The wisdom among first class regulars -- whether C-level executives, fortunate frequent flyers winning the elusive "operational upgrade" lottery, or people spending points for a luxurious experience -- is that it's extra luxury, effortless travel, everything the way you want it, space & privacy, particularly attentive staff, and instant service.
Australian Business Traveller put Etihad's Diamond First Class service, and its luxuriously appointed first class suite, to the test on EY451, the 4pm flight from Sydney to Abu Dhabi.
Etihad has a special first class check-in for its most valuable customers, but I put the "travel the way you want it" aspect to the test first off: would I be able to check in before the desks opened at 1220 and head through security to the lounge for an inconveniently timed videoconference?
Since I was travelling with just a large rolling carry-on bag, I checked in smoothly online and printed my boarding pass the night before my flight.
Etihad's first class limo service picked me up from central Sydney bang on time -- in fact, I received a call to say that they were five minutes early. Full marks from someone who hates to be late.
The shiny black Audi A8 whisked me straight to the Etihad check-in zone at Sydney International, and certainly ticked the "effortless" box: heaps of legroom, my choice of radio station (and, slightly bemusingly, numerous copies of Woman's Day available for my perusal).
No hassles at Sydney's Express Path departure even though I had no Express Path card -- I explained that I was flying Etihad's first class and was waved through.
Overall: yes, with the ability to head through security early and work from the lounge, this is travel the way I wanted it. Top marks.
Etihad uses the Air New Zealand International Lounge in Sydney. First class luxury this isn't: it's barely a business class affair and one of the least impressive international lounges at the airport.
That's why Virgin Australia and Etihad are building a new international lounge in Sydney, to open in early-to-mid 2013.
To my mind, that can't happen fast enough: Air New Zealand is heading firmly downmarket with this lounge, and you can now buy your way in for A$40.
No first class flair here: unlike a Qantas first class experience, the lounge doesn't set the scene for your trip, and there's no "lounging in luxury" reason to get to the airport early.
Knowing that great first class food would be on board, I didn't graze, especially since the food on offer is a basic selection of sandwiches, and the wine isn't especially noteworthy either. That's a shame given the sterling standard of Air NZ's onboard selection. Wine fans would be better served to wait until boarding.
My pick of the drops on offer are the aromatic Yealands Grüner Veltliner white, or the Ned Sauvignon Blanc if you fancy a Kiwi Sav. The Man O'War Merlot-Cab is also a well-blended drop if you like your Bordeaux blends Merlot-dominant.
Steer clear of the dire A$11 Te Hana fizz, though -- especially since there is Bollinger Grande Année waiting for you on board.
Etihad tends to board its planes earlier than most airlines, and I was keen enough to get out of the Air NZ lounge once my videoconference finished up.
By the time I got to the gate 45 minutes before departure, only one other person was in the queue, so I didn't even need to take advantage of the priority boarding lane.
(Note that there's only one jetway bridge to the plane, though: so even with priority boarding you still end up standing behind the rest of the stretched Airbus A340-600, the world's second longest plane.)
The crew checked my boarding pass and greeted me by name, with the head cabin crew member escorting me through the forward business class cabin to my seat in first class and taking my cabin bag to store during the flight.
Etihad's first class cabin has no overhead bins, so if your bag won't fit under the ottoman in front of you the crew will spirit it away for you.
Of the twelve seats in the first class cabin, comprising three rows in a 1-2-1 layout, three of them were filled. I was originally in window seat 2A on the left hand side, with a couple in the centre pairs next to me.
I swapped to 3A shortly after takeoff since I wanted to keep my window open for the day flight over Australia and didn't want to disturb my fellow passengers with the light -- they'd settled in for an early snooze.
I kicked off the flight with a glass of the Bollinger Grande Année 2000, one of the world's most prestigious champagnes. (The Mumm Cuvée R. Lalou, a tie-in with Etihad's Formula 1 sponsorship, is officially on the wine list, but I had no complaints about the swap.)
Etihad's amenity kits are impressive on the outside -- the gents' version is a large, attractive leather cufflink box that I've already put into rotation in my suitcase, while the ladies' version is pencil case-sized with Swarovski crystals.
But on the inside they leave much to be desired: basic fabric masks, airline socks and earplugs, plus tiny tubes of La Prairie moisturiser and lip balm.
Etihad's pajamas are a zipdown longsleeved top and a pair of tracksuit-style bottoms, stretchy and artificial-feeling against the skin. They didn't feel especially premium, and I was glad to have brought my own pair of cotton PJ bottoms and a t-shirt with me.
With 45 minutes before departure, the crew weren't shy about coming round with a refill as they explained how the seat worked, hung my jacket in my personal closet, handed out the PJs and made sure I was comfortable.
During the flight, I thoroughly enjoyed spoiling myself with Etihad's eight-course, ten-wine tasting menu, then read for a bit and turned in to top on sleep, waking a couple of hours before arrival.
