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As with most airlines, your experience with Etihad will vary significantly from one aircraft to the next. TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen digs into the similarities and differences between the airline’s “old” first class and The Apartment, which is found on Etihad’s brand-new A380.

Etihad sent shockwaves through the travel industry last year when it unveiled all-new super-premium cabins aboard its A380s and 787-9s, including a three-room Residence and new first-class “Apartments” on the A380 and a new business-class “Studio” on both aircraft.

I chose suite 3A, which faces toward the rear.
Etihad made news when it unveiled its new first-class Apartments last year.

Since then, competitors including Emirates and Singapore have been playing catch-up, announcing vague upgrades to their own award-winning first-class cabins in the coming years. However, Etihad is now leading the pack when it comes to a first-class experience.

We at Team TPG have been diligently following the roll-out of Etihad’s new cabins, taking tours and booking awards. Contributor Leigh Rowan took a tour of the A380 at the Milan Expo and you can see his post here. Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig actually flew in the A380 Apartment (and got a sneak peek at the Residence as well as a full tour of the plane) from Sydney to Abu Dhabi last month, while TPG himself flew the standard (read: old) first class from Abu Dhabi to New York JFK aboard a Jet Airways 777 that Etihad uses and Contributor Richard Kerr flew first class on an A340-500 from Tokyo-Abu Dhabi in May. Meanwhile, I flew the airline’s old first class aboard a 777-300ER from Abu Dhabi to Paris, as well.

Though nice, the old first-class seat isn't even in the same league.
Though nice, the old first-class seat isn’t even in the same league.

So with all that Etihad flying under Team TPG’s seatbelt, Zach and I decided to collaborate on a post comparing the Apartment to the old first class Etihad still operates on most of its planes. Here’s how the two products stand up to one another, including hard product, soft amenities and flight availability. We’ve skipped the airport amenities such as lounge access and chauffeur service since they’re the same no matter which aircraft you’re flying.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in snagging one of these seats yourself, check out our guide to booking Etihad awards.

Etihad took delivery of its first A380 last November.
Etihad’s first-class Apartments are only available aboard its three A380s so far.

AIRCRAFT

Which aircraft each version of first class is available on is an important factor insofar as it determines how readily available awards are (which we’ll get into below).

New: The new first class with the Residence and the Apartment is only available on the airline’s A380s, of which Etihad has just three in service so far. Each A380 has a single Residence and nine Apartments. The A380 is currently in service on the airline’s routes from Abu Dhabi to London and Sydney, and will start service from Abu Dhabi to New York JFK in December 2015.

Eric flew the old first class aboard a 777-300ER.
Eric flew the old first class aboard a 777-300ER.

Old: By contrast, the airline is flying its old first class (including updated versions of it, but still the same dimensions and configuration) on:

  • A330-300: The airline has 6 of these, each with 8 first-class seats.
  • A340-500: The airline has 4 of these, each with 12 first-class seats.
  • A340-600: The airline currently flies 7 of these, each with 8 first-class seats.
  • 777-200LR: The airline flies 5 of these, each with 8 first-class seats.
  • 777-300ER: Currently, there are 13 of these in service, each with 8 first-class seats.
  • 787-9: The airline has taken delivery of 3 Dreamliners, each with 8 first-class seats.
You're better off booking Etihad awards using American AAdvantage miles.
You’re better off booking Etihad awards using American AAdvantage miles.

Winner: Old first class for much more capacity. 320 seats total on all aircraft combined compared to just 27 Apartments total (for now).

AWARDS

Etihad changed its award and upgrade pricing in July, so that will affect you if you’re using Etihad Guest miles for your flights, but not if you’re using American AAdvantage miles.

Just to throw some numbers at you, here’s how many Etihad Guest miles it’ll take to fly each of the A380 routes one-way:

  • Abu Dhabi-London: 88,048
  • Abu Dhabi-Sydney: 128,896
  • Abu Dhabi-New York: 117,799

And here’s how many American AAdvantage miles each route will cost you one-way:

  • Abu Dhabi-London: 40,000
  • Abu Dhabi-Sydney: 60,000
  • Abu Dhabi-New York: 90,000

So if you’ve got the AAdvantage miles to spare, you’re much better off using those, though Etihad Guest is a 1:1 transfer of Citi ThankYou Rewards if you’ve got a card like the ThankYou Premier or the Prestige.

