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Serene lounge experience in Abu Dhabi, friendly and professional service and delicious food offerings.
Somewhat middling hard product, compared to the competition.
As some of the world’s most famous airlines, the Gulf carriers have truly transformed air travel by redefining luxury in the sky. While they all strive to provide the best onboard experience, each airline is beautifully unique — especially when it comes to their premium products. Whether it’s Emirates’ game-changing first-class suite, Qatar’s world’s-best business class or Etihad’s otherworldly Residence, each airline has a unique branding angle that sets it apart from the rest.
It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to step aboard one of these glitzy airplanes. I really thought I’d never have the opportunity to, let alone in a premium-class seat. After kicking off my second flying adventure with an Aeroflot economy flight across the Atlantic, it was time to step things up in a big way. Here’s what it was like to fly my first Gulf carrier — an experience I will truly never forget.
Although American Airlines is gradually dismantling its fixed-mileage award chart, the AAdvantage program still provides some excellent redemptions. The award chart has a real sweet spot for flights between the Middle East and East Asia (typically six to nine hours long) where the airline only charges 30,000 to 50,000 miles for economy, business- and first-class redemptions. This is an especially good value in the premium cabins, given that on transatlantic flights of similar length, the cheapest you’d ever find mileage redemptions are 57,500 miles for business or 62,500 for first. Plus, thanks to American’s great mileage partners, you can use these miles to snag seats on some of the world’s best airlines, like Etihad, Qatar, Cathay or Qantas.
We booked this flight as part of an itinerary originating in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (AUH), and terminating in Seoul, South Korea (ICN). Etihad currently runs an A380 nonstop between the two cities (meaning you can book nine hours in its incredible first-class Apartment for just 50k miles!), but it wasn’t available the dates I was looking to fly.
The only business-class award available was a connecting itinerary through Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The price for the entire reservation was the standard 40,000 miles (worth about $560) and roughly $30 in taxes. So, for under $600 in total cash value, I got the privilege to fly in Etihad’s 787 business class plus a bonus segment on Malaysia’s recently retrofitted A330 in one of their fantastic throne seats. A total of 13 hours in lie-flat seats for such few miles was really unbeatable — a perfect example of just how lucrative fixed-mileage award charts can be.
Since this was my first flight on a Gulf carrier, I wanted to savor every moment of the experience, beginning on the ground. I arrived at Abu Dhabi International Airport a full five hours before departure to ensure that I’d have enough time to explore the airport and lounges at my leisure.
Etihad is the only carrier operating out of Terminal 3, where the airline has dedicated check-in halls for first- and business-class passengers.
I felt like I was stepping into a hotel lobby rather than an airport. The space featured Etihad’s signature dark-wood paneling and comfortable seating areas.
A bellman greeted me at the entrance and offered to take my bags on a luggage trolley. He then pointed me to the business-class counters, where he delivered my bag with the check-in agent.
The check-in process took just a matter of minutes. After confirming that my bag would be tagged through to Seoul, the agent printed out my boarding passes and sent me on my way.
After I had checked in, I discovered there were two self-service kiosks available, but with such attentive service and virtually no lines, there was no real advantage over standard counter check-in.
The premium check-in hall had dedicated immigration and security checkpoints that led straight into the Terminal 3 concourse. I was checked in and airside about five minutes after pulling up to the curb.
Like the other Gulf carriers, Etihad’s business model strongly relies on funneling passengers through their Abu Dhabi hub, which is perfectly situated at the crossroads of heavy east-west traffic flows. The flight schedules are carefully concentrated into departure and arrival clusters that bring huge influxes of transit passengers at once. I arrived well before the late-night bank of flights was scheduled to touch down, so the airport was eerily empty.
I followed signs for Etihad’s business-class lounge, which was less than a five-minute walk from the security checkpoint.
The counter agent there said my flight would be departing out of a different terminal. She confirmed that there was a smaller satellite lounge next to my gate in Terminal 1, but because I had so much time to spare, she suggested I stay at the primary location and just set aside about 15 minutes to make the walk to my gate before departure.