The flight itself was on time, pleasant and with only a bit of turbulence around the equator, landing on time at Abu Dhabi's Terminal 3 just before midnight.
A fast track through immigration was pleasantly uneventful and Etihad's first class chauffeur SUV had me to my central Abu Dhabi hotel in half an hour.
Etihad's first class suite rightly wins plaudits for its size, space and elegance -- no blinged out walls dripping with faux gold here -- dark wood, Italian leather and shades of beige.
In layout, it's a wide square seat with arms that raise and lower to reach 30 inches (76 cm) across and 80 inches (203 cm) long when the seat slides forwards to meet a large ottoman in bed mode.
It's minutely adjustable in seven ways via the touch panel in the table console:
- Seat back recline
- Armrest height
- Headrest height
- Seat pan height
- Seat pan depth
- Legrest angle
- Double lumbar setting
Once you've got the seat just the way you like it, there's a memory function so you can get back to that position at any time. The panel also controls the do-not-disturb button (and the centre divider in middle seats).
There are four adjustable lights controlled by the touch panel too: a reading light, a dining light, a light behind your seat and a light in the ottoman. Oddly, the overhead light is controlled by the entertainment system.
On the side away from the sliding suite doors, there's a small minibar with still or sparkling mineral water and some nuts for snacking. Unfortunately, this gets rather warm from the heat given off by the entertainment screen, negating the benefits of "grab and gulp" water.
In seat mode, the ottoman is a very comfortable option for dining with a colleague or your other half.
With a massive table that folds in half lengthways, it's also absolutely ideal for an in-depth strategy session.
The closing head-height doors keep your strategy session away from prying eyes and ears too. (You're welcome to use this as part of your reasoning for a first class upgrade when talking to your travel people, of course. Let us know how you go with that.)
There's also a do-not-disturb signal, which the crew confirmed they respect except in the cases of turbulence (when they need to check you're belted in), takeoff and landing.
In bed mode, I had absolutely no complaints about the space available, as you'd expect from a first class suite. I'm 6'2" (188 cm) and prefer to sleep on my front, so this was an unusual pleasure.
The crew offer a turndown service, with blankets, pillows and signature pillow fragrances to lull you off to sleep. (That may sound a bit woo-woo, but with the reduced cabin humidity dulling your sense of smell, it's a real luxury to nod off to an elegant scent.)
The best seats in the cabin for solo travellers are the window seats. They're more private, and you get a full three windows all to yourself to watch the world go by.
It's not often that I end up mentioning an aircraft bathroom, but Etihad's first class changing room and lavatory is amazing.
It's double size, two windows, black granite effect surfaces, a decent sink for shaving and it's freshly cleaned throughout the flight, with pleasant room scents from Six Senses.
After dinner, around 9pm Sydney time (six hours into the flight) I decided to turn in for a bit of a snooze.
Since I was one of three passengers in the twelve-seat cabin, the crew suggested I take the free middle seat opposite for a bed. One of the crew made it up with the sheet, pillowcase and satin bedspread that comprise "bed mode".
Here's where I get picky. Yes, the bed is long and wide, as you'd expect from a first class suite, when the seat slides down and the armrests retract to give you a fully flat surface to sleep on.
But it's not actually all that soft, since you're lying on the leather cushions that you've been sitting on for the rest of the flight, with just a sheet on top. This is a real missed trick: why no mattress padding, like many airlines offer even in business class?
I couldn't help thinking of numerous business class seats that are softer as a bed: Virgin Atlantic, Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific's new seats -- even Etihad's own business class.
And the sheet doesn't extend all the way down over the ottoman, just over the seat part. So you're left with the ottoman's leather from about ankle down. I ended up unfolding the (rather scratchy woollen) blanket over the leather.
The pillow and bedspread are both a shiny, smooth satin. That might sound luxurious, but it's not -- it doesn't feel pleasant against the skin and my five o'clock shadow kept snagging on the pillow, so I pulled the cotton-covered cushion out from the pillowcase.
That's my next criticism: those cushions are pretty firm. No squashy, luxurious, five-star-hotel-style pillows here, just the ones you've been reclining with all flight stuffed into a satin pillowcase. Again, a real missed trick.
The cabin was also seriously hot: around 24 degrees according to the internal temperature sensors, with minimal airflow.
No overhead bins mean no overhead individual air vents, so all you have is an ineffectual tiny vent at ear level (or above your head if you're less than my 188 cm/6'2" height) that can't really be adjusted and doesn't pump out much air.
As a result -- and with two or three bits of turbulence and the subsequent seatbelt "ping" plus English and Arabic announcements saying "fasten your seatbelt" -- I ended up having what was really an extended series of roughly hour-long naps, not full sleep.
The point of first class food versus business class food is being able to have whatever you want, whenever you want.
