CHECK-IN I arrived at Abu Dhabi airport’s Terminal 3 at 0650 for my 0850 flight (EY19). Etihad’s premium check-in area has separate areas for first and business class check-in. I was originally travelling in business class, where there were queues of one person long at each desk, but received an upgrade to first at the desk. I was told that they were having trouble contacting staff at the first class lounge to inform them of my upgrade, but that I should proceed there and it would be fine.
After dropping my bag, I headed to passport control, which was at the centre of the two classes’ check-in areas, where there was a queue of about five people moving rather slowly. I waited for just over ten minutes, then security was directly after this – it was fast, and I cleared it in a couple of minutes.
THE LOUNGE The Etihad Guest lounges for premium passengers are located more or less straight after security – a lift takes you up one floor to reach them. At the first class lounge’s welcome desk, I asked if staff could please confirm my upgrade – they told me to take a seat and grab some breakfast while they sorted everything out.
I was greeted at the à la carte dining area and, shortly after I’d taken a seat, my order was taken. I ordered shakshuka (Arabic scrambled eggs), which was good, and my cappuccino was presented with a gourmet chocolate. This dining area was full of mint green and white leather seating, and was sectioned off in places with curtains, giving these parts more privacy. The champagne bar at the centre of this section was lined with high leather chairs. The area soon filled up with business travellers having breakfast, but it remained peaceful –there were plenty of staff, and service was prompt and polite.
The main area of the lounge had similar design touchpoints as the Heathrow Etihad Guest lounge (see my review of the inbound journey here) such as a central curved mahogany bookshelf area that boasted an array of coffee table books – many about travel and culture in the UAE – and beside it were magazines and newspapers including The Guardian and The Evening Standard. Just off this section was the Six Senses spa.
Sun streamed through the windows by the brown carpeted lounge area with comfortable, neutral toned furniture. Opposite here were sleek white leather swivel chairs next to individual wall desks with flatscreen Bang and Olufsen TVs with headphones that were showing Arabic Sky News.
Perhaps there could have been more plug sockets in the lounge – I noticed people were working with their laptops unplugged, and one passenger was sitting at a glass topped table near the dining area with her laptop cable tautly stretched to reach the wall. However, there were two Apple Macs located within huge brown leather booths. Wifi was free.
An enclosed oval-shaped cigar room sits at the very centre of the lounge – it had brown-hued décor and lazy boy chairs.
I enjoyed an express back massage at the spa – in 15 minutes, the spa attendant managed to pretty much eliminate my shoulder pain from kayaking the day before. When I left the spa at 0810, boarding had begun.
BOARDING My flight was departing from gate 31. I travelled down the elevator, took a left turn, walked through duty free, and then took another left –about a five-minute walk. The airport was very busy and judging by the queues at the gate, this was a rather full flight, but being in first class, I skipped straight to the front. Crew welcomed me on board and showed me to my suite, where I was settled before 0825.
The in-flight chef came and introduced himself shortly afterwards. He brought me a glass of champagne (La Grand Anée Bollinger, 2002) and talked me through the suite, telling me what all the buttons did, and he said that if at any point there was anything I’d like to eat during the flight to let him know – even if there was something I fancied that wasn’t on the first class Mezoon Grille menu (mezoon means cloud in Arabic).
Before take-off, he also returned to offer me Arabic coffee and dates. Later on, I saw him assisting the flight attendants with their duties at times throughout the flight – he was proactive, polite and professional. The head of the cabin also introduced himself – I found him very personable, and saw that he developed good rapport with passengers.
THE SEAT There were two rows of first class (rows one and two) configured 1-2-1 (A-D,G-K). I was seated in 1K – front row window suite to the right of the cabin (to see a seat plan, click here).
The suite’s cream and tan colour scheme was warm and inviting – the seat itself was upholstered in rich, tan-coloured Poltrona Frau leather – an Italian brand that is also used for the seating of Maserati cars. The suite doors to my left had gold, diamond-shaped fresco screens that you could see out of, but not see in to, and they slid shut manually. Both of these factors achieved the right balance of privacy without feeling “shut in”, which I imagine some people may feel with solid doors that slide shut electronically (just in case they should malfunction).
The seat was huge, and it ran the length of three windows. It was 29.8 inches (75.7cm) wide, and 80.5 inches long (204cm) when reclined into a fully-flat bed. When it was upright, I had to really stretch my feet out to reach the footrest at the other end of the suite. This doubles up as a seat for a colleague for in-flight meetings, and its base and the wall around it are covered in padded leather.
A skinny wardrobe – no more than a couple of inches wide, and the height of the suite – was built into the wall of the suite beside the screen doors, with good quality wooden hangers, and enough space to hang a jacket. A “minibar” storage system was built into the right-hand of the suite, and a pack of mixed nuts and two bottles of water were supplied. This was not a fridge, just a storage space, and its proximity to the IFE (in-flight entertainment) system meant that the water became quite heated during the flight – but staff advised me about this and brought me ice in a glass when they saw that I was drinking the water.
Touchscreen controls were also built into the right hand side of the suite, with controls for the lighting, a privacy button, and three different buttons for adjusting the lighting. You can change the seat’s angle simply by selecting the picture of the seat in the position you want it to be in – be it upright, fully-flat, or for dining.
The dining setting lowers the seats’ armrests and glides the seat forwards towards the table. The one-piece table itself was a great feature of the suite – it slid manually out of a slot on the right hand side. It was very thick – easily a couple of inches, made from dark glossy wood and has a square-shaped surface with round corners. It can also slide closer or further away from you with thanks to a track along the side of the suite. It was very sturdy and large enough to support and spread out a laptop and large piles of paper. Beware of the slot that the table comes from, it is quite easy to knock items into here, as it’s so wide.
