A Long-Haul Bargain: Business Class on Etihad's 787-9 Dreamliner
There's no question about it: Etihad's in pretty bad shape. The airline's been posting monster losses, and it's even struggling to fill its flagship plane on its flagship route, despite the introduction of some promising products, like the ultra-exclusive (and exorbitantly priced) A380 Residence.
As a result, some awards are in abundant supply — including the exact flight I needed to get me from Shanghai (PVG) to Abu Dhabi (AUH) after my final journey in United's international first class.
While we've reviewed Etihad's new(ish) "Business Studio" on the Airbus A380, we had yet to try the Dreamliner variant. Fortunately, Etihad operates a 787-9 between China's most populous city and the capital of the UAE.
Business class was pricing at about $1,450 for the one-way journey, which isn't terrible for a 9-hour flight. Still, TPG had some expiring Etihad Guest miles to burn, so he redeemed 72,661 miles for the ticket, plus about $165 in taxes and fees. Subtracting the fees, we got $1,285 in value from those 72,661 miles, which works out to 1.77 cents apiece. Considering that's far above our 1.4-cent valuation, and the miles were about to expire, that's a solid deal in my book.
Award space is abundant on this route, with at least two seats (and sometimes many more) available on most days. You can transfer points instantly from Amex Membership Rewards or in about a week from Citi ThankYou Rewards, both at a 1:1 ratio.
Airport and Lounge
After a busy afternoon and evening exploring Shanghai, including a ride on the famous airport Maglev train, I made my way back to PVG a bit before 11:00pm. Immigration and security took only a few minutes, and I was through to the terminal shortly after that.
While retail outlets stay open 24 hours at some major international airports, most of the PVG stores were closed entirely by the time I arrived. The terminal itself wasn't nearly as crowded as it was during my last visit, too.
Etihad contracts with the China Eastern lounge at PVG, which I hadn't visited before. Like the terminal below, it was quite empty, and I had no problem finding a seat.
I didn't have much time to kill before boarding, but the lounge looked a decent place to hang out. I especially liked the super-high terminal ceilings.
The food situation was an entirely different story, though. The salad bar was small but fully stocked, although the last time I ate produce in China I got very sick (likely from the water used to wash the veggies), so I skipped it this time around just to be on the safe side.
Supply levels were running surprisingly low elsewhere at the buffet, though.
And the hot items, also running low, didn't look especially fresh.
There was a made-to-order noodle bar, however, which I very much enjoyed.
The liquor selection was of questionable quality — I've never heard of King Robert II Whisky, but from what I can find, it's one of the cheapest Scotches money can buy.
Boarding was scheduled for 11:45pm, so I queued up a few minutes before then, hoping to be the first onboard so I could snap some photos of the empty cabin.
While the flight ended up leaving on time, boarding was delayed — I was on board a bit after midnight.
Cabin and Seat
Etihad operates two versions of the 787-9 Dreamliner. One offers 8 first-class suites and 28 business-class seats, but the version I flew doesn't have a first-class cabin at all — just 28 biz seats between Door 1 and Door 2.
At first, I grabbed seat 1A, a window-facing seat one row behind the galley. Later I noticed that 10K was open on ExpertFlyer, and once I confirmed that 10G and 11H — the seats across the aisle and behind — were empty and blocked, I decided to move there for a bit more privacy. While 11H stayed empty, a small child ended up in 10G — he was very quiet and well-behaved, though.
Upon entering the cabin, the first thing I noticed was how fresh everything was. I recently flew in a similar seat on Etihad's A380 to JFK, and those looked far more worn. Right away I preferred the 787.
There are four distinct seating options to choose from, given the staggered layout. My pick of 10K was a window-facing window seat — along with similar seats at 6A, 6K, 8A, 8K and 10A, this is the most private option on the plane.
Window seats in odd-numbered rows face the aisle, instead, so they're considerably less private.
There are also two center-seat arrangements to choose from. Even-row seats (pictured below) have significant separation, and there's a small divider that you can shut if you're flying next to a neighbor.
The odd-row center seats are much closer together, making them ideal for two passengers traveling together. The center divider also slides up a couple feet, though, completely separating the two seats if you happen to get stuck next to someone you don't know.
I also snuck a peek at the economy cabin — this 787 version has 271 seats in a 3-3-3 configuration, with at least 31 inches of pitch, though the bulkhead seats in row 15 (below) obviously offer far more space to stretch out.
After that ever-so-brief economy visit, I made my way back to 10K. While this "Business Studio" lacks the sliding door you'll find on Qatar, it's clear that Etihad's design team also paid close attention to detail while building out the seat — those wall fixtures are especially slick, in my opinion.
The side table also reminded me of Qatar's, although it was starting to get scratched up here, even though the plane was fairly new.
