Tried & Tested

Exclusive: Etihad Airways new first class suite

27 Aug 2009 by Tom Otley

For a review of the inbound flight from Abu Dhabi in the same class, click here.

Background Etihad only installed its current first class seating on its long-haul fleet in 2006, yet it is already being replaced by this new suite with the rollout scheduled to take place over the next two years.

First impressions In the UK Etihad offers a free chauffeur drive up to 150 miles from in the UK from both London Heathrow and Manchester airports (business class 100 miles). I checked in online early in the morning and selected seat 2A for my EY18 departure from LHR at 2120.

The lounge for the moment, Diamond First class passengers can use the superb Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse in T3 (Qatar Airways first class flyers also enjoy this privilege apparently). This will stay in place until Etihad moves to T4 at the end of September (click here for more information), when it will have its own lounges there (click here for more information).

Use of the Virgin Clubhouse isn’t advertised on the Etihad website, and I get the impression this must be because Virgin doesn’t want to make a big deal out of it, though the flights are called from the lounge, so it’s hardly a secret.

By the time we reached the lounge everyone else had boarded and there was no queue at Gate 3. We were quickly onboard and offered a glass of champagne, with our jackets stowed in a thin locker which makes up the external wall of the suite (the door to this wardrobe also has a narrow mirror on its inside). Next to the seat there was a welcome card from Kevin, the cabin manager. Before take-off we were also offered dates and Arabic coffee, and asked what drink we would like immediately after take-off. We departed only 10 minutes after departure time.

The seat the new Etihad seats follow the lead of Emirates and Jet Airways by being incorporated into a suite for “privacy, greater comfort and increased storage”. In short this means sliding doors with Arabic-style detailing for privacy, and even more room than the existing Diamond First Class. The strategy of the airline, as articulated by Etihad’s Chief Commercial Officer Peter Baumgartner, is “to establish the Etihad brand as a premium luxury brand of undifferentiated superiority”. (Click here to read Business Traveller's exclusive interview with Baumgartner.)

The seat now extends into a fully-flat bed (80.5 inches in length), and comes equipped with a built-in massager, lumbar support and adjustable headrest, as well as power sockets which fit a UK three-point plug directly (so no need for an adaptor), an Ethernet port and audio jack. The IFE system is the latest incarnation of Etihad’s entertainment called E-box, which is fully audio and video on demand and has over 600 hours of programming and a 23" wide-screen LCD screen to watch it on.

The suites have several small storage spaces, including one which contained two bottles of water (one sparkling, one still). As well as the wardrobe, bags can be stored under the ottoman seat, but if you have more than one bag, it will be stored in one of the cupboards up front where there are also covers for your suit or clothes if they are stored up there. Note, there are no overhead lockers for any of the seats. It makes the cabin seem spacious, and is probably necessary since the walls of the suite would almost impede any overhead lockers.

The configuration is as before – 1-2-1, with a total of 12 suites. There isn’t anything to choose between these seats as they are all excellent, although if you are travelling with a colleague or a loved one, clearly the middle pairs of seats are the ones to go for. To view a seat plan of the aircraft, click here.

The flight We were offered sleep suits just before take-off, and I changed into mine once we were in the air. There are two washrooms for the 12 first class seats, but one of these is termed a changing room by virtue of being much larger than normal. It is decked out in a flecked black decoration, though the floor is slippy. The washroom has a long mirror and leather fold-down changing room seat to allow passengers to freshen up and change after take-off and prior to landing.

Meals are served on an extra large (24 inches by 25 inches) wood-finished meal table and as well as the Poltrona Frau leather upholstered seat covers (a material also used in Ferraris), the ottoman seat opposite is large enough for a fellow diner to join you for the meal service.