Since I arrived prior to the influx of transit passengers, I initially shared the massive lounge with fewer than 10 passengers. The space was nothing short of impressive.
The lounge offered plenty of seating, from sit-down restaurant-style tables to cozy couches and social areas.
The food spread had a predictable heavy emphasis on Middle Eastern and East Asian dishes. I had a few bites of the green chicken curry, lamb biryani, and naan bread, all of which were delicious, if not restaurant quality.
They also offered a small variety of freshly made sushi rolls.
I didn’t try any dessert, but the mango and blueberry mousse looked quite tempting.
Under the buffet counters were well-stocked minifridges with standard sodas and bottles of water.
The full-service bar offered an extensive selection of wine, beer and craft cocktails.
The lounge was equipped with individual shower rooms, definitely a valuable amenity when connecting between long-haul flights. Bathroom attendants were standing by to provide quick turnarounds between uses.
In all, I spent about three hours in the Terminal 3 lounge, and the time really flew by. Lounge attendants made rounds every waking minute, taking drink orders and offering refills as needed. Even later in the night, once the lounge began to fill up, seating was never an issue, and the service felt just as dedicated as before.
I made my way over to Terminal 1 about an hour and half prior to my scheduled departure. It took me about 15 minutes to reach the concourse, at which point I decided to pop my head into the Etihad satellite lounge the agent had referred to earlier. It was definitely smaller than its Terminal 3 counterpart but offered identical food and beverages.
Finally, it was time to head to my gate. Terminal 1 is the oldest facility at Abu Dhabi International Airport, and though it definitely felt a bit outdated, it featured pretty neat architecture.
My flight was assigned Gate 8, which shared a waiting area with a Sri Lankan flight to Colombo (CMB).
I arrived about 15 minutes before boarding, and even though there was only enough seating for roughly 100 passengers, there were still some open seats to go around.
I peeked out the window to get a glimpse of the 787 that’d be flying me across the Indian Ocean that evening. I almost religiously check my specific aircraft details well before arriving at the airport, but in the hustle and bustle leading up to the flight, it had completely slipped my mind. After quickly typing in the 787-9’s tail number into my FlightRadar24 app, I was thrilled to learn that the aircraft was brand-new. Frame A6-BLZ had been ferried from Boeing’s factory in Charleston, South Carolina, nonstop to Abu Dhabi just five days prior.
Though the plane entered service soon thereafter, it had only flown four commercial flights before mine. I was already on cloud nine about getting to fly with one of the Gulf carriers, but now I had the added bonus of flying on an aircraft fresh out of the factory.
About 45 minutes before departure, the agents opened the boarding gate. Although some of Etihad’s 787-9s are equipped with a small first-class cabin, this one only featured business and economy, so boarding commenced with business-class passengers. I was first in line and first aboard the plane.
Cabin and Seat
The purser greeted me at the boarding door and directed me toward my seat, 7C. All of my AvGeek life, I’d been looking forward to this moment, and I was absolutely starstruck from the second I turned left and made my way into the cabin.
Etihad’s 787s sport the same business-class seat found on the larger A380s, the so-called “business studio.” While the seat design wasn’t game-changing, the cabin finishings were simply stunning. Everything from the patterned seat upholstery to the accent lighting to the gentle boarding music — the cabin boasted a luxurious elegance that was truly hard to put into words. Plus, the aircraft’s “new plane smell” made everything feel all the more pristine.
The cabin was laid out in a 1-2-1 configuration with even-numbered rows facing forward and odd-numbered rows facing astern.
The seats themselves were staggered, so along the windows, the forward-facing rows were tucked away from the aisle, while their rear-facing counterparts were away from the window and closer to the aisle.
In the center section, the forward-facing rows were ideal for couples traveling together, as the seats were positioned right next to one another.
