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The “ME3” Middle-Eastern airlines — Emirates, Etihad and Qatar — are known for their premium products, especially in first class. All three of these airlines even provide a decent economy experience, which has rankled US carriers so much they’ve launched a crybaby coalition to complain about “unfair” competition.
Until last month, I had only had an opportunity to fly first class on Emirates, but a few weeks ago I decided to complete the ME-3 trifecta. Even though I was coming from Paris, I realized I could make my return a tad more interesting with Qatar’s A380 flight to Doha from Paris, and Etihad’s 777 flight from Abu Dhabi to New York (operated by Jet Airways) — definitely a roundabout way to get home, but one that allowed me to fly in style and even enjoy 111-degree Abu Dhabi for a day!
The Qatar experience was as expected — quite amazing, especially on the A380, which is how’d I’d prefer to be flying home if it was currently being offered on Etihad’s US flights. Fortunately, that is coming later this year, but for now we’re stuck with the 777.
Booking Etihad First Class
I was able to book my first-class seat for just 90,000 AAdvantage Miles plus $39 in taxes and fees for the one-way flight to New York, while the rate for business is 67,500 miles and 45,000 miles for economy. Paying cash, this one-way flight would have run me $8,150, or $11,050 for a round-trip from New York.
The one key point to note is that these awards must be booked over the phone. Etihad isn’t in a major alliance and sometimes it can be a pain to book them via American, but as such the availability on award tickets is pretty great. If you don’t have a lot of AAdvantage miles to burn, check out our guide on booking Etihad award flights for more ways to purchase an award ticket.
You can call AA to check Etihad availability, but you can also do it yourself by searching for a flight on Etihad’s website and looking for “GuestSeat” availability. Unfortunately, flights that have Saver and Freedom availability aren’t available to book via AA. After you find availability on your preferred flight, you must then call American to book your ticket if you’re redeeming AAdvantage miles. Luckily, I find Etihad to have pretty solid availability in premium cabins, especially on the airline’s Jet Airways 777s.
The Deal with Jet Airways
The real notch on your belt is flying Etihad’s A380, which is absolutely gorgeous — but for me, that flight will have to wait until the airline launches JFK service in December, at which point you’ll be able to fly The Apartment or The Residence all the way from New York to Sydney.
Instead, I flew on one of Etihad’s two daily 777s flying between Abu Dhabi and New York-JFK. One of these flights is operated by Etihad’s own plane, while the second (and the one I flew) is wet-leased, meaning that Etihad leases the plane from Indian carrier Jet Airways and nearly everything on the plane is Jet-branded. Nonetheless, the food and crew are still provided by Etihad, so you can expect the traditional Etihad experience you paid for, regardless of the aircraft you happen to be flying. Award availability tends to be better on the Jet 777 than what you’ll find on an Etihad-branded aircraft.
Airport and Lounge
After arriving at the airport in Abu Dhabi, I was welcomed to a special first-class check-in area. Instead of standing in the normal queue, I had the chance to relax a bit in comfy chairs while waiting. Following check-in, I proceeded to the dedicated first-class immigration area.
Abu Dhabi has a US Customs preclearance facility, so you actually go through US immigration before you even get on the plane (unfortunately photos are not allowed). This allows you to arrive in the US as a domestic passenger (no need to deal with immigration queues at JFK), but it also means another round of security before getting to the gate. Ultimately, it’s worth the hassle — it’s really nice to be able to hit the ground running when you land back at home.
Luckily, I was able to use Global Entry on the ground in Abu Dhabi, although the experience was pretty weird. The line is actually shared with handicapped passengers, meaning I was eyed for “cutting in line.” Overall, it wasn’t quite efficient and could use some improvement. In fact, I think I actually prefer New York-JFK customs for Global Entry passengers. At JFK it feels like a more legitimate process, with a dedicated Global Entry lane and almost no wait each time.
Unfortunately, the facilities are a bit limited after going through US immigration, but since that process can sometimes take quite a bit of time, you’ll still want to head through the preclearance facility long before boarding. Etihad recommends passing through US Customs and Boarder Protection no later than 60 minutes before the scheduled departure time. Note that you need to check in for US flights at least two hours before departure as well.
There is a cute little lounge right after preclearance in Abu Dhabi, but unfortunately there’s no alcohol apparently “because of US regulations.” I didn’t have a ton of time anyway, so that wasn’t a problem — I had a plane to catch.
Cabin and Seat
Jet Airways’ 777 consists of eight first-class seats spread across two rows, then just behind that are 30 flat-bed business-class seats spread across eight rows.
Immediately after boarding I was given the opportunity to check out the empty business and economy class cabins. The business cabin has herringbone-style aisle-facing seats that lie completely flat — think Virgin Atlantic Upper Class. Personally, I prefer the 1-2-1 configuration found on Cathay Pacific and American’s new 777-300ER.
Economy looked pretty normal and comfortable, but nothing special. The cabin has 308 seats in a 3-4-3 configuration, though Jet’s other configuration has 3-3-3 coach seats. The 7-across configuration isn’t great, but at least you can count on Etihad’s above-average service to make the trip a little more comfortable than on some other airlines.
On the other hand, the first-class cabin is quite spacious with suites that are closable (though not nearly as luxurious as Singapore Suites). If you’re traveling in a pair, the middle seats are quite good because the partition between the seats is optional.