The IFE remote was stored in a compartment next to these controls – inside here were an international plug socket, two USB ports, an internet cable and AV input port. A magazine rack was also to my right.
All the compartments blend into the suite discreetly, and don’t interfere with space at all. There’s sufficient overhead space for storing luggage and other items, and there’s a groove running along the side of the suite where I put my shoes (there was a sign saying that luggage should not be stored there, it’s really only for small, light items).
An amenity kit– designed by Swarovski Elements – contained La Prarie products: hand cream, toothbrush and toothpaste, moisturiser, roll-in pulse point oil, pillow mist, lip balm, cotton buds, pads, an ermery board and flight socks. A blanket and pyjama set – black cotton with a diamanté zip – were on the footrest on my arrival.
WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE? Go for one of the individual suites (A or K) on row 2 to avoid noise from the galley (though this was minimal). Toilet queues are not an issue if you do end up in row one, as this is located around the corner from the seats and far into the galley.
I sat in seat 2G at one point while I waited for my bed to be made. The middle seats would be good if you were travelling with a companion – you can see over the partition between the two seats if you raise your head. Individual seats benefit from being by the window, allowing you to use the storage space to the side of the suite for light items.
THE FLIGHT We pushed back on time, and about an hour into the flight, I asked a flight attendant to make up my bed – I waited in one of the spare suites while she did this. A white sheet was fitted and a thin cotton duvet with a polyester filling was provided – perhaps a duvet cover would have been nice, though there was also a beige and navy striped woolen blanket.
I closed the screen doors and turned off the lights, which created a very good environment for sleeping – private, without feeling claustrophobic. I slept soundly for two hours – I was woken by turbulence, so did up my seatbelt and rested for a little while longer. The seat felt extremely long to lie down in, and the seat fully covered the area as a mattress would.
I began to feel awake, so sat up and tried out Etihad’s Wi-Fly wifi – I was given a card with a code that I needed to enter to connect (wifi is free for first class passengers), and was told to expect it to come and go depending on which country we were flying over at the time. The code was really long, and fiddly to enter on my Blackberry, but after a couple of attempts I was connected. It did cut out at times, but overall it worked well.
I opened the screen doors and the head of the cabin noticed I was now awake, and asked if I’d like anything to eat. He brought over the chef to take my order – I went for the Etihad Steak Sandwich with rocket leaves, turkey bacon, red onion compote, melted cheese and mayonnaise, served with grain mustard, though I asked for tomatoes instead of the compote. The chef asked if I’d like fries and whether I’d like ribeye or sirloin and how I like my steak. He also took my drink order, removed my bedding and asked if I would like my table to be laid out – I declined but thanked him.
The sandwich was excellent – the meat was succulent and just how I like it, and the other sandwich fillings were well prepared and fresh. The chips were a little undercooked, though. They were served with a feta salad.
The Mezoon Grille menu offered unbelievable choice. A la carte options included starters of spinach and green lentil soup, mixed vegetables and labneh, and a trio of gravid John Dory fish served with chive marinated palm hearts and mesclun salad. Mains included Arabic spice and yoghurt marinated chicken breast with aromatic rice, dried lemon and roasted vegetable sauce – a recipe that had been developed in conjunction with Mezlai restaurant at Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace hotel – and vegetable lasagna.
There was also a Grill menu, with mains of rib-eye steak, corn-fed chicken, fillet of barramundi and optional sides including turned château potatoes, creamy mashed potato, and oven-roasted baby fennel, and a selection of sauces.
The Kitchen Anytime menu included a “breakfast Quattro” of Gruyere omelette, vanilla marscapone yoghurt, berry and fruit salad and an energizer smoothie, a beef pastrami bagel served with horseradish cream, tomato and gherkin, and organic eggs cooked anyway with chicken sausage, rosti potatoes, sautéed mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, baked beans and foul medames.
Desserts included a “quattro of desserts” – mango mascarpone cheesecake, molten chocolate cake, green apple and lychee shote and ice cream, and warm honey-nut cake served with pomegranate syrup. I ordered the chocolate and caramel cheesecake with raspberry sauce and mango (lovely) and followed it with a black Americano – which was served with some mini chocolate cupcakes that the chef had prepared on board earlier in the flight.
The wine selection included Henriot Brut Rosé champagne (NV), Louis Latour Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru Baudines 2008, Burgundy, Réserve de la Comtesse 2008, Pauillac Bordeaux, Castello di Gabbiano Chianti Classico Riserva DOGG 2008, Tuscany, and Termes Numanthia 2009, Toro.
The bathroom was the best I’ve ever seen on a flight – spacious and sleek with black surfaces and Six Senses products.
I watched a film while I ate. The 23-inch IFE screen was built into the wall opposite my seat provided the same experience as watching TV at home, and I also found the remote easy to use. The entertainment selection on the Ebox system was the same as on my inbound flight. The Etihad-branded headphones were over-ear ones, and more comfortable that the on-ear ones in business class – they blocked out background noise really well.
ARRIVAL We touched down at Heathrow T4 slightly early, just before 1315, and the back row of first disembarked first. It was a short walk to passport control – where there were moderate queues – and an escalator down to baggage claim, where my luggage was waiting for me.
VERDICT A wonderful flying experience enhanced by memorable, genuine staff. The tremendous choice of food and flexibility of the service means you can truly tailor your flight to be how you want it to be, and the level of luxury and attention to my needs left me feeling relaxed and refreshed after the flight.
Flight time: Six hours and 50 minutes
Plane type: B777-300ER
Seat width 29.8 inches (75.7cm)
Seat length 80.5 inches (204cm)
Seat recline 180 degrees
Price Internet rates for a midweek flexible first class return fare from London to Abu Dhabi in mid-July start from £4,124.