My studio, 7C, was a rear-facing window seat. Ideally I would’ve chosen one of the even-numbered window seats for the enhanced privacy and proximity to the windows, but they were all occupied. On the bright side, this gave me a great opportunity to “fly backward,” which I’d never experienced and was always curious to try out.
Etihad’s seats had a strikingly similar footprint to Qatar’s Qsuite (sans a closing door). The seats were extraordinarily comfortable and spacious. I found it amazing that on the same aircraft type I had flown to China and back just two weeks before the seats could feel so much wider.
Each business-class suite was equipped with a 18.5-inch touchscreen IFE, which was crisp and highly responsive.
The tray table was stored inside the console to the right of the seat and was ejected by pulling the small lever at the bottom of the tray.
The table measured 18 inches wide and 16 inches long. The entire fixture felt extremely solid and sturdy.
The seat offered two power sources: one standard 110V universal outlet and one USB port for charging smaller devices.
To the right of the seat was a large storage compartment. Although not quite big enough for a backpack, it was still a great place to store any loose items and electronics.
The seat had an all-in-one control center display that could control the seat recline, cushion firmness, all lighting fixtures and even the tint on the Dreamliner’s electronic window shades.
It also offered a massage feature, which was pretty neat to try out.
Along the edge of the table shelf was a smaller seat-control strip. It offered just a few of the essential functions to easily reach in bed mode.
The seats reclined into a fully flat bed 6 feet, 4 inches long and 22 inches wide.
The 26 business-class passengers had access to two dedicated lavatories at the front of the cabin. They were fairly standard in size, but staying true to Etihad’s brand, they were elegantly decorated with dark and tan accents throughout.
Both the sink and toilet had touchless operation.
The bathrooms had a small amenity shelf right above the sink, which offered hand soap and two different types of lotion.
Amenities and IFE
Etihad provided an orange-leather Acqua Di Parma amenity kit, which felt high-quality.
It was stocked with the usual dental kit, eye mask, earplugs, socks, hand cream and even a small fragrance sample.
The airline provided a plush and soft blanket for all business-class passengers. It was well-above average in comfort.
Though I thought it was intended to be decorative, the pillow waiting on my seat upon boarding was actually the only pillow provided on the flight. It didn’t look it, but it was quite comfortable for sleeping.
The time-zone-hopping kept me wide awake for most of the overnight flight, but I was able to catch about an hour of shut-eye between meals.
The inflight-entertainment system was quite extensive and definitely had something for everyone. The movie page offered 238 titles from across all genres, while the 217 TV episodes provided plenty to satisfy any binge-watching needs.
The system even had detailed information on the food and beverages offered onboard.
The flight tracker was great for tracking our progress across the Indian Ocean.
I actually didn’t end up watching any movies or TV on the flight, but I briefly tried out the noise-canceling headphones. They were quite comfortable, and the sound quality was fairly decent.
They featured a magnetic clasp for a plug, which I’d never seen before.
The onboard Wi-Fi was sluggish but definitely usable. I was able to do some light messaging and browsing, and so long as I stayed away from streaming or picture-heavy content, I didn’t encounter connection issues.
Etihad offered three Wi-Fi plans, starting at $5.95 for 50 MB to $29.95 for 300 MB.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
Predeparture beverages were brought around as soon as I settled in my seat. I had a glass of the Piper-Heidsieck Champagne, which was delicious. It was accompanied by a refreshing, hot towel.
Although I snacked a bit in the lounge prior to departure, I definitely wanted to save most of my appetite for on board. To me, there’s always something so uniquely exciting about fine dining in the sky.
Dinner orders were taken prior to departure to ensure that the flight attendants could quickly get the service started after takeoff. Sure enough, about 20 minutes after we lifted off from the runway in Abu Dhabi, the dinner service commenced with warm mixed nuts and a beverage. I selected another glass of Champagne.
For the appetizer, the two choices offered were an Arabic mezze platter or a Thai coconut soup. I went for the mezze, which was accompanied by an assortment of warm breads. The dish was authentic, fresh and delicious. I paired it with a glass of Australian shiraz.
