Onboard Etihad’s 1st Airbus A350 flight to the US, featuring a new business-class product
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Editor’s note: Etihad Airways provided Zach Griff with a free flight from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, to New York-JFK, aboard the inaugural A350-1000 route to the U.S., but all opinions expressed are entirely his and weren’t subject to review by the airline.
Thursday marked the beginning of a new chapter for Etihad Airways.
The flag carrier of Abu Dhabi inaugurated its latest jet, the Airbus A350-1000, on two flagship ultra-long-haul routes.
Etihad flew the plane from its home base in the United Arab Emirates to the U.S. for the first time, with both flights touching down on Thursday afternoon — one in New York-JFK and another at Chicago O’Hare (ORD).
While these weren’t Etihad’s first-ever A350 flights, the inaugurals were still a big milestone for the carrier.
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Etihad Airways once had a vision of becoming a global mega-carrier, funneling connecting traffic through its Abu Dhabi hub and creating a new airline alliance by investing in other carriers. The carrier was poised to compete head-to-head with its UAE rival, Emirates, and other Gulf airlines, such as Qatar Airways.
With expansion plans as high as the sky, Etihad went on an aircraft shopping spree, placing orders for Dreamliners, 777s, A350s and more. That strategy, however, was short-lived, especially once the pandemic put expansion on hold.
Instead, the carrier has been working over the past few years to streamline its operation, focus on key connecting markets and right-size its fleet.
“What’s happened is that we’ve had to change the ambitions of the airline in order to make sure it’s stable, it’s working and it’s profitable from then, the growth will come again,” Terry Daly, Etihad’s executive director of guest experience, brand and marketing, told me during a post-flight interview.
A key component to Etihad’s post-pandemic playbook is the Airbus A350. It may not be the glamorous Airbus A380 double-decker that featured the legendary Residence and first-class Apartments. However, the smaller Airbus wide-body has its advantages for both the airline and flyers: It offers favorable economics and an upgraded passenger experience.
Though the carrier has flown the A350 since March, it’s just now beginning to operate on the carrier’s longest missions.
I was invited to join the inaugural to New York, and I witnessed firsthand a piece of the airline’s transformation as it charts a new course for the future.
Etihad already has five Airbus A350s in its fleet, which were delivered starting in 2019. At the time, the planes went immediately into storage — the airline was working to restructure its operation and the A350 didn’t immediately fit into that strategy.
Of course, the pandemic came next, further delaying the A350 inaugural. Finally, Etihad’s plans for the A350 changed on March 31, 2022, when the airline operated a special inaugural to Paris, and TPG’s Nicky Kelvin was onboard. Since then, the A350 has operated short- and medium-haul flights to cities such as Istanbul, New Delhi and Mumbai.
With a range of over 10,000 miles, though, the A350 was always poised to become the airline’s flagship long-haul jet. It features a brand-new business-class product for the carrier, along with some enhancements to the economy experience. The carrier has seven more on order, which will be delivered over the coming three years.
Now, as summer travel gets underway, the plane makes its grand debut in New York and Chicago, with plans to continue deploying the jet on long-haul routes.
“The A350 is beautifully designed as a long-haul machine. It’s got the capacity, it’s got the range, it’s got the fuel efficiency,” Daly said.
Etihad’s 371-seat A350s are arranged in a two-cabin configuration, with 44 business-class pods and 327 economy seats, 45 of which are in an Economy Space extra-legroom configuration.
Gone are the days of the airline expanding its first-class footprint. The airline still offers the exclusive cabin on some Boeing 787s (and the indefinitely grounded A380). However, it’s clear from the cabin configuration that the strategy going forward isn’t necessarily about chasing ultra-premium flyers.
That said, the business-class experience on the A350 is a noticeable improvement compared to the product it previously flew to the U.S.
Etihad’s new premier business-class product is now flying to the U.S.
