With an increasing focus on connecting through the Middle East, I had my eyes peeled and camera at the ready to bring AusBT's readers the latest on what they can expect in Etihad's Pearl business class.
It was an early (yet already sweltering) start back to Sydney on the daily EY451 flight -- an overnight 14-hour trip that leaves at 1010 and arrives in Sydney at 0720 the next morning.
Etihad's Terminal 3 is the newest in Abu Dhabi, with older Terminal 1 (a 5-10 minute indoor walk away) used for a minority of the airline's flights.
My taxi dropped me off at the first and business class entrance, which is fully separate from the economy doors.
I understand there are supposed to be porters to assist with luggage, but none sprang to help me with my luggage this morning.
Inside, business class sees a row of half a dozen modern, clean desks, where a courteous and efficient checkin agent had me all sorted (and my bag priority tagged to Sydney) in under a minute.
Priority customs/immigration and security was only three passengers deep, and from picking up your carry-on it's just a few steps to the business and first class lounge complex.
Take note, airports of the world: there's no horrible duty free maze in Abu Dhabi, so you don't have to dodge milling shoppers, wandering families and scent-spritzing passengers. That's a big point in the plus column.
My first impression of Etihad's T3 business lounge is that it was, well, busy. The morning is rush-hour for connections, and the lounge is too small to be able to accommodate everybody pleasantly.
(The T1 business lounge is also available, but the T3 one is newer and larger. If you're connecting to T1, you're best off stopping in T3 and then heading over to the other terminal.)
The lounge's layout is roughly a capital-J shape, where you enter at the bottom of the J and walk through to your left. The corner of the of the J is the food area, the stem is the bar, and the cross-piece at the top of the J a bank of windows and a seating area.
My pick for seating is the light, bright area at the top of the J, but you'll want to leave a jacket or something to guard your seat once you've found one.
Food in the lounge at breakfast-time was pretty standard international buffet breakfast fare, plus some more interesting things like ful medames.
I did try some of the praiseworthy Drappier champagne, though. Hey, it's a fruit-based beverage, which makes it breakfast-appropriate.
Overall, it's not all that bad when compared with competitor Emirates' hectic lounge in Dubai or the Qantas-BA lounge in Singapore, but if a calm, quiet connection is what you're looking for then you might want to pick another airport.
Etihad announces boarding early (an hour beforehand, even for business), but with the lounge as hectic as it was, I wasn't particularly fussed to head on board and settle in.
The gate was just a few minutes down a moving walkway from the lounge, and while there was a big queue for economy the first/business class queue (marked by an unwisely subtle pillar) was empty.
(Note for passengers connecting to T3 from T1: there's a similar pillar at security so you can avoid the 200-person tailback that backs up between the terminals. Just skip the stopped travelator and breeze nonchalantly past on the left hand side of the corridor.)
My seat, 10K, was a window on the right hand side of the plane in the second of the two business class cabins, right behind the galley kitchens.
The location wasn't ideal, since half the economy passengers on the plane walk past going "is this first class, Mildred?" while you're getting settled, but there wasn't a window seat (the most private and best for sleeping) available in the turn-left-from-the-door front cabin.
My concern about overhead bin space proved justified: storage in the cabin is a real problem.
Etihad decided not to install centre bins on its A340s, which means that half the bins in business class are absent -- and the ones that are there are the smaller, Airbus bins, not the large swing-down Boeing type.
End result: there even wasn't space for my small laptop bag in the cabin when I boarded, so I'm glad I'd checked my bag at the airport.
Fortunately, there's a small space under the ottoman in front of you, but it wouldn't take a rollaboard and you're not supposed to have a bag down there for takeoff.
This issue is especially baffling for an airline that's almost entirely connecting traffic like Etihad: business travellers will want the chance to have a shower and change their clothes during the stopover in Abu Dhabi, which means they're even more likely to be carrying a larger bag on board.
My advice: board early to snag a spot for your bag somewhere near your seat. It's not exactly a hardship to relax with a glass of seriously good Champagne while you wait for everyone else to get on board.
Yes, seriously good Champagne: Etihad serves G. H. Mumm's Cuvée R. Lalou, which goes for around A$150 in the UK (the most competitive market for bubbles) and A$350 in Australia.
That's the best business class champagne I've ever tasted, and beats the first class bubbles on many airlines. Top marks to Etihad's wine people.
The flight itself was uneventful, over the Arabian peninsula, skirting the tip of India and taking the usual track across Australia. The Airbus A340-600 Etihad uses is a quiet plane, but not quite as quiet (nor as pleasant in terms of cabin dryness) as the A380 used by Emirates, Qantas, Singapore Airlines and others.
