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Etihad Airways: New York to Abu Dhabi

16 Jan

Flight: EY 101

Route: JFK – AUH

Class of Service: FIRST

Aircraft: B777-300ER (77W)

There’s much fanfare around the ME3, the gulf carriers of the UAE and Qatar, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways. And if you’ve flown any of them, you likely know firsthand what all the fuss is about. Even the most hard-to-impress can likely contend with the fact that compared to US domestic carriers, the difference is quite clear, putting things mildly.

I first flew Etihad 6 years ago when I first ventured out to the UAE. Then, it was, by and large, still a fledgling carrier hardly noticeable in the shadows of big brother, Emirates. And with good reason, it’d only been in operation for 7 years and still forming a distinct identity for itself. That withstanding, I enjoyed the trip then and could immediately notice this was a company big on enhancing the customer experience and attempting to make a difference in the industry. Etihad has grown up quite a bit since, expanding its footprint in many more markets and growing its fleet substantially (including its revolutionary Residence and individual Apartments featured on its A380), firmly establishing Abu Dhabi as a hub for connections to the Far East and beyond. It was time for me to check things out again.

I booked my ticket using AAdvantage miles in First (90K one-way) on my outbound journey, on EY 101 currently operated by the carrier’s 77W (777-300ER) aircraft . While I personally think the triple seven is one of the most beautiful and elegant commercial jets to grace the skies, I’d hoped I’d had the opportunity to book the trip instead on Etihad’s A380 aircraft which, as aforementioned, has much roomier First Class Apartments and of course the groundbreaking Residence, plus onboard bar/lounge and showers for First Guests. Alas, partner mileage redemptions for these apartments have become quite scarce and so I didn’t have much of a choice but to stick with the 777. First Class Suites are available on the airlines’ other aircraft, B777, B787, A340 and A330 And as I detail below, these suites are still some of the best in the industry.

Etihad’s branding team deserve major applause for successfully executing what I believe to be one of the most consistent customer or ‘Guest’ (using Etihad’s designated preferred nomenclature for referring to their customers) experiences out there. From the ground to the skies, it’s quite a remarkable thing. Even the musical theme that plays onboard is a clever soundtrack reminiscent of a movie score and is something that sticks with you for sometime–even after your journey’s over.

Checking in: Etihad is based in Terminal 4 at JFK. It’s largely serviced by Delta but several other airlines, Emirates, Virgin Atlantic, Singapore, Swiss, to name a few, also call it home. It’s one of the newer and more modern of the terminals at Kennedy. In fact it’s my favorite there. As to be expected, there’s a dedicated check-in counter for premium, First and Business Class, Guests. It was quick and efficient though if I’m allowed to nitpick a little, I found nothing terribly overly special about it, especially eyeing Emirate’s an isle over. Still the representative was courteous and after I was through, directed me to the lounge which is situated just to the left after clearing security.

The lounge was very smart looking, featuring the airlines’ rebranded color scheme and geometric patterns, which I happen to find very attractive. This theme is consistent throughout — seen on other items, including pillows in premium cabins and most noticeably aircraft tails. The bar menu features strategically designed cocktails, wine, beer and soft drinks (including a selection of mocktails). And dining consists of a la carte table service or Guests may choose to select options from the buffet. Wanting to get the full experience of the onboard service, I skipped having a meal and settled instead on a cocktail and a small serving of mixed nuts.

Before too long, the host at the lounge came to alert me, just right before a general announcement was made, that boarding was about to commence at the specified gate, if I’d like to proceed over. Walking up to our plane, I was warmly greeted and immediately handed over to the Flight Attendant that would be looking after me for the duration of the flight (regrettably I do not recall her name now — she was fantastic). She then walked me over to my suite; one of only 8 in First. Next came a welcome drink, Bollinger La Grande AnnĂ©e champagne, dates, a hot towelette and personal welcome note from Leanne, the Cabin Manager. Not at all a bad way to commence a 13 hr journey.

Shortly thereafter, the onboard Chef, exclusive to First Guests, walked over, introduced himself and inquired after what my palate may be inclining towards after we takeoff. It’s a dine on-demand sort of process, so I could order whenever I wanted but he did take the time to walk me through the menu and inquired if I had any questions. For an aperitif, I ordered the Martini Bianco, which was served in a proper martini glass and came with mixed nuts and olives. It was delicious. Next came my appetizer; I settled on the Arabic Mezze: hummus, baba ghanoush and tabouleh. Right after I was presented with a palate cleanser which was described to me though alas I can’t quite recall what it was; it’s pictured below. For my dinner, my choice was Fish. It was most delectable, as good as anything one would have on the ground and served on fine china. Compliments to the Chef indeed. At this point I was sufficiently full though easily gave in to dessert: an apple crumble of sorts which wasn’t terribly exciting but nice and simple enough.

It was now time to turn in. I’d started to nod off almost immediately after dinner while I was indulging in a movie on the 23″ TV featured in the suite. I grabbed my bag of goodies presented to me by the flight attendant after I’d boarded (which included pajamas, slippers and an amenity kit with luxury toiletries) and headed to the restroom to change. Immediately the Flight Attendant came by to inquire if I was ready for my bed to be made and I said yes. In my pajamas and ready for bed, I came back to an elegantly executed turn-down service. The bed was made including a mattress for extra padding and a lovely ‘sweet dreams’ note attached.

I was able to sleep very comfortably for a good 6-7 hrs. A slight complaint, however, would be I felt the cabin temperature was a bit too warm so I felt like almost disrobing at one point but thankfully things did eventually cool down. The noise-canceling headset I also felt a little too tight around the ears (for me). I woke up about a couple hrs before our touchdown in Abu Dhabi and just as I went to use the restroom, our Chef approached me to inquire if I was ready for some breakfast and what I fancied. I started out with fresh fruit and then proceeded on to a simple English breakfast of sorts. All very delicious.

Before too long, alas, we commenced our descent into Abu Dhabi. It was such a brilliant journey that I almost didn’t want it to end. Waiting planeside after touchdown, a distance from the terminal (as we didn’t disembark via jet-bridge), were a couple luxury Audi cars on standby to ferry First guests to the terminal. A nice treat to cap off a most remarkable flight.

Key Takeaways: In my estimation, Etihad offers one of the most luxurious and innovative ways to fly, especially in First, though the attention to the customer experience is palpable throughout all classes of service. The carrier has succeeded in keeping a consistent theme from the ground to the skies which enhances the overall experience. Note also, if you’re transiting to-or-from Dubai, you can book Etihad’s complimentary coach service.

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