Of course, that's the same in Etihad's business class -- so the real difference is a wider selection of options and a dedicated first class chef to put it all together into a meal.
Etihad's Mezoon Grille menu is extensive, from the suggested à la carte section...
...to the customisable grill choices...
...the excellent Taste of Arabia specialties...
...your choice of desserts...
...and the Kitchen Anytime menu if you're still hungry.
Wines, too, are particularly notable, with both big-name and discovery options in white...
Following a good few hours' snooze after the stunning first class tasting menu, I got up around 4am Sydney time, around twelve hours into the flight and two and a half before landing.
Wandering forwards to the bathroom, I found chef Rocco Muotri in the kitchen, who asked if I was hungry and brought some delicious premium orange juice to wake up my palate after an extended nap.
Despite not being particularly hungry, I decided to order a few things from the anytime kitchen menu: the steak sandwich, Um Ali Abu Dhabi pastry and a few surprises at chef Rocco's urging.
First out was a surprise: a very respectable plate of fish and chips, on a plane. Tender, white fish and oven-baked potato wedges, served with a mushy pea ganache and tartare sauce.
The steak sandwich I'd ordered came out next, accompanied by an onion jam and actual honest-to-God fries. On top of the burger was beef bacon and melted cheese. The fries were outstanding, but bread for the steak sandwich itself was a little on the dry side, which led to a bit of disintegration as I nibbled.
Had I been feeling hungrier, I'd have really enjoyed the beef pie with mash and gravy, which came with a balsamic reduction. This is a proper pie.
I particularly enjoyed the complex mix of flavours in local specialty pudding Um Ali, which was like an oaty bread pudding with nuts and rosewater. Served with a creme anglaise and crushed pistachios, it was absolutely sublime.
I couldn't finish the fruit salad with vanilla ice cream that followed, although the strawberries were fresh and juicy.
Entertainment & Service
The e-Box entertainment system seems impressive, especially with a large 23-inch screen. But since it's nearly six feet away from your seat, the size feel is about the same as a 13-inch laptop up close. Here's my 11-inch laptop to compare.
It's also not an especially bright screen, which is a shame given that a large part of the day flight is over the stunning interior of Australia: instead of being able to leave a window open to gaze outside in between your movie, you need to close the blinds to be able to watch it.
The system is clunky, too: there's an up-down-left-right remote control that's far from intuitive. First class passengers will have modern tablets like iPads and Samsung Galaxy Tabs as their standard for interaction, and this -- like many airlines' offerings -- falls short.
Top marks for the spacious entertainment/power/USB/storage box, though -- it's a well thought out and convenient both for plugging in your gadgets and storing valuables.
I tend to judge an airline's inflight entertainment thoughtfulness on its selection of classical music, especially in business and first class. Etihad falls down here: the only thing I found interesting enough to listen to was the album of Schubert's Winterreise lieder by Daniel Lichei, which sounded good with the noise-cancelling headphones, although I'd have preferred more bass.
Annoyingly, there's an unskippable series of trailers before anything you want to watch. For example, before a short 26-minute documentary, I watched a two-minute trailer, a two-minute watch advert, and an exhortation to vote for the entertainment I hadn't yet seen for an award. This is stupid.
In terms of service, the difference between business class and first class should be that first class service is elegant and unobtrusive while ensuring you have everything you ask for delivered lickety-split.
Etihad delivered completely on the first half -- but simple requests for things like water or a glass of juice often felt like they took too long (especially given there were only three people in a twelve-person cabin) and were forgotten a couple of times in the middle of the flight when half the crew were resting.
Did Etihad's first class onboard chef concept make a difference in the service? An unequivocal yes from me: an inventive and enjoyable tasting menu and a fantastic dinner made this one of the best airborne foodie experiences I've enjoyed yet.
(Stay tuned to Australian Business Traveller for the behind-the-scenes details of how Etihad puts its food and beverage service together: I sat down with the ex-Ansett man behind the airline's food and drink while I was in Abu Dhabi.)
Etihad's first class is spacious, comfortable, completely private and elegantly luxurious. The food and wine is outstanding, and some of the staff top-notch. The effortless chauffeur service and fast-tracking at either end are among the best I've encountered.
There are a few things that Etihad needs to fix with its first class: the bed, the Sydney lounge, the boiling-hot cabin, and getting every request delivered promptly throughout the flight.
Yes, it's swankier than business, but at the end of the day, is Etihad's Diamond first class worth the premium over its Pearl business class?
Having returned from Abu Dhabi in business, I have to say "not if you have to ask". Prices for a late February return are around $7,400 in business and $10,400 in first class.
Unless cost is immaterial, or you're using frequent flyer points, the marginal benefit of first class is probably not worth the price jump -- but my call is more a judgment on how top-notch Etihad's business class is than on anything wrong with the first class.
John Walton was a guest of Etihad.