Also note that the flights from Abu Dhabi to Sydney are over an hour longer than those to New York JFK, but cost just two thirds of the miles, so there’s a little award-chart sweet spot for you to consider.

While prices for awards in the Apartment are the same as those in the old first class, it seems like on routes where both an A380 and another aircraft such as a 777-300ER fly, that when there tends to be award availability, it’s on the non-A380 flight. That’s to say, there are far fewer Apartment awards available not only because capacity is much smaller, but also because they are so highly coveted.

You're much less likely to find an award on the A380 than on other aircraft.
You’re much less likely to find an award on the A380 than on other aircraft.

Even in months where there is award availability almost every day, none of it is on the A380 due to scarcity. That is especially true on the Sydney route, where A380 first-class award space seems to be virtually non-existent at the moment. So if you do see an A380 first-class award available, snag it, because it’s more rare than a unicorn jumping over a rainbow. That said, Zach was able to secure not one, but two awards, using American miles for his flight from Sydney-Abu Dhabi, so keep an eye on availability — it tends to come and go.

Winner: Old first class for better availability.

CABIN

For ease of comparison, let’s just discuss the A380 versus the 777-300ER since that’s the aircraft that services many of the airline’s longer-haul international routes.

Sarah in Apartment 4A. The partition between 3A was already lowered when we arrived.
A view over seats 3A and 4A in the A380 cabin – each seat takes up almost half the width of the plane.

New: The A380 has one Residence and nine Apartments in its first-class cabin, which is at the front of the plane’s upper deck. The Apartments are arranged in a sort of staggered configuration with four on one side of the aisle and five on the other, alternating between facing back and facing front. The dividers between seats in rows 3 and 4 can be lowered if you are traveling with a companion so you can sleep next to one another.

By contrast, the 777-300ER has four seats across each row.
By contrast, the 777-300ER has four seats across each row.

Old: The 777-300ER has a first-class cabin of just eight seats in two rows, laid out in a 1 x 2 x 1 configuration. A privacy shade can be raised or lowered between the middle seats, while all seats have closing doors that block access from the aisle for more privacy.

Winner: New first class, thanks to more seats and more space for each person.

SEAT

Here’s where the real differences become evident. Let’s start with a fun fact from Etihad about its new first class Apartments.

Ultimately, we had a fantastic flight in The Apartment.
A through the Apartment across the plane.

New: According to the airline, each Apartment is a 74% increase in personal space over its older first-class suites. It’s literally nearly twice the size as the old first class. Five of these seats face forward, and the other four face backward, each with its own set of sliding doors that close for privacy.

Zach and Sarah's seats turned down into a bed.
Zach and Sarah’s seats turned down into a bed.

The Apartment has a Poltrona Frau leather lounge chair and ottoman, which opens up to become a fully flat bed that’s 80.5 inches long and 26 inches wide with a mattress pad and duvet. The IFE system is a 24-inch LCD TV monitor that swivels so you can watch from the seat when upright and from the bed once your suite has been turned down.

You can choose from hundreds of movies and TV shows, and even several channels of live TV, including CNBC and CNN.
You can choose from hundreds of movies and TV shows, and even several channels of live TV, including CNBC and CNN.

Oh, and you can watch a completely different show on the remote control’s screen, including live TV such as CNN.

As both seats are next to the window, you can't see your companion during takeoff and landing.
Seats in rows 3 and 4 are adjoining.

Seats have a large vanity area with lighting and mirrors where the amenity kit is stored. The seat and its features, including seat position, entertainment and lighting are all controlled by touchscreen panels.

Each Apartment includes a large vanity, where the amenities (and bag) are stored.
Each Apartment includes a large vanity, where the amenities (and bag) are stored.

Old: All the seats on this aircraft have 80 inches of pitch, but they’re forward-facing and just 29 inches wide, rather than nearly half the width of the plane. Like the Apartment, these seats have doors that slide closed when you want privacy.

By contrast, the old seat's controls look downright clunky.
By contrast, the old seat’s IFE controls look downright clunky.

