Etihad Diamond First my favorite flying experience: dealing with Etihad ground customer service staff. In my experience, attempting to get any kind of issue resolved with Etihad is as painful as it gets with any airline. You receive lots of different answers and promises of follow-ups that never come, and you have to call or talk to agents in person multiple times before finally getting what you’re after.
My son’s ticket was never properly reissued (even after I was told it was) when we switched our destination from Colombo to the Maldives. The Tokyo check-in agent alerted us to the problem, and said they couldn’t fix it there but that Abu Dhabi would. In Abu Dhabi, they had no idea how my son was allowed to board, and sent me to the ticket desk, which sent me to a floor supervisor who promised to get the issue resolved then call my hotel and email me with confirmation. I never heard from her and ended up wasting a couple hours on the phone and again in person at AUH when checking in for our next segment.
My chauffeur reservation for Abu Dhabi wasn’t in their system — even with my printout in hand they couldn’t find it. If you ever need a refund from Etihad, plan on 2-3 months before that’s completed. It’s really just an unpleasant experience if you have to involve Etihad’s call centers or customer service.
If Etihad’s customer service matched their inflight product, however, it would easily be my favorite ride. Despite the ground problems, my family enjoyed our time in Diamond First class immensely, and we hope to have the good fortune to be able to fly it again.
Have you flown Etihad First Class? I’d love to hear your comments about it below. Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.
Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.