Etihad's amenity kit, meanwhile, is pretty disappointing: it doesn't exist. You get a net bag with your cleaned blanket, inside which is a socks-and-eyeshade combo. The crew come round with baskets of everything else. It feels, frankly, a little cheap, especially when other airlines are beefing up their offerings.
It might seem odd to praise an airline's blankets, but I'm going to: Etihad's reversible fleece and cotton blankets are a very clever touch, and chic with it.
Or at least they would be, if the cabin hadn't been absolutely roasting from start to finish, even after I asked the crew to turn down the heat twice -- and there are no overhead air vents either.
I'd been hot on the inbound flight, too, so had brought a pair of shorts for sleeping, but I was still hot even with bare legs, and didn't use the blanket. I tend to prefer a cooler cabin, but this was ridiculous.
The first generation (above) is in a sea-foam green (and featured on my outbound flight from Sydney) while the second generation is a stripey black-brown-beige (on my flight today).
(I'll assume that most business travellers know how a staggered business class is laid out, but if you need a refresher then our guide to business class seats and layouts is there for you. )
I'll be making a fair bit of reference to Emirates' customised version of this seat, seen on Emirates' Airbus A380 flights from Sydney and Melbourne.
The bottom line is that this is one of the most comfortable business class seats in the sky, second only to Cathay Pacific's new business class. But there are a few flaws that savvy business travellers will want to know about.
The seat is beige plastic. Very beige. It blends into the background, at least, but it's not especially inspiring and there's a lot of it, especially when the table's down. I prefer Emirates' version of this seat, with its greyer neutral colour and less "wall of beige in front of you" feeling.
Ahead of you sits the ottoman footrest, which is the cubby for your feet in bed more or when you're deeply reclined. Underneath it sits a nook for your shoes and above it is the entertainment screen.
While my bulkhead seat at the front of the cabin had a fully enclosed foot area, most seats have a half-enclosed one, as you'll see below. Aisle passengers' feet are open to the aisle, while window and centre seat passengers' are open towards the window or centre.
In seat mode, you can recline a fair way back -- but note that the seat pan has to slide forward to create the space for you to recline, which can feel a little tight with the tray table, although the table does swivel.
The table folds down and rotates across on a hinge at the corner where the seat in front of you ends. 11-inch MacBook Air and iPhone 5, to scale.
It's a fair size: big enough for the largest 17" laptops, although it's unlikely you'd be able to pop your phone next to a large laptop.
Unfortunately, the massive hinge for the table is a real pain in the knee for anyone over about six feet (184 cm) or so: it's right where your kneecap rests, especially if you're reclined. I'm stunned that this design ever passed testing.
A very handy universal (including the square three-pins used in the UK, Singapore, Hong Kong and the Middle East) AC power point sits 30 cm or so beneath the hinge. There's a USB slot underneath near the floor -- a daft place for it, since you'll either kick out your memory stick or snag the cord of whatever else you've plugged in.
There are a few drawbacks to the sturdiness of the seat too: you feel it every time the person behind you uses their table, since it's attached on the other side of your head. (Emirates' pops up from the armrest.)
The seat reclines into bed mode, but there's a missed trick here too: the hard shell by your head doesn't retract, which means there's about five inches of wasted space that you could have used to spread out when sleeping.
It's also not an especially long seat. I'm 188 cm (6'2"), and I couldn't stretch out all the way when on my back without touching the head and foot of the seat -- let alone be able to do so in my preferred position on my front. Fetal position, curled up, was the only option.
That said, the cushioning is ample: better, in fact, than Etihad's first class! If you like a soft bed, you might want to snag an extra blanket from the crew to lay down underneath you.
I slept for a good eight hours of the 14-hour flight, which is the mark of a decent seat for me.
Service started once the seatbelt sign went "ping", with a warm towel, a drink (you'll be stunned to know that I went for the champagne) and some warm nuts.
Around an hour in, the food & beverage manager came around to take orders for lunch. Here's the menu:
There's also a "Kitchen Anytime" menu if that doesn't take your fancy.
And a very respectable wine list...
...with a hidden Sauternes on the back!
Etihad's business class is unusual: you can eat what you want, any time, served individually to you. No "miss it and you're out of luck" trolley round here, nor the "doggy dish" of "reheated brown thing in gloopy sauce over carbohydrate, served with green thing and some sauce crusted onto the side". On a 14+ hour flight, where you're likely to be connecting onto another 5-9 hour flight, that's a real benefit.