These seats, though, are just that. Seats. They are armchairs that are adjustable to your comfort and that recline all the way flat into a bed, which the crew will turn down and make up for you. TPG took about a three-hour nap on his flight, and with the bed made up and the sliding doors closed, I was really comfortable on mine. It’s one of the best sleep experiences I’ve had on a flight, and at the time, I had just flown Singapore’s A380 first-class suites and Qatar’s new 787-8 business class.

When turned down into a bed and closed off with the sliding doors, the old seat is quite comfortable.
When turned down into a bed and closed off with the sliding doors, the old seat is quite comfortable.

The old first-class seats have 23-inch LCD screens controlled with a handheld remote. Seats and lighting — but not the IFE — are also controlled by touchscreen embedded in the armrest.

The screen is big, but doesn't feel state-of-the-art at this point.
The screen is big, but doesn’t feel state-of-the-art at this point.

Winner: No competition: the new first class Apartments.

AMENITIES

Here, the two products start to look similar again, with a few major exceptions.

New: The Apartment seat comes with its own mini-bar stocked with still and sparkling water bottles, soda and nuts.

Each Apartment's mini-bar includes still and sparkling water and a selection of sodas.
Each Apartment’s mini-bar includes still and sparkling water and a selection of sodas.

Passengers are given Sougha amenity kits with handwoven traditional Emirati patterns stocked with the regular items as well as Le Labo Bergamote 22 products.

With small Bergamote 22 toiletries, the provided amenities are nice, but not over the top.
With small Bergamote 22 toiletries, the provided amenities are nice, but not over the top.

On the A380, there’s a lounge between the first-class and business cabins, featuring a circular booth with space for six people to sit around a table with an inlaid, carved wooden pattern. Passengers can have mixed drinks made for them and meals served here. You’ll find armrests with power ports and plugs, so it’s also a good place to settle in and get some work done.

Etihad's A380 features an upper-deck lounge and workspace between first and business class.
Etihad’s A380 features an upper-deck lounge and work space between first and business class.

Now for the showstopper: The first-class cabin has two dedicated lavatories, and one of them comes with a shower suite. Passengers can book a specific time in the shower and they get five minutes of hot water. Unlike Emirates’ showers, these are ceiling-mounted shower heads and you have to be inside with the door closed to turn them on. Like the amenity kits, the bathrooms are stocked with Le Labo products for passengers’ use.

You can reserve time in the shower, which is shared by the nine Apartment passengers.
You can reserve time in the shower, which is shared by the nine Apartment passengers…but not all at once!

The A380 also offers in-flight Wi-Fi via T-Mobile, and it costs $22 for the entire flight.

Old: The 777-300ER seat also has its own mini-bar, though it’s more of a little cubby with a bottle each of still and sparkling water and a bag of nuts. The amenity kit and Wi-Fi situation are the same as on the A380, but on this plane, you’ll only find two regular lavs at the front of the cabin.

I wouldn't exaaaaactly call this a mini-bar. More just a cupboard.
I wouldn’t exaaaaactly call this a mini-bar. More just a cupboard.

Winner: New first class thanks to the shower and the Lobby lounge.

The amenity kit was essentially the same.
The amenity kit was essentially the same in old first class.

MEALS

The meal and wine offerings seem to be standardized across first class, regardless of which aircraft you’re on, and Etihad has an “eat when you want, what you want” kind of ethos for its first-class passengers where you can basically order anything you like off the menu, any time during the flight, and it’s prepared for you by the on-board chef.

The Apartment is large enough to dine with a companion.
The Apartment is large enough to dine with a companion.

New: Here is what Zach and Contributor Sarah Silbert enjoyed on their flight …

  • Scallop appetizer
  • Mezze platter
  • Lamb chops with broccoli
  • Fruit smoothies
  • Omelettes with cheese and tomato and sausage
In first class, you can eat whatever you like, whenever you like.
In first class, you can eat whatever you like, whenever you like. Here, the lamb chops.

And here’s a selection of other dishes that were available:

  • Chili-crusted king prawns
  • Spicy Arabic tomato soup
  • Biryani (chicken, fish or lamb)
  • Rack of lamb
  • Grass-fed beef tenderloin
  • Fish and chips
  • Etihad steak sandwich
Zach ordered a Manhattan with Johnnie Walker Blue — because why not. (Note: Don't use Johnnie Walker Blue in mixed drinks.)
Zach ordered a Manhattan with Johnnie Walker Blue — because why not. (Note: Don’t use Johnnie Walker Blue in mixed drinks.)

