Flying high: What it’s like to fly Etihad business class on the A380 from New York to Abu Dhabi
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Editor’s note: We always travel incognito for the flights and hotel stays we review. Since we would be filming extensively in all service classes on this flight, Etihad Airways was informed we would be on board. We are therefore not considering this a review flight, and will not be assigning scores.
I’d be willing to bet that when you think of the best Middle Eastern airline, Emirates comes to mind. And with its jaw-dropping first-class suites, it’s pretty hard to argue with that. Emirates’ business class is a great way to fly too, at least on the A380, although as I saw on a recent flight, there’s some room for improvement. So when I found myself part of a group of TPG staffers flying to the Maldives (I know, I know) on Etihad’s A380, I was really excited to see how the other UAE-based airline measured up.
Hint: I might just have a new favorite business-class product. Here’s why.
We transferred 172,500 American Express Membership Rewards points to Etihad for this one-way business class flight. Etihad is a 1:1 transfer partner of American Express, meaning that for every Amex point you transfer, you’ll get one Etihad Guest mile in return. Those 172,500 Amex points are worth $3,450 in our book. While it’s still pricey by all accounts, it’s far less than the $5,000 this one-way flight would have cost, on average, if paid in cash.
Amex points transfer instantly to Etihad Guest. This is an especially important distinction when booking award flights, since sometimes availability can disappear in minutes. Being able to instantly transfer points from one program to another gives you an advantage when trying to grab those hard-to-book awards.
The Platinum Card® from American Express is your best bet to getting one step closer to booking this flight. The card is offering a welcome bonus 75,000 points after you spend $5,000 in purchases in the first six months of account opening. In addition, we’ve recently seen up to 100,000 points offered to targeted individuals through the CardMatch Tool. That bonus is subject to change and not necessarily available to everyone, but it’s worth checking to see if you’re eligible.
If you’d rather start with a more beginner-friendly card, the newly refreshed American Express® Green Card is the way to go. New cardholders can also get a 30,000-point welcome bonus after spending $2,000 in the first three months, worth about $600 according to our latest valuation of points and miles. You’ll also earn 3x Membership Rewards points on travel, restaurants and transit, so you’ll want to consider this card if a large chunk of your budget goes toward these categories.
The information for the Amex Green Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Full disclosure: Since we were filming on this flight, we were working closely with Etihad ahead of time. They knew they were coming and pulled out all the stops. This is not the norm for us, though — we never tell airlines or hotels that we are coming, and never accept free flights or stays. Like I mentioned earlier, we still paid for the tickets outright.
That said, the ground experience was nothing short of amazing. While the Etihad staff helped us check in, I did notice that the lines for both economy and premium check-ins were very small.
Economy passengers are served by the main kiosks, while there are smaller ones for business, first and The Residence passengers.
Once the TPG crew was checked in, we were escorted by Etihad staff through security and to the Etihad First & Business Class lounge.
I found seating to be spacious and plentiful. While the lounge was fairly empty (it was a 10 p.m. flight!), there are plenty of tables, couches and chairs within a few separate corners and areas.
There’s a full bar, as well as a buffet and a la carte dining. If you have time, I’d recommend opting for the latter. The menu options are far superior to the rice, chicken and veggies that you’d find at the buffet.
The dining area is separated from the main lounge, which makes it feel slightly like a restaurant.
We ordered a bunch of things for the group, including the grilled eggplant flatbread, pesto rigatoni and Angus beef sliders. Everything was well above the lounge-food average and was served very quickly.
The full-service, well-stocked bar is one of the most elegant I’ve seen in an airport lounge.
Naturally, martinis were in order.
There is a large shower in the bathroom, and it was empty during our stay.
Since we had a lot of content to film and photograph, we ended up being the last ones to board the plane. I can’t attest to how boarding went, unfortunately, but the plane took off shortly after its scheduled time of 10 p.m.
Cabin and Seat
I was immediately drawn to Etihad’s vibe the second I walked on the plane.Overall it was very relaxed and understated. It didn’t feel over-the-top, but focused on detail instead.
The business class cabin — known as “Etihad Studio” — takes up the majority of the upper deck of Etihad’s A380, with first class and The Residence occupying the rest. Business class is divided up into two sections, with a smaller, mini-cabin in the back. Behind this miin-cabin, you’ll also find a prayer room.
The business-class cabin was about 75% full.
Etihad’s seat configuration is pretty unique. The seats are arranged in a staggered 1-2-1 configuration, which isn’t anything out of the ordinary … but even-numbered seats are front-facing, while odd-numbered seats face the back of the plane. They’re not as private as the front-facing seats, either.
The middle seats are also great for couples or travelers with a companion since there’s a decent amount of privacy, while the seats are very close together.
Moral of the story: No matter who you’re flying with, make sure you select an even-numbered seat.
I particularly liked the light fixture next to my headrest. You can adjust the brightness or turn it off altogether. Like I mentioned earlier, the attention to detail really is outstanding.
When fully reclined, the seat feels spacious and comfortable. For a 13-hour flight, it definitely did the trick. That said, the airline recently did away with turndown service.
I got crafty and did it myself.
Another thing you’ll love is the seat controls. While you’ll still find the typical buttons to adjust your seat, there’s also a small touchscreen next to the IFE remote. Here, you can adjust your seat position, firmness, and my personal favorite, turn on the massage function. I found the firmer seat to be better for sleeping.
