Tried & Tested

Flight review: Etihad Airways A340-500 Pearl Business

30 Apr 2007 by business traveller
FIRST IMPRESSIONS Abu Dhabi-based airline Etihad Airways offers a complimentary chauffeur-drive for its business (Pearl) and first (Diamond) class passengers, at both ends of their journey. In the UK this is up to 100 miles from the airport. This worked without hitch, the Mercedes saloon arriving early at my home and driving me to Heathrow Terminal 3. In fact I arrived at 1040, over two hours before the departure of 1305 on flight EY12. There was no queue at either the Pearl or Diamond check-in desk. I walked through fast-track (no queue, but then this was Sunday morning). Etihad uses the London Lounge, as do many airlines. It's not a bad lounge, being large and over two levels, but it does get quite busy. BOARDING This is not called from the lounge, so I waited until the flight appeared on the screen as boarding and walked down to Gate 5. After a short wait, the flight was called, with Pearl, Diamond and Gold Card holders in Etihad's frequent flyer programme Etihad Guest being called first onto the flight (along with those with children). Etihad has 21 return services per week from the UK to Abu Dhabi, departing twice daily from Heathrow and daily from Manchester. The airline carried more than one million passengers in the first quarter of this year, an increase of over 170 per cent year-on-year, a reflection of its rapid expansion, with new destinations including Kuala Lumpur, Sydney, Kochi (Cochin) and Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) in India, Dublin and Milan – by the end of the year it will fly to over 45 destinations in the Middle East, Europe, North America, Africa and Asia. This expansion is set to continue with the delivery of 10 aircraft in 2007, bringing its fleet size up to 31. THE SEAT On this Airbus 340-500 the 240 seats are in a three-class configuration: first (Diamond) 12 seats, business (Pearl) 28 seats and economy (Coral) 200 seats. The business class seating is arranged 1-2-1 with a lie-flat bed. The flight was fairly full, but since I had an aisle seat I asked a flight attendant if I could take a window seat if any remained vacant, and just before take off she told me that there was one. The seats are excellent, but because of the staggered formation a window seat is better, since you are able to access the aisle without stepping over anyone, and have more privacy than the aisle seats. Each seat has its own footrest with storage space underneath (ideal for shoes) and a TV screen above it with very clear quality, although on day-time flights you have to draw down the shutters to watch it. Below the TV screen is a sliding hatch containing an ethernet port as well as two USB sockets and the audio and visual sockets. The seat has three positions – upright, relax and bed – as well as lumbar support and various massage options. It also reclines so that the seat area meets the footrest to become a fully-flat bed. Also provided are three lights (reading light, wall light and overhead), mood lighting to create specific ambiences, which helps jet lag, and an in-flight entertainment (IFE) system with 30 films, 16 hours of TV programming, 24 hours of audio, 25 audio CDs and 26 games. Since Business Traveller first tried this product on the Abu Dhabi-Frankfurt route (April 2006), the "wifi in the sky" Connexion by Boeing service has been discontinued. So whereas last year we were able to check emails and even make inflight calls using Skype, now there is silence once again. THE FLIGHT On board, my jacket was taken and a choice of water, champagne, orange juice or carrot juice offered. We were away on time, despite one passenger arriving very late. After take-off Aigner amenity bags were given out and the food and drink offering began. There's a good choice of white and red wines (three each) as well as Champagne Gardet, while the food options included canapés, a choice of bread and then appetizers, main courses (choice of four, including vegetarian and fish) and dessert, cheese and fruit. The IFE system was excellent, although Casino Royale was not available as advertised, and the Rocky Balboa (the fifth in the series) was in fact Rocky, the original (and the best, admittedly). I worked for a while and then used the IFE to create a personal playlist of favourite songs from the dozens of albums on the system, which took a long time, but passed the flight quite successfully. Sandwiches were served 90 minutes before landing. ARRIVAL We landed on time at 2350, walked straight into Abu Dhabi airport by air bridge, and were quickly through immigration, with bags appearing five minutes later. If you have booked a chauffeur-drive (complimentary to anywhere in the UAE in business and first), then your name will be on a board as you leave. Simply take this with you and an Etihad employee finds you a car (Mercedes saloon again). A little over an hour later I was in Dubai heading to my hotel along the Sheikh Zayed Road, which at this time of the night has freely moving traffic. VERDICT Excellent. Good value, hassle-free and a great way to get to Abu Dhabi or Dubai, or onward for a connection to one of Etihad's many destinations around the world. PRICE Return fares from London Heathrow to Abu Dhabi start from £1,560 in Pearl zone (business class). CONTACT etihadairways.com
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