Arranged in a 1-2-1 layout, the 44-seat cabin on the A350 is quite luxurious, with gold, brown and cream hues giving the airy cabin an elegant feel.
The design is especially stylish and offers a nice contrast from the flashy, over-the-top motifs that you might’ve seen a few years ago on Gulf carriers.
Etihad didn’t install overhead bins over the center seats, which gives the cabin an extra-spacious feeling.
The seat itself is a customized version of the popular Collins Aerospace Super Diamond product, with the addition of 43-inch-tall sliding doors for extra privacy. Though the door isn’t especially tall, it should help you feel a sense of personal space during the flight when in the pod.
If Etihad’s new business class looks familiar, it might be because you’ve seen British Airways’ new Club Suite, which shares the same “bones” as this one.
That said, Etihad did a fantastic job customizing the pods with luxurious touches, including the signature lamp, faux marble finishes and a wood-grain bi-fold tray table, which measured 16.5 inches long and 18 inches wide (large enough for a 16-inch laptop).
The brown leather armrests contrast elegantly with the dotted fabric seat upholstery.
The seat itself was supremely comfortable. I slept for seven hours after transforming the pod into a 79-inch bed at the press of a button on the seat control panel and then closing the sliding door.
Though the duvet and pillow were stylish, I would’ve appreciated a mattress pad, a pair of pajamas and slippers — sleep-focused amenities that other carriers offer on ultra-long-haul routes.
At least the Acqua di Parma amenity kit was well stocked, and I especially enjoyed the large tube of hand lotion.
I had no problem storing all of my loose items in the two side panels — the shallower one fit my wallet and keys, and the deeper one was perfectly sized for my 63-Watt power adapter. (The lid of the storage container had a space under it that was high enough to run a wire through it without damage.)
It’s clear that this product was designed for the 21st century. In addition to the power outlet, there were USB-A and USB-C charging ports located near the exposed footwell. I wish that Etihad would’ve put these outlets in the storage container near the power outlet (like British Airways did).
Additionally, there was a Qi wireless charging pad on the side panel, which was the perfect place to drop my AirPods Pro during the flight.
The 18.5-inch touchscreen TV loaded with Etihad’s proprietary e-box software featured Bluetooth connectivity for easy pairing with your own headphones. (The provided noise-canceling headphones weren’t great.)
You won’t find a live tail-mounted camera on the Etihad A350, though you will find some live TV channels, in addition to hundreds of movies and TV shows. You can even order drinks directly from the entertainment screen.
Perhaps the most outdated aspect of the A350 is the Wi-Fi, which is available for purchase on a time- and usage-based scheme. The most expensive package, a $29.99 session with 24 hours of connectivity, only gives 350MB of usage, which is easy enough to blow through in an hour, let alone a full day.
Business-class passengers received a complimentary voucher for 350MB, which I used sparingly so as not to chew up all my data at once. Hopefully, Etihad will switch to time-based pricing in the future (or make Wi-Fi free for business-class customers).
There are two lavatories for the 44 business-class passengers. While both were quite stylish, neither was oversized, and there was frequently a line to use the restroom.
Fortunately, the crew kept the cabin at a comfortable temperature, but note that there aren’t any individual air nozzles on this plane.
There’s lots more to unpack about Etihad’s new business-class product. For the full rundown, be sure to check out Nicky Kelvin’s first look from the inaugural flight to Paris.
The real fun began once I arrived at Abu Dhabi International Airport.
Etihad’s press team arranged access to the first-class lounge before departure. That’s where I met up with some of my fellow passengers, which included members of the media, most of whom were based in the Middle East.
I hadn’t been in this lounge in over five years when I last flew the Etihad A380 Apartments. Not much has changed in the time since, except that the spa is now closed indefinitely (I remember enjoying a pre-flight shave the last time I was here).
There’s still a large a la carte dining room, two bar areas and a variety of seating areas. Showers were available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
There’s even a small fitness center, with two treadmills, an elliptical and a bike, along with two small shower rooms. Had I packed exercise clothes, I would’ve taken a quick jog, considering that I had already been flying for nearly 24 hours.