If you’d rather use more typical controls, that is an option, as well. They’re located on the shelf below the IFE remote.
I particularly liked Etihad’s plush blanket, although I didn’t use it much since I found the cabin to be fairly hot. It was definitely a step above the norm. The airline only provided one pillow, but it was so comfortable I didn’t need another one.
There is a decent amount of storage, including a footwell and a side compartment. In theory, it looked like I had access to two side compartments, but one of them was labeled “No stowage.”
There is also a smaller storage compartment between the actual seat and the aisle.
The footwell under the screen offers more storage space.
There are three lavatories for the business-class cabin. While they vary in size, they all have a unique arrangement with the sink slightly at an angle. While it looks really cool, this makes it a little difficult to maneuver around. I always wash my face on flights, especially long-haul ones, and this made doing so a little bit of a challenge.
My favorite thing, though, was the in-flight bar.
It’s open to all premium cabin passengers and sits right in the middle of the upper deck. It features a tv and a large selection of alcohol and wine, although when I visited it was lacking a solid snack selection. At the very least, it’s a great way to get a change of scenery and even strike up a conversation with fellow passengers.
Amenities and IFE
I was a big fan of the inflight entertainment screen; it’s 18 inches and really clear and crisp. While it didn’t feature nearly as many movies and TV shows as its main competitor, Emirates, it did have every single Harry Potter movie lined up. Pick your battles, people.
The touchscreen is easy to navigate. Because I spent the majority of the flight fully reclined or semi-reclined, I opted to use the remote, instead.
Etihad also provided solid noise-cancelling headphones. They were so solid I really didn’t hear flight attendants coming over to ask if I needed anything.
The system also features a chat function, although a flight attendant told me it was disabled due to safety reasons. They must have disabled it mid-flight, since I was able to send a few messages to Nicky Kelvin up front in The Apartment.
Amenity kits were supplied by Acqua di Parma.
They featured a toothbrush, toothpaste, compression socks, an eyemask, hand cream and cologne. While the products themselves were solid, it felt a little lackluster. It was lacking fan-favorite items such as lip balm, a comb and even earplugs.
I was a big fan of the tray table, too. It’s become a pet peeve of mine where you have to adjust, fold and disassemble a table just to get out of your seat. This one slid easily back and forth, and didn’t feel like an obstacle course.
Food and Beverage
I was served a glass of Piper-Heidsieck Cuvée upon boarding. It was refreshing and a great way to kickstart my journey. Flight attendants also handed out hot towels, in addition to warm nuts.
Etihad touts a dine-on-demand service, which I was a huge fan of. It differentiates a premium cabin hugely when passengers are able to eat when they want.
After I was settled in my seat and took a picture — or a few hundred — for this review, it was time for wine.
I ordered a glass of Chardonnay from South Africa. The country has a special place in my heart after my incredible trip there for TPG’s annual PeaceJam conference back in October.
I accompanied it with the mezze plate for the appetizer course, naturally. I’m usually pretty picky when it comes to hummus, but was a big fan of this one. I also liked the stuffed grape leaves.
As for dinner, I asked one of the flight attendants what they’d recommend. They said “short rib,” so I went with that option — it didn’t disappoint, although it was a little on the cold side. It was also served with mashed potatoes, carrots and string beans.
Dessert consisted of this beautiful chocolate caramel tart that was even better than it looked. Highlight of the dining experience for sure.
Breakfast began to be served about two hours before landing. After the TPG crew had some mimosas in the onboard lounge to start the day, I ordered the omelette. It came prepared with spinach, grilled tomatoes and sausage. It tasted all right, but again, was a little too cold for my liking.
While I think the airline gets a huge thumbs up for dine-on-demand, there’s definitely some room for improvement in the quality department.
Service was definitely one of the high points of my flight.
As I mentioned before, the airline knew that some TPG staffers — including Brian Kelly, The Points Guy in person — were coming, and did an absolutely fabulous job making sure we were comfortable and had everything we needed. They escorted us via every point of our (long) journey. I joked that this must be what being Kate Middleton feels like, and I’m really so grateful that I had this opportunity.
While I know this isn’t the norm for everyone else (myself included, every other time I fly!), you can expect the flight attendants to be warm and friendly. Everyone we spoke with seems to really love the airline, and wanted to show off the best of their hospitality.
While you wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell on the flight, Etihad is struggling financially and has been cutting costs as of late. One of the most notable consequences is the lack of turndown service and pajamas, which was definitely disappointing. If you’re one of those people who doesn’t bring a change of clothes on a flight so that they take advantage of the pajamas in premium cabins, be prepared.
Etihad’s business class is a fabulous way to fly. The lounge was clean and spacious with plenty of seating and ample dining options. The service was some of the best I’ve had, and the cabin felt chic and modern without being too “blingy.” I really liked the dine-on-demand service, but the airline can certainly improve its food offerings. The IFE system fell a little short, but the seat makes up for it with cool features like a massage chair and seat firmness selection.
There’s no sugarcoating that the flights don’t come cheap — whether you pay in cash or miles — but you’ll land feeling relaxed, rejuvenated and ready for your next adventure.
All photos by the author.
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