With many airlines axing first class or merging pointy end cabins into a business/first hybrid, Etihad continues to fly in the opposite direction, from its current Boeing 777-300ER suites to the forthcoming Airbus A380 First Class Apartments (and, for the 0.01%, The Residence – the pinnacle of luxury commercial airline travel as we know it today).
We took to the skies at today's pointiest of pointy ends to see what travellers can expect when jetting abroad with Etihad in Diamond First Class.
Check-in at Sydney Airport is painless, with a clearly-signed red carpet section for first class and elite frequent flyers, found on the far left of the check-in desks.
A complimentary Etihad Chauffeur service is available for pointy-end passengers, with bookings accepted until 24 hours before departure.
First class travellers can fly with up to 50kg of luggage at no charge (max. 32kg per piece), along with 12kg in the cabin at a maximum of two bags.
Silver and Gold members of Etihad Guest and Velocity Frequent Flyer can check an extra 10kg and 15kg, respectively, with Etihad Gold Elites and Velocity Platinums welcome to a 20kg boost on the regular allowance.
Etihad now has its own lounge at Sydney Airport, found adjacent to gate 51 and close to the departure gates normally used by Etihad.
Eligible travellers can store their bags at reception, with separate areas inside for both lounging and dining...
First class passengers are addressed by name and are personally informed when the airline is ready to board them – long after economy has been called.
The portions served up in Etihad's lounge are rather small, but that's actually great as it doesn't spoil your appetite ahead of the flight.
Travellers wanting to indulge in a hearty meal before jumping on board and catching some shut-eye also have the option of ordering several courses with breads, desserts and matching wine.
Read our full review: Etihad First and Business Class Lounge, Sydney
Welcoming guests on board is Arabian coffee, a glass of Gosset 2004 'Grand Millésime' Brut Champagne and boxed chocolates.
The $130/bottle Gosset isn't quite the Dom Pérignon that you'll find in First on Emirates or the Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blanc up the front on the Qantas Airbus A380, but with hints of red berries, green apple, quince and apricot with a sweet yet subtle spice, it suffices as a welcome drink and goes well with our starter.
Also delivered before take-off is a 'limited edition' Sougha amenity kit...
... choc full of goodies including Le Labo balms and moisturisers, pillow mist, roll-on pulse point oil, a Schick 'Xtreme3' shaving kit, socks, an eyeshade, a Colgate dental kit, earplugs, a 'care kit' with cotton buds, pads and an emery board, and to top things off, breath mints.
Female travellers receive a similar version of the same kit, presented in purse form:
Pyjamas and slippers are also distributed.
Etihad's first class suites come with all of the mod cons that luxury travellers expect, including an ottoman that doubles as a seat for hosting meetings or sharing a meal with a partner or colleague...
Later, it forms the tail end of a fully-flat 203cm (6'8") bed, which the crew offer to make up with fitted sheets, a duvet, a striped blanked and a full-size pillow...
At first it looks both funky and gimmicky, but when all of the cabin lights are switched off and with no overhead lockers in the way, it really does look like you're sleeping under the stars:
I'd planned for an eight-hour rest after supper – the benchmark of a good night's sleep on any flight – yet wound up dozing uninterrupted for 10 hours until breakfast was served the next morning.
You can request that delicious wake-up call before heading to bed, and if you change your mind and would prefer to sleep through, just tap the privacy icon aside the suite's lighting control panel and you won't be disturbed...
That panel also activates the suite's massage features and moves the seat into predefined positions for dining, relaxing, snoozing and landing.
While adjustments can be made to the pre-sets, there's no option to simply slide your seat forward to dine unless completely reconfiguring the suite.
Holding the 'fork and knife' button brings the chair back almost upright before edging closer to the dining table, where you'll then need to fiddle with the recline...
When you've crafted that otherwise-perfect angle at the rear of the suite, the inability to scoot forward in that same position is quite an oversight.
Also, the seat's minibar is a nice idea, but one that's poorly executed.
Located next to the inflight entertainment system, the minibar's contents became quite hot as the flight progressed, which means pressing the call bell to order up a glass with ice before indulging.
In the same amount of time, a passenger could simply order a beverage and have it prepared for them – fortunately something that Etihad is addressing in the new First Apartments, which come with a chilled minibar.