Instead, I enjoyed some signature Arabic mezze and a sunchoke soup, along with a breakfast smoothie bowl.
Before long, it was time to head to gate 61, which was a bit of a trek all the way at the end of Terminal 3. It required passing through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection pre-clearance facility, which means that you land in the U.S. as a domestic flight.
As a Global Entry member traveling with a backpack, getting through took no time. My boarding pass was scanned, I cleared through security (again) and then went to the Global Entry kiosk, where my entry form was printed.
I was briefly stopped by a CBP officer, who asked if I had anything to declare, and then I was technically on U.S. soil — despite still being 6,867 miles away.
It would’ve been faster for me to complete entrance formalities on arrival, but I had a long connection anyway. Note that there was a lengthy line for those with checked bags, as each piece of luggage needed to be digitally scanned before approaching a CBP officer.
That said, for those who would otherwise need to wait in the customs line at JFK (which can span hours on the busiest days), pre-clearing in Abu Dhabi is especially convenient.
Once through, I briefly stopped at Etihad’s small U.S. pre-clearance lounge. Though it was crowded, it offered a nice place to regroup from the customs formalities.
I then walked a few steps to the gate, where I noticed a sense of excitement among the crowd of passengers. Some of them clearly knew that they were about to board Etihad’s first-ever A350 flight to the U.S.
Though there was no pre-departure party, the festivities commenced once we got on board. Waiting at every seat was a box of Mirzam chocolates branded by Etihad to celebrate the A350 entry to service.
The menus were even customized for this special flight, with a unique “Welcome onboard our A350-1000 inaugural flight” message and logo.
As passengers boarded, I overheard some oohs and ahs, especially from members of the media who were busy snapping pictures and videos of the business-class cabin.
There was even a large delegation of Etihad executives and staff, including members of the airline’s product, guest experience and brand teams.
This made for a celebratory mood during boarding, which was enhanced when the purser made a PA announcement explaining the significance of the flight.
The pilot added his welcome remarks and before long, we were airborne, bound for New York.
Once we passed through 10,000 feet, the crew came through with a celebratory drink (I opted for the signature Bellini). It was served alongside some bresaola, watermelon and feta skewers, which replaced the traditional mixed nuts in honor of the inaugural flight.
The rest of the dining experience was Etihad’s standard — dishes could be ordered on demand, and the crew hustled to provide a customized experience for everyone.
I opted to go straight to sleep and then eat my main meal before landing.
I enjoyed the signature Arabic mezze as my starter, followed by the black cod as my entrée, which was served with multiple dollops of caviar (impressive for business class). I wrapped up the meal with a blueberry tart and a plate of mixed fruit.
During the meal, every passenger received an inaugural flight certificate, which the purser presented in a thick white folder.
I felt peckish towards the end of the flight, and the friendly flight attendant proactively brought a snack basket to my seat. I munched on a strawberry date bar as I watched our descent commence for New York.
We passed over the eastern edge of Long Island, flying over Montauk and East Hampton before maneuvering our way to line up for a landing on JFK’s runway 22L.
Before long, we glided in for a greased landing, which was met with a hearty welcome to New York from the purser.
We slowly taxied to the gate, giving ample time for the ground employees to capture the jet’s arrival. Before long, I was headed home, darting through the throngs of people departing for some holiday weekend adventures. (There was no traditional water cannon salute upon arrival.)
I quickly glanced back, looking at the A350 one final time. I noticed an Emirates A380 parked next to Etihad’s smaller A350, and thought to myself how fitting that was — while the hubs for Emirates and Etihad are located just about 75 miles apart, both carriers are charting a very different path to growth and success.
Etihad is investing in the fuel-efficient A350. Though it’s not the double-decker that used to fly to New York, it packs flyer-friendly improvements, especially in the new business-class cabin.
Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy.
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