BACKGROUND Business Traveller was on board Etihad Airways’ inaugural flight from its Abu Dhabi hub to Male, the capital of the Maldives, on November 1. The daily service EY278 departs at 0920, arriving in Male at 1435, while return flight EY279 leaves at 2040 and lands in Abu Dhabi at 0005.
CHECK-IN At 1840, I arrived at Male airport via speedboat transfer from Anantara resort (visit anantara.com), which took about 40 minutes. There was a queue to get into the terminal building because of a preliminary security check that took about ten minutes to get through. (Bags went through X-ray machines but liquids and laptops stayed in.) I then headed for the short line of six or seven people that had formed for the two business class check-in desks.
There was a good 20-minute wait despite there only being a small number of passengers to process, which was very frustrating, although it must have been worse for those in economy as the queues were far longer. Once I was checked in and issued my two boarding passes (one to Abu Dhabi, the other for my onward flight to London), I headed upstairs to immigration where there was another six-minute wait.
THE LOUNGE The airside premium lounge was directly ahead of immigration, and there was plenty of comfy seating, free wifi and soft drinks. However, there was no alcohol, being a Muslim country, and the food offering was poor quality and unappetising (some plain spaghetti, meat curry, carrot and celery sticks and cake). I didn’t have much time to relax though, as I arrived at about 1925 and had to leave for boarding at 1950.
BOARDING Boarding was to take place from Gate 2, downstairs, but I discovered that passengers first had to go through another security check and there were about 100 people ahead of me and there was no fast-track lane for business passengers.
I started to worry that I would miss my flight but, fortunately, a member of staff allowed me to jump the queue and I was through by 2015 just as the flight was on its final call. I left the terminal building and walked across the tarmac to board via a set of steps to the front of the aircraft.
THE SEAT I had been assigned window seat 4A in the last row of the business class cabin, which is in a 2-2 (A-C, D-F) layout. This A320-200 is one of Etihad’s older planes, configured with short-haul cradle-style seating that does not have much of a recline (10in/24.5cm). The turquoise fabric upholstery was quite worn – even ripped in places – and faded, and the lumbar supports and 10.6-inch IFE (in-flight entertainment) screens that came out of the armrests were clunky and hard to maneuver.
Once settled, I was offered a glass of non-vintage Mumm champagne, juice or water, a selection of magazines and the dinner menu. Post take-off drinks orders were also taken. Noise-cancelling headphones were provided but I preferred to use my own, which plugged in without a problem. In-seat power sockets are built-in, along with USB ports and Ethernet ports. The airline will be taking delivery of three new A320-200s in 2012.
WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE? Seats in row one are best as food and drink is served to passengers sitting here first, and also allows for speedy disembarkation.
THE FLIGHT At 2055, the pilot explained that there was a delay to departure because of the slow loading of cargo due to a shortage of ground staff “so not the airline’s fault”. More drinks were offered as a consequence, and take-off finally took place 45 minutes late at 2125. Once in the air, the meal service was also held back because of turbulence so I didn’t get my meal until about 2330.
I chose the traditional Arabic mezze to start (there was also the option of smoked salmon with pickled vegetables, mesclun salad and cherry tomatoes), followed by cheese ravioli with creamy tomato sauce, roasted vegetables and shaved Parmesan. It was palatable although not the most impressive of business class meals.
Other options for the main course were tuna curry with spinach rise, carrots and broccoli, and lamb biryani with fried onions and cashew nuts. I was too full for dessert but for those who could manage it, there was chocolate cream cake, fresh fruit, ice cream or cheese with organic fruit paste.
As on the outbound flight, the wines included two whites – a 2008 Puiten pinot grigio from France, and a 2008 Dog Point sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, two reds – a 2007 Charmes de Kirwan from France, and a 2009 George Wyndham Founders’s Reserve shiraz from Australia. There was also a dessert wine – Gramp’s Botrytis Semillon, 2008, from Australia. The service from the crew was reasonably good but they didn’t go out of their way to be friendly. I watched a film on the AVOD (audio-video on-demand) entertainment system to pass the time until landing.
ARRIVAL The plane touched down in Abu Dhabi at 0125 (0025 local time) and as I was transferring I made my way to the Terminal 3 business class lounge to freshen up before my onward journey at 0240. I felt very tired, and although the facility was buzzing with people eating from a delicious and varied looking buffet or sitting at the bar drinking, all I could muster enthusiasm for was a quick 15-minute foot massage in the on-site spa and a bottle of mineral water.
VERDICT Despite some delays to take-off and service, this was a decent short-haul business class flight, although the seats were old and worn. The midnight stopover was also a bit grueling as I was very tired, but the luxurious business lounge took some of the pain out of it. I look forward to trying Etihad’s fully flat long-haul business class product.
CONFIGURATION 2-2 (A-C, D-F)
SEAT PITCH 49in/124.5cm
SEAT RECLINE 10in/24.5cm
SEAT WIDTH 21in/53cm
PRICE Internet rates for a return business class flight from Abu Dhabi to Male started from Dhs 7,200 (£1,247) in January.