When I first checked in, it was just me and another person, so I thought that it’d be a near repeat of my Qatar flight where I was the only person in first class. However, at the very last minute, a family of six, with two young children, sat down in the remaining first-class seats. This flight is actually what inspired my controversial post on children in first class. As it turns out, it’s not the kids you have to worry about, but the adults.
Food and Amenities
As the rest of the passengers were boarding, the flight crew began serving some Champagne and snacks to get started, and I got ready to spend the next few hours in luxury.
Along with the food, I also received Etihad’s rather basic amenity kit and some pajamas to prepare us for our flight. I was a bit bummed that I didn’t get pajamas on my Qatar flight earlier in the week, so I was pleased to be able to change for this 13-hour haul, though I do always have a pair of Lululemon shorts and long-sleeved t-shirt in my carron-on just in case!
While on the ground I was served some Champagne, Arabic coffee and dates. I opted to skip the coffee as to not keep myself up the rest of the night. This flight actually leaves at 3am, so it’s a bit of an odd time to do much of anything. However, since first class has individual suites with doors that close, there’s excellent privacy.
At the beginning of the flight, the chef actually came over and spoke to me about the dining options for the flight. He gauged my food tastes and preferences, and gave me a few recommendations and said that he could make me a custom meal based on my preferences. I started off with a mixed salad and a piece of bread.
I ultimately ended up with some amazing tandoori chicken. In addition to my chicken, there was a long list of other food choices, including:
– Lamb kebab served with kachumber salad and mint chutney
– Potato and spinach soup
– Stuffed courgette and pepper with kesari pulao and maa ki dal
– Grilled vegetable stack with buffalo mozzarella and basil pesto on a bed of rocket salad
– Slow cooked chicken curry with kesari pulao and maa ki dal
– Panna cotta
Etihad also has a fairly extensive on-board wine collection:
– Chardonnay, Louis Latour, Pernand-Vergelesses 1er CRU, Burgundy, France. 2011. ($33/bottle)
– Nautilus Estate Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand, 2013. ($18/bottle)
– O’Rosal, Bodegas Terras Gauda, Albarino Spain 2013. ($22/bottle)
– Cabernet Sauvignon Blend, La Croix de Beaucalliou, Saint-Julien, Bordeaux, France 2011. ($19/bottle)
– Shiraz. MSV. ‘Gomersal Vineyard,’ Barossa Valley, Australia, 2008. ($80/bottle)
– Line 39. Pinot Noir, Central Coast. California, 2013. ($11/bottle)
– Valpolicella. Fattori, Col de la Bastia, Veneto Italy. 2012. ($32/bottle)
– Bodegas Roda Sela, Rioja, Spain 2009. ($25/bottle)
For Champagne, there were two options, including a Rosé, which is always a nice touch.
– Champagne Bollinger La Grande Annee, France, 2005. ($98/bottle)
– Champagne Duval-Leroy Rosé, France. NV ($51/bottle)
Etihad’s food was absolutely fantastic and I loved my meal, but while this aspect of the service was excellent, the crew’s service overall didn’t quite live up to my expectations. It was good — just not as attentive as I was expecting. Then again, they had a somewhat demanding family of six to attend to, including a man who was so pushy he interrupted the flight attendant several times as she was serving me.
Anyway shortly after my meal, the sun started to rise, so I decided to get some sleep. The attendants made my bed and I took advantage of the closable doors, just like on Singapore’s flights.
The plane itself is a bit older, but it was still quite comfortable. I basically slept from Iran to Maine, which I think is testament to the comfort these seats offer. The seats are 30 inches wide — not the most spacious, but you could definitely do worse, and the pitch is 80 inches — enough for even me to feel comfortable.
One of my favorite parts of my individual suite is the privacy that it affords. Being able to close the door, rather than lower a small partition, goes a long way in feeling comfortable — especially on longer flights like this one.
I slept so much that I didn’t really test out the entertainment system, but the screen was decent and it had plenty of entertainment options — though many foreign films and TV shows, so I’d recommend taking your own movies with you, just in case.
The cabin lighting also added a nice ambiance. During the flight, the ceiling has small lights that look like stars overhead. That, paired with colored LEDs, made for an overall cozy, Virgin-esque atmosphere.
The cabin changed colors several times throughout the flight. Purple was more relaxing than, say, the bright orange color that the crew used during boarding. It made the plane feel a bit more modern, even though this particular aircraft is a bit older than the 777s in Etihad’s fleet.
After sleeping, I got up for breakfast. The scrambled eggs and chicken sausage were good. Of course, it’s hard to create a restaurant-quality breakfast feast on a plane, but given the limitations I was pleased with the dish.
After that, the flight was set to land — we got in on time and I was walking directly into the terminal in no time since I had already passed through US customs many hours earlier in Abu Dhabi.
Overall, the flight was really nice. Obviously it’s no comparison to Qatar’s A380 or Etihad’s A380 Apartment (check out TPG Editor Zach’s review on that), but ultimately this is a great option for redeeming AAdvantage miles to the Middle East and beyond, especially considering how much first-class award availability there is on Etihad. Etihad is my top pick for flying between the US and Abu Dhabi — and I’m sure it’ll be even better when A380s are introduced to the route later this year.
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