Oddly, though, despite the individual service, Etihad uses trays to serve the main meals. I realise this is faster -- but surely only slightly, and at a time when crew timing is not meal-critical.
Of the three starters on the menu, I played to Etihad's strengths and picked the Arabic mezze, and was very pleased that I did. Crisp -- but not greasy -- warm nibbles, with delicious chilled leaf wraps and very moreish hummus. Top notch.
I paired that with a lovely glass of Meursault (a French, buttery Chardonnay from Burgundy), which was actually a better wine in the air than the first class French white I'd tried on the flight from Sydney.
For my main course I enjoyed the lamb thareed, a spiced (but not especially hot) stew that was very well crafted. The crispy, feather-light rgag bread on top was a great touch.
Also a great touch: the warm bread filled with tomato and cheese and topped with sunflower seeds in the bread basket, which was the best bakery item I've ever eaten on a plane -- even better than Lufthansa's famous pretzel bread!
I'd enjoyed the Stellenbosch Pinotage from South Africa on the way out in first class, and was very pleased to see that it was on the return in business as well. It's a very well-balanced drop with dinner.
Since it was about noon by this stage and I wasn't feeling like something sweet (yet), I finished with a plate of cheese -- three halal cheeses (since there are cultural issues around rennet) in the style of parmigiano, brie and danish blue. They were okay, but nothing to write home about.
During the flight I nipped up to stretch my legs and rehydrate -- the San Pellegrino sparkling water on board is just the right bubbliness for the sky, and enjoyed a bit of a chat with the international crew.
Six hours or so later, after a good snooze, I started feeling a bit peckish and went for the steak sandwich on the Kitchen Anytime menu. It was seriously good: chewy without being leathery, and with a great red onion compote. Do try the Mirinda (Pepsi's version of Fanta), which is very popular in the Middle East and has an unusual orange flavour.
A couple of hours before landing, I was woken by a bit of noise from the galley and the crew coming around to ask anyone awake if they wanted breakfast and offering the very tasty energiser smoothie to start with.
Breakfast is always a pain on a plane, with the usual choice bouncy eggs or bouncy pancakes, even in business.
No different here: my cheese omelette with turkey bacon, potato and chunky tomato sauce was just okay, and I reclined my seat for a bit more of a snooze shortly after getting rid of my tray.
Entertainment & Service
Etihad's entertainment system is a bit of a negative. The Panasonic system is clunky and slow, the remote control not particularly intuitive, and there's a two-minute series of adverts before everything you watch.
Unfortunately, the screen doesn't tilt, and isn't very bright, which is a drawback during the day flight from Abu Dhabi since you're plagued with reflections, especially if you're on the right hand side of the plane, which is the sunny side during the day.
The selection isn't especially enthralling either: just standard blockbuster stuff, with no especially interesting films or documentaries. I'm not a very hard person to please -- I ask for something interesting over a meal, something a little more thinky later, and some interesting opera or choral music -- but Etihad's system didn't live up to my expectations and I resorted to my iPad.
Compared with the competition, Etihad's entertainment fits in with the second tier of on-demand systems out there, but it lags behind Emirates, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines and other airlines with a truly world-class offering.
Headphones in business class are over-the-ear noise cancelling varieties, which reduced the engine noise well but did nothing for the screaming child two rows back. You'll need a two-pin adapter if you want to use your own.
Overall, the service on board was fine, although some members of the crew were better at taking drink orders than others. If it's the middle of the night and a passenger asks for a bottle water, I don't think that's a huge or unexpected request. Yet several times it took five to ten minutes for the water to arrive (and twice it never arrived at all).
Etihad's seat is brilliant, behind only Cathay Pacific's new seat and Emirates' A380 business class. Its food and wine fantastic, but entertainment, storage and lounge offerings are all disappointing.
The prognosis for these problems? Entertainment and storage should improve with new planes. Etihad, like every other airline in the region, has many on order, and Australia's long flights mean we should get them sooner rather tahan later. But the lounge is less clear: there's no brand new terminal like Emirates' Dubai A380 base planned for Abu Dhabi until 2017.
Etihad needs to expand its lounges to keep up with the Joneses -- or, technically, the Clarks, since we're talking about Emirates CEO Tim Clark's airline as its major competitor.
There's a lot to like, though, and Etihad's business class would be up there in my top five overall choices for passengers connecting to Europe and Africa.
John Walton was a guest of Etihad.