Zach had an ill-conceived Johnnie Walker Blue Manhattan, and he and Sarah also sampled the Duval-Leroy Rosé and 2005 Bollinger La Grande Année Champagnes.

I started my flight with Bollinger and snacks.
I started my flight in the old first class with Bollinger and snacks.

Old: Here is what I ate and drank on my flight …

I ordered the mezze platter to start.
I ordered the signature mezze platter to start.

The champagnes offered onboard were the same for me as on the A380. I started off with a glass of the Bollinger and little snacks of olives, nuts and fried pea crisps. Then I pretty much grazed my way through various menu options including:

  • Mezze platter
  • Marinated prawns with avocado-crab salad
  • Biryani chicken with fried onions, cashews, raisins and rice – my chef, Ben, talked me into it, and he was right, it was delicious.
  • Cheese platter
  • Panna cotta with cranberry macaroon and spiced orange sauce
  • Breakfast bread basket
  • Made-to-order sandwiches, including a turkey BLT
My chef, Ben, suggested I try the biryani chicken.
My chef, Ben, suggested I try the biryani chicken.

Among the wines I tried were:

  • 2012 Louis Latour Premier Cru Chardonnay from Pernand-Vergelesses in Burgundy
  • 2009 Bodegas Roda “Cela” Tempranillo from Rioja
  • 2010 Chateau Haut Theulet Semillon blend from Monbazillac in France
  • Taylors Select Reserve Port
Selfie with Ben, the first-class chef on my flight.
Selfie with Ben, the first-class chef on my flight.

Winner: Tie. The service and meal options are pretty standardized across the fleet, so you won’t go hungry even if you’re in the old first class.

OVERALL

My Take: When I was looking to redeem miles for a first-class award on Etihad from Abu Dhabi to somewhere in Europe, of course I tried to find a seat on the A380 route from AUH to London Heathrow first. However, when nothing opened up in the weeks and days leading up to my travel date, I ended up booking the 777-300ER flight from AUH to Paris Charles De Gaulle instead — and I was still happy to do so.

After flying other first-class products like Emirates’ and Singapore’s suites, Etihad’s first-class seats don’t look quite as special. The neutral color palette, worn leather and bulky controls feel a bit old at this point. That said, the seat was still extremely roomy and comfortable, and I loved being able to close the doors for complete privacy while I took a nap.

The soft amenities including the top-notch meal service, good wine selection and attentive service (I felt like I had a dedicated chef and flight attendant all to myself for the flight) pretty much blew me away. I would have no hesitation about booking another award on this product. All in all, it was a great experience for the 7.5-hour flight I had to take from AUH to CDG.

However, given my druthers, if I were flying one of the longer-haul routes from Abu Dhabi to New York or Sydney, I would try my darnedest to experience the new A380 first-class apartment. Based on Zach’s experience it seems like the very latest in airplane comfort, with much roomier suites for passengers, and a few extra special added touches such as the shower and the Lobby lounge that really set the experience apart not only from Etihad’s older first class, but also from the other first-class cabins out there.

Zach’s Take: I still haven’t had a chance to fly a few of the most renowned first-class products, like the Emirates A380 and Singapore Suites, though I’ve read countless reviews of both. I have flown in many other industry-leading first-class cabins, though, such as Thai’s A380, Lufthansa’s 747-8 and 747-400 (with the separate twin bed), Cathay Pacific and ANA’s 777-300ER. Overall, Etihad’s A380 Apartment was far superior to all, though it’s not without its shortcomings.

The wow factor is there — absolutely — though the catering could use a little work, and the fold-out sofa bed was surprisingly uncomfortable. Of course, the double bed in The Residence was as comfy as can be, and that is technically a first-class product, though at $32,000 from New York to Abu Dhabi (when service launches later this year), it’s outrageously expensive.

In general, I travel more to experience a destination than the journey that takes me there, though I liked Etihad’s A380 so much that I wouldn’t mind flying it just for fun. It’s an absolutely gorgeous aircraft, inside and out, and at just 60,000 AAdvantage miles from Sydney (or even 90,000 miles from New York), it’s a fantastic redemption. If you have a chance to fly Etihad, make sure it’s on the A380.

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