Each seat has an 18.5-inch HD screen — it's bright and sharp, and while the interface feels modern and high-tech, I found it to be a bit complicated to navigate.
Even though I wasn't in a bulkhead seat, the footwell was comfortably wide. There was a small storage compartment (tall enough for a pair of shoes, perhaps) underneath.
The main storage compartment was also on the small side — it was large enough to hold the provided headphones and amenity kit, but not much else.
There's a dedicated water bottle storage compartment, at least — I yanked that out right away and used it to hold my camera, instead.
The seat is quite comfortable in bed mode — especially after I grabbed the comforter from the empty seat behind to use as a mattress cover. Etihad doesn't offer individual air vents on its 787s, but the temperature was cool enough that I could use the blanket for most of the flight.
I could have done without the seat belt airbag, though!
Amenities and In-Flight Entertainment
Etihad offers very soft comforters, along with a small pillow. I would have loved to have a mattress cover, too, but the comforter from 11H did the trick in a pinch!
There was an amenity kit waiting at my seat as well, stocked with the usual suspects, including a dental kit, eye mask, ear plugs and socks. Etihad doesn't offer pajamas in biz, though they are available in first class.
The supplied noise-canceling headphones were decent enough to use for the whole flight, though I still preferred my Bose earbuds.
The 18.5-inch in-flight entertainment screen was especially sharp.
While not quite as comprehensive as its UAE counterpart Emirates, Etihad offers a very good selection of content, ranging from new releases to Indian and Asian films. There's something for everyone.
There were tons of TV shows, too, with a mix of seasons and single episodes.
There were also seven live TV channels to choose from, including CNN, CNBC, BBC, Sky News, Euronews, Sport 24 and NHK World.
Etihad's 787s offer satellite Wi-Fi, too, but at $19.95 for just 180MB of data, I would have ended up spending a small fortune to stay connected for the entire flight. I ended managed to get through a couple hours with casual usage, and — for better or worse — the limited speed also helped to keep my browsing in check.
Food and Beverage
I was promptly offered a beverage just after boarding. Etihad serves Piper-Heidsieck Brut Cuvee in business class, which retails for about $40 on the ground — a respectable biz-class Champagne.
After takeoff, I ordered a glass of Scotch — Glenlivet Master Distiller's Reserve. It was one of the better Scotches I've had in business class. I also appreciated that it was served quickly, about 15 minutes after takeoff. Score one for Etihad!
Given our 12:45am departure, it was a bit late to serve a full dinner. Instead, Etihad offers a mix of items that you can order at any time during the flight, including a steak sandwich, hot and sour seafood soup, cheese with crackers, fresh fruit and ice cream. I settled on the soup, which was flavorful. It arrived 40 minutes after takeoff alongside a small basket of bread and a glass of water.
Breakfast was the main event. After departure, a flight attendant asked if I wanted to be woken up for the meal, and I said yes. They followed through on that request, then served my breakfast an hour and 20 minutes before landing.
Breakfast started off with my choice of a mix of starters, including pastries, cereal with milk, yogurt with berry compote, fresh fruit and muesli. For my entree, I could choose between a cheese and herb omelette, spicy chicken noodles, shakshouka or Belgian waffles.
I requested the shakshouka, which on the ground is typically served baked in a small portioned-out pan. The presentation was significantly different in the air, and I was a bit disappointed by the flavor. Given the choice again, I probably would have gone with the omelette or waffles, instead.
We landed about an hour ahead of schedule, pulling up to the gate just before sunrise, around 5:30am.
After passing through immigration, I noticed an arrivals lounge, which I was able to access as a business-class traveler.
The lounge was completely empty, and offered a small selection of breakfast items, even though it was after sunrise during Ramadan.
I was able to get a shower room right away — mine was well-equipped, with a dental kit, fresh towels, hair spray and other products.
The shower itself was great as well, with excellent water pressure.
After my shower, I left the lounge, accidentally walking out the door for the airline's car service. If you've booked a paid or flex award business or first-class ticket, Etihad will drive you anywhere in the UAE for free. My saver flight wasn't eligible, though, so I was escorted back into the lounge and out through the other side. Two minutes later I was in a taxi.
This was a great Etihad biz flight — I much prefer the fresh feel of the 787 over the A380, even though it doesn't have an in-flight lounge, and the crew was very friendly throughout. I appreciated the speedy and attentive service, and the AUH arrivals lounge was an especially nice surprise, given that I wasn't certain I'd be able to check into my Dubai hotel room at such an early hour.
The catering could use some work, but the beverage selection was very good for business class, and there was plenty of food given our extra-late departure from China. That alone certainly wouldn't prevent me from booking an Etihad business flight again, however — especially if the price is right.