“That was the bulliest experience I ever had. I envy you your professional conquest of space.”
Thing is, Teddy Roosevelt never flew Etihad. Guy missed out. If a small biplane could impress our only president to ever ride a moose, I think the sheer awesomeness of Etihad would likely have left him a gibbering fool!
AirlineReporter Senior Correspondent Jacob PflegerÂ flew Etihad’s first class product back in the days when it was still called “Diamond First Class.” It was amazing, but with the introduction of the Facets of Abu DhabiÂ scheme and removal of the word diamond, Etihad has taken it even further. Out of a sense of curiosity and jealousy, a need to travel to South Africa, and a desire to best Jacob,Â I found a good fare from Los Angeles to Johannesburg that would let me put Etihad to the test on their longest pair of flights. I flew from Los Angeles to Abu Dhabi and back, the route that Etihad purchased their 777-200LR fleet from Air India specifically to launch.
Now, when these planes came from Air India, they were in legendary Air India style. Missing parts, missing documents, pretty much close to the axe; the aircraft were not taken care of. Worse, Air India had decided to purchase the auxiliary fuel tanks from Boeing that were necessary for their dream routes to the U.S. West Coast that will onlyÂ materialize this year (maybe). Etihad and Boeing worked for months to bring these aircraft up to scratch.
However, when you get on board, there is not a trace of the old horrors and neglect that these wonderful machines faced. The result isÂ a first class cabin that is better than both Gulfstreams I have flown on.
The extremely wide seat extends into a bed well over six feet in length.Â Feeling exposed? Yeah, I would be too. Even though you can’t really see any other passengers when seated, that’s not the point – you have the ability to shut your doors and have ultimate privacy. When I fly, I’d rather not see anyone but the cabin crew. Commercial flights are not about socializing for me. Etihad understands.
The doors actually turn into one of Etihad’s few flaws. While the they are perfect in and of themselves, would it have killed them to make the doors automatic and part of the seat control? I get the feeling Etihad is also aware of this and working on a solution; they are extremely clever and some of the rumors I have heard of upcoming products make me think they are stealing my thoughts. If that sounds like a pretty minor issue, that’s the point. That was the biggest thing I could find wrong with my experience.
The in-flight entertainment (IFE) is cutting edge, and of the Panasonic eX3 sort. Even though it is “only” 1080p, that does not detract from anything. There is not a meaningful amount of 4K content out there, so Etihad is not yetÂ behind the curve.
By the way, the photographed blanket above, adjacent the mini-bar, is by far the best in flight blanket I have ever seen or used.
One of the other perks is the pillow. In terms of comfort, it is merely a pillow, but I prefer to think of it as a work of art, exclusively for first class passengers. In that way, even before pre-departure beverage service, my flight was already exceeding Jacob’s! What now, Jacob? What now?
I challenge you to find a better seat on a 777 — you won’t, in part because of the almost ostentatious use of Poltrona Frau leather. You will find none better on almost all other airlines and aircraft. It is only bested by Etihad’s 787-9 product, and eclipsed by the First Class Apartment on the A380 (but then again, what is not?).
Does the mini-bar serve a purpose? Yes. On flights toÂ countries not stuck in the puritan era, there’s usually beer in there as well as water. Saves you a ding of the call button. Now, is it as large as the Emirates mini-bar? No. That’s because of Etihad’s service philosophy! Why grab a bottle of water and a pack of nuts when you can have a huge pot of tea and a fresh baked cookie to go with it?
What about the rest of the soft product?
Back in university, some people from Etihad’s Australia branch came to give us lecture on their philosophy and some other airline marketing things. Back then, they told me they wanted to be the best airline in the world. They were not interested in being the largest, nor many of the other metrics, but they had a goal. Be the best. By best, they meant in terms of focusing on the customer and exceeding what anyone else thought could possibly be done in commercial air travel. Four years later, I finally got to see what they meant!
They did it. They did it in such a way that you would be insane to ever consider any other first class product truly “first class” ever again. They took a page out of my book; not only did they gaze at the competition and say “I can match that,” they threw down their proverbial gauntlet, shouting “try and catch us!” while riding away on a horse boosted by rocket-powered shoes and laughing.
Oddly, my first normal passenger interaction with Etihad beyond the welcome note, the dates, and the cold towel waiting for me was being told that some arcane U.S. Customs regulation prevented them from opening the Moet & Chandon RosÃ© champagne they had on board, and that they could only use the Bollinger. Now, don’t get me wrong, a good Bollinger has a great terroir and just the right amount of fruit and caramel to really pop with the dryer finish – and of course, this did. Seriously though, why can we not have our RosÃ© champers? Who would it hurt? Do you dislike the idea of a sparkling blend?
Two glasses of Bollinger in prior to pushback, I started to lose my outrage.
The second interaction was the chef coming past to ask for my orders. I’ll get to what I ordered later for my dinner, but even the menu presentation was flawless. That is the level of service and delicacy in Etihad First. The chef isn’t just a glorified oven operator, either. Again, in time I shall explain.