Back in the current suite, first class passengers do have a private single-garment wardrobe that's fitted with a mirror, perfect for applying make-up or making yourself look a touch more presentable after that long doze.
... complete with AC and dual USB ports for charging your phone and other gizmos overnight, or for powering your laptop during waking hours.
Etihad's first class passengers have their food personally prepared by a chef, who can mix and match ingredients, dishes and wines with ease.
Starting us off is a not-on-the-menu taster, featuring olive, paprika, beetroot, and tomato & mozzarella flavours...
... followed by the Arabic mezze, which tonight came with Kibbeh and a cheese pastry, tabbouleh, a mesclun salad with accompaniments and hummus with tahini sauce...
... the Kibbeh and pastry were scrumptious, while the remaining three dishes were the perfect size for 'sampling' and tasted as you'd expect.
With so many choices for the main, we opted for the Chef's Special – which is really an invitation to chat to the chef about the kind of food that you like to eat and what you're in the mood for.
Requesting something "hearty yet not overly heavy", the U.S. rib-eye steak with creamy potato mash and veal jus was suggested, plated atop a healthy serve of vegetables.
The creamy potato lived up to its name, the steak was beautifully cooked and was easily cut without a traditional steak knife, and the dish was matched to the 2012 Fattori 'Col de la Bastia' Valpolicella – with sweeter tones of raspberries to complement the mash yet blended with sour red cherries and dry thyme to give it balance with the steak.
There's also an entire page of the menu dedicated to dessert, but chances are you've already had something to eat at home after work and had a bite in the lounge before devouring the first three courses – so unless you're exceptionally peckish, most travellers will likely gravitate towards either dinner or dessert after take-off, although both are available if you're so inclined.
Throughout the flight, the 'Kitchen Anytime' menu and its 16 dishes are at the ready for travellers who feel like morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea or even a second dinner.
All of the morning's breakfast choices form part of that menu too, so if you awake earlier in the flight, there's no holding you back from a nice breakfast when it suits you.
That's another thing we love about Etihad's menu: you can dine on what you like, when you like, which is particularly great if you board ready for bed and wake eight hours into the 14-hour flight.
You can then have a full breakfast, spend 4-5 hours catching up on work, and devour warm scones with jam and cream or cheese or fruit platters for morning tea closer to arrival, or even tuck into an early lunch with choices such as the chicken and mushroom pie with mash and gravy, regular made-to-order sandwiches or even The Etihad Steak Sandwich.
All up, it's an incredibly well-considered menu, although one that does lack 'premium' dishes such as lobster and caviar.
We opted for a simple breakfast close to arrival, comprised of a warm jam doughnut, a café latte, Arabian coffee, and the 'breakfast taster': poached pears with lychees, yoghurt with dried cranberries, a warm cheese soufflé and a delicious shot glass-sized blueberry smoothie (not pictured):
There's also an extensive Dilmah tea menu with 11 options spanning green, black, black with flavour and herbal infusion varieties.
Entertainment & Service
Noise-cancelling headphones and a 23" widescreen TV keep first class passengers entertained, loaded with 120 movies, 200 TV shows, seven live satellite channels including CNN and Sport 24, 16 radio channels, 400 CDs and a variety of interactive games.
While passengers in the centre seats can easily see each other's monitors (and into each other's suites), a privacy screen can be raised if desired.
The E-Box system also provides access to external aircraft cameras and connecting gate information, with RCA and S-Video inputs in the side console to connect your own laptop or portable DVD player to the 'big screen'.
Read our review: Etihad’s inflight Internet
The service delivery on today's flight was flawless – crew were attentive without being intrusive, the chef was only too happy to assist with matching wines and customising the meal choices to personal tastes, and all passengers were referred to by name in every interaction, including when the crew didn't have a manifest or 'cheat sheet' in front of them.
The crew also proactively offered to make the bed when spotting me passing through the galley with my sleeper suit in hand, and restored the seat when I'd risen to change for landing.
With Etihad's first class service already at such a refined level, we can't wait to see how the A380 First Apartments, and for incredibly well-heeled jetsetters, The Residence, transform the first class experience and iron out the current shortcomings with chilled minibars and full vanity mirrors, plus showers and an on-board lounge to boot.
A return Etihad Diamond First Class trip from Sydney to Abu Dhabi in December and January costs roughly $14,500.
Chris Chamberlin was a guest of Etihad.
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