Food and drink This was an evening flight, with a relatively short sector time of less than seven hours, but this being one of the first flights featuring this new first class product, there weren’t many people asking for the seat to be turned immediately into the flat bed for a good night’s sleep. Instead the a la carte menu seemed to be the centre of attention. The menus are in a leather holder, along with the business card of the cabin manager for the flight, some stationery in case you feel the need to write a letter, a comment card, a guide to the features of the suite and notes telling you that power adaptors, dental kits and shaving kits are available on request. There is also a fast track card for immigration at Abu Dhabi airport.

Starters Stilton blue cheese tarte, smoked salmon terrine or Cock-a-leekie clear soup.
Main courses Roasted red snapper, rack of lamb, pan-seared chicken supreme, Spanakopita  or Grilled prawns. All these main courses were served with a choice of organic five leaf salad, steamed broccoli with toasted almond, roasted pumpkin with honey and cumin, oven baked potato and lemon juice or steamed rice with freshly ground coriander. I had the soup followed by the Grilled Prawns, which came on tagliatelle. Both were delicious. 
Desserts Steamed date pudding with fresh strawberries and butterscotch sauce, a Quattro of desserts: coconut macaroon and pineapple cream cheesecake; pineapple anglaise custard ancho chilli chocolate mousse  and seasonal fruit lollipop, hot home-baked fruit pie with strawberry and ruhbarb and crème fraiche.

The meal service started with a selection of breads, and some Arabic mezzes dips which were delicious, especially with the Louis Jadot Burgundy.

In addition there was an anytime kitchen for those wanting more food, or preferring something a little less organised. The choice here included everything from a steak sandwich or fish and chips with mushy peas to baked cookies, a baked egg tarte or Providore natural ice cream.

Champagnes Billecart-Salmon Brut Blanc de Blancs and Baudry Brut Rose.
White wines Louis Jadot Chassagne Montrachet 2004, Castello di Pomino Bianco 2007 DOC Pomino, and Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2007 from New Zealand.
Red wines Chateau Batailley 1998, Chateau Laroze St Emilion Grand Cru Classe 2004, Luce della Vite Lucente 2006, Gloria Ferrer “Etesian” Pinot Noir 2006, Sonoma, California and Langmeil Earthworks Shiraz 2007 from the Barossa Valley, Australia.
Dessert wine Forrest Estate Late Harvest Gewurtztraminer 2007 from New Zealand. 

There was also a good choice of Cognacs, digestifs, liquers and spirits including Laphroiag single malt, Armagnac 1976. The non-alcoholic selection included 13 teas and infusions (eg:  Masala chai non-vintage and rosehip and hibiscus) as well as proper coffee and juices.  

The bed the seat reclines into a fully flat bed of 80.5 inches with a width of 29.75 inches and seat width of 22 inches (the difference in width measurements is because the arms lower to be level with the seat when converted into bed mode). Once reclined there is a small side compartment for stowing belongings.

The cabin crew were attentive and on request would make-up the beds which come with an under blanket and duvet in distinctive – let’s be frank about it, Newcastle United black and white, or perhaps Her Majesty’s Prison gear. However, the comfort is excellent, and my only regret was that I didn’t have longer to sleep. The crew explained that I could close the doors at any time, and press a button for do not disturb, only reminding me to keep my seatbelt fastened over the blanket (unlike in this photo) – and saying they might have to open the doors in the event of turbulence to check that I had done so.

Arrival It was too short a flight, unfortunately, and after only three hours sleep we were woken for arrival. I had a quick glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and then it was time to get changed and prepare for landing. We landed on time at 0720 and were quickly at the terminal building. There was a long walk to immigration, preceeded by a security check which early in the morning was very busy. I had morning meetings so went into the Etihad first class lounge for a cup of tea and a shower at the Six Senses Spa, and managed to resist the offer of a spa treatment before the day started.

Verdict the amazing thing about this new first class, other than the fact that it comes only three years after the last first class was introduced, is how it had improved on an already outstanding product. The service was excellent throughout, the seat is very comfortable, and the cabin spacious but also private.


Tom Otley

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