There was another problem. Not Etihad’s fault, of course. The baggage system in LAX’s Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT) was malfunctioning and load sheets and baggage confirmations had to be done manually. Etihad was courteous, informative, and extremely apologetic for a delay entirely out of their hands.
The chef even brought me some potato chips to go with yet more champagne.
Eventually we made it to LAX’s longest runway. Of course, I pulled out my chronometer. After taking the runway, we rolled for 46.97s before rotation. Then again, when you have that much fuel and cargo on board, that almost seems fast.
My next glass of champagne (now the RosÃ©) came with an amuse of dehydrated vegetables, nuts, and olives.
Ten minutes later, Danushka, the best cabin attendant ever, came by to set up the table. This is not your ordinary fine china. One would definitely say it was bespoke for Etihad. I love it so much I plan to come to Abu Dhabi and do a bit of shopping when they have their next sale. It would be fun for dinner parties.
First class meals in my life have ranged from “pretty good,” to “same as business class,” to “downright terrifying.”
Etihad, however, employs a chef for every first class cabin. It seems they take food as seriously as me. I looked at the menu, I asked about the special, and I had read countless other Etihad reviews. I learned how to best maximize my Etihad dining experience — I was not disappointed.
I was mistaken, the dehydrated vegetables and other snacks with my champagne were not an amuse at all.
Boom. One bite. Gone. The veal was pretty much flawless. Great complexity and depth of flavor. This is Michelin-star level cooking at 33,000 feet. Many airlines don’t want to push the culinary envelope in their first class. That’s not how we re-imagine flying, is it?
Etihad has one of the most sophisticated galleys you will find. The chef has grill pans, skillets, and protein packs for the ovens. Shockingly, they even have a microwave to play with. I don’t know why that impressed me so much, but it did.
All proteins are cooked on demand. You won’t be getting a steak that was pre-cooked on land and then tortured into some sort of hockey puck. Of course, I could not simply believe the chef, I had to try this.
But first, some traditional Arabic mezze.
The bread plate had pita and two non-bread entities. There was a sort of arabic vegetable samosa, and a lovely kibbeh. Seriously, that was a great kibbeh, puts my local to shame!
On the plate there were some pickles, baba ganoush, and hummus. Not grainy grocery store hummus, not even “local mid-eastern chain restaurant.” Not that my local is bad, but this was the flat-out best I had ever tasted. It’s hard for me to keep saying flawless, but when my poor little local place, that I love, in Bellevue, WA is getting crushed at what was then 35,000 feet — I can’t think of a better word. I could go on for days, but the food had disappeared.
A grapefruit sorbet made for a nice intermission before the main event. Oh wait, did I mention the Etihad bread selection? Some were not a good combination when enjoying the Arabic delights, but I still enjoyed the garlic bread. Then came the steak.
Yes, disbelievers, this rib-eye was grilled on board. Â It was served with a simple red-wine reduction, green beans, and mashed potatoes. Simple, but amazing.
Then, it was time for some sort of honey and cream cheesecake as a pre-dessert. What course was this? I started to lose count, but that was a good thing.
Next I was served a chocolate/orange sphere. Yes there was chocolate soil, yes there was an impeccable raspberry coulis, yes this was just over the wilds of Montana. Better yet, there was even some sort of gelÃ©e. The presentation, the colors, the smells, and the taste all satisfied.
To go along with it, I also had a pot of delicious Italian almond tea, something you can’t get in business class. Jacob… did you enjoy some Italian almond tea?
I was stuffed. Thrilled to bits, but very stuffed — also drunk. Time for bed!
I didn’t want to sleep too long, not only would that be wasting away a First Class flight, but I also wanted to be prepared to sleep, shortly after landing at 8:00pm in Abu Dhabi.
It was hard to not sleep more, when this is the best bed you’ll find on a triple seven or anything other than the usual Etihad superiors.
Even with the bed being amazing, when you wake up, that doesn’t make you any less hungry. Still in the excited delirium of too many high-end fermented grapes, I decided it was time for a lamb biryani. Extremely spicy, but extremely delicious. Etihad seems to have been able to master every style of cuisine thrown at them.
They also provided fresh baked cookies and madeleines on request.
Closer to landing I devoured Etihad’s competition to the Qantas/Emirates steak sandwich, the Etihad Steak sandwich. Yeah, it’s better. Love the use of the caramelized onion relish.
So what did I do when I wasn’t eating? Well, I confirmed my suspicions that the only good movie releasedÂ in 2015 was “Mad Max: Fury Road” – I tried all the other big names. Okay, Ant Man was okay, but everything else was outright terrible. This is what film has become?
The best value, however, is the T-mobile Ku-band internet. $21 USD for 17 hours of WiFi? Sold. Even better, thanks to aircell technology, I could send and receive regular SMS messages, so long as the ‘no phone’ light was not illuminated.
In the end,Â I have to warn you – Etihad First will leave you lying on your couch in your black lounge wear wishing you were still on the plane. And it might be hard to feel that other first class options are in the same ball park.
It is surprising, seeing how good of an experience that Jacob had in the old first class, not that long ago. It was a product to be proud of and still beats much of the competition. But now, there is no question that Etihad has improved this product and the rest of the industry will be trying to catch up.