There were four main courses available: char siu duck salad with sugar snap peas; sweet and sour chicken with steamed jasmine rice, carrots and bok choy; sea bass mashwi with rice, green beans, spiced tomato sauce and lime; and casarecce pasta with chunky tomato sauce, mozzarella, olive tapenade and Parmesan.
I usually jump at the chance to try the food of an airline’s home country when flying, but this time I went with the vegetarian pasta. It was a simple plate but really hit the spot — I’d say it was on par with any decent Italian restaurant.
Although I was pretty stuffed at this point, I couldn’t turn down the sweet offerings to conclude the meal. There were three options on the dessert cart: a white-chocolate mousse, a fruit platter and Haagen-Dazs ice cream. I got strawberry Haagen-Dazs, one of my favorites.
After dessert was cleared, the flight attendant offered a round of tea and coffee before bed.
By now, the lights had been switched off. The dinner service was completely wrapped up less than 90 minutes after departure.
I was among just a handful of passengers awake for the breakfast service about four hours later. The flight attendant approached my seat with a hot towel and invited me to peruse the menu, and she encouraged me to pick and choose any combination of items.
I had fruit platter and mango yogurt parfait, which were paired with a basket of breakfast pastries, a glass of orange juice and a cup of coffee. The fruit was fresh, and the mango yogurt parfait was delicious. I couldn’t resist indulging in a warm pain au chocolat from the pastry basket.
There were additional breakfast items on offer, which included anything from cereal with milk to a smoked salmon sandwich with cream cheese and capers. I was too full to keep eating, but they all looked pretty solid.
Overall, I think Etihad really hit the nail on the head with its onboard catering. All of the ingredients tasted fresh and delicious, which is certainly not a given when you’re dining seven miles above the ground.
This red-eye flight was about equal in duration to the busy New York-to-London route. If you’re familiar with those short transatlantic hops between the East Coast and Europe, you’d agree that an efficient and speedy service is crucial to a successful business-class product. Etihad definitely checked all boxes in this department: The service was logistically efficient and seamless.
That being said, the aspect of Etihad’s onboard experience that left me the most impressed was the crew’s attention to detail. The flight attendants didn’t miss a single beat from takeoff to touchdown. In fact, they were ahead of the ball on most things, such as remembering how I took my coffee and never allowing my beverage to dip below three-quarters full. Plus, with a la carte dining, it really felt like the service was less set in stone and far more personalized. The flight attendants made an effort to customize the meal that I wanted when I wanted.
I especially appreciated the friendliness of the flight attendant working my aisle. Though she was uneasy with me snapping pictures of the cabin upon boarding, after takeoff we got to talking. I mentioned that I’m a lifelong aviation fanatic and how thrilled I was to be flying with Etihad on the newest plane in the fleet. Her demeanor immediately softened up, and we conversed throughout the entire flight, bonding over our love of flying and travel. Prior to landing, she came over to my seat with a big smile to let me know that she had gotten the captain’s permission to bring me up to the flight deck upon arrival. These personal and kind gestures went such a long way, and no doubt were major contributors to what made this flight so special.
While the big three Gulf carriers are known for first-class cabins worlds ahead of their competition, their relatively humble business-class products tend to be more or less on par with other leading carriers. It’s not quite on the level of Qatar’s Qsuite, but I’d wager that Etihad’s studio takes the spot for the next-best business-class product hailing from the Persian Gulf (especially considering that Emirates’ newest iteration is still a 2-2-2 configuration).
Nearly every touchpoint of this experience lived up to the incredibly high expectations these carriers set for themselves. Etihad checked all of the boxes: a brand-new aircraft, elegant cabins, comfortable seat, delicious food and superior onboard service. It’s hard to think of a better value per mile than this, and I can’t express how grateful I am to have had this experience. I’d be thrilled to have another opportunity to fly with them.
All photos by the author.
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