Passengers who have booked to fly in either Etihad’s business (Pearl) or first (Diamond) class can take advantage of a chauffeur-driven car facility (and unlike with rival Gulf airlines, there is no mileage restriction on this).
Since I was travelling early evening from the central London offices of Business Traveller, I did not make use of this excellent facility, taking the Piccadilly Line instead. I arrived at Heathrow Terminal 3 just after 1900 for my 2115 departure to Abu Dhabi on EY304.
The flight was a few weeks into the new security arrangements (now largely rescinded), and on entering Terminal 3 from the underground station, instead of walking through the busy terminal to the correct zone we were directed back outside to walk around to Zone E.
Once inside, since I had flown with Etihad before
it was easy to find the two desks dedicated to business and first passengers.
Unfortunately there were two large family groups at these desks, in the process of checking in a huge amount of luggage.
I waited for 15 minutes before a member of check-in staff waved me round to check in at the economy desks that Etihad shares with Bmi, Air Baltic and SAS, among others. This should have been done much sooner, and several business and first passengers behind me had already taken matters into their own hands and gone round to check in at economy.
In fact, this caused more delay as the economy check-in staff did not have the correct priority luggage tags nor the invitations to the lounge, and so had to walk across a bridge over a conveyor belt each time to fetch them from the business and first desks. Terminal 3 is extremely busy even at the best of times, but the check-in process could have been better handled.
At Terminal 3 Etihad’s business and first passengers use the SAS London Lounge, which is on two floors close to Gate 2. It is shared with several airlines including Eva Air (for a review of this lounge, see Business Traveller November 2005). Flights are not called from this lounge.
The flight was departing from Gate 17, so at around 2040 I walked there and without delay managed to board the flight, stopping only to choose from a selection of newspapers and magazines available to all passengers. I was in my seat 20 minutes before the scheduled departure time.
Etihad’s new Diamond Zone Suite is perhaps most remarkable for being able to rotate 180 degrees so you can dine and chat with fellow passengers. Since I was travelling alone I did not test this, but found the seat comfortable and easy to work. It is complemented by the excellent Air Theatre entertainment system and huge, 23-inch personal LCD video screen. The seats have several pre-settings allowing you to find the right position for working/ eating, sleeping, take-off and landing as well as the fully flat position.
There are several places to store belongings but, unusually, there are no overhead lockers. The staff didn’t seem to mind us leaving our luggage in front of us under the giant table, and since at this time security dictated that we could only take a small laptop-sized bag on board, this wasn’t a problem. I asked what happened when people came on with wheelie cases, and an attendant told me they had a place up at the front to stow them. I went forward to look and found a curved seat area where it is possible to have a drink, and also a kind of circular walkway allowing people to move from one side of the aircraft to the other without getting in the way of food preparation. Nevertheless, I think most people like to keep their bags close by, and I wished I’d had an extra bag in order to find out exactly where these would have been stored.
Drinks, including Veuve Clicquot 1996, were served before take-off. The wines later in the flight were also excellent and included a white Puligny-Montrachet Les Enseignères 2002 and a red Chateau la Garde 1999 Pessac-Léognan. There was a good choice for the food selection as well, although as usual on these short overnight flights to the Gulf, food isn’t the most pressing of concerns. Instead I wanted to get to sleep as soon as I could.
When I asked a cabin attendant for an amenity kit I was told they had run out. I asked if there were any pairs of ear plugs, or just an eye mask, but the answer was no. I looked around the half-full first class cabin and no one else had been given one, so I walked back to the business class cabin, and as far as I could see, no one there had been given one either.
On the return daytime flight it was the same situation, although on this occasion I was told it was because it was a day flight that amenity kits are not offered.
Under closer questioning the flight staff told me that there is some uncertainty as to whether kits will be offered at all, and in any case, new supplies will not be forthcoming until November (my flight was in August). Informed flyers (ie: anyone reading this) will therefore want to make their own arrangements if they want to get some decent sleep.
Of course none of this would matter so much if the cabin was quiet and dark. London to Abu Dhabi is a short flight, taking around six hours, and yet the cabin lights were dimmed for only about two hours of the flight time. I slept for about 90 minutes before they were switched back on again for breakfast, 75 minutes before landing. I would have preferred to sleep for longer.
We landed on time at 0715 local time at Abu Dhabi and quickly cleared immigration, which is a major advantage that Abu Dhabi airport has over Dubai airport – at least until the new Terminal 3 opens there next year. For passengers in all classes of travel, Etihad offers free transfers from Abu Dhabi to anywhere in the UAE if you pre-book by phone (these are by coach for economy passengers and by car for business and first class passengers). I had made a booking, but although the details appeared to have been lost, there was no delay and no fuss made, which was impressive, and I was quickly on my way into Abu Dhabi city.
In a very competitive market, Etihad is a top-class product with one of the best seats in the world, good service and useful, if erratic, chauffeur-driven options for business and first passengers (even with a free bus transfer for economy passengers).
As a new airline, some details still need to be ironed out; for example, airport transfers, check-in, amenity kits and allowing passengers the luxury of doing what they want – which might be staying up all night, eating, drinking and watching films, but is more likely to be getting a good night’s sleep.
Flights in Etihad’s Diamond Zone (first class) cost from £2,287 for a return fare.