It’s been a few years since you last heard from Geoff Fischer on the blog. But after tackling some seriously difficult challenges, including flying First Class on both Cathay Pacific and Emirates, he’s back again. This time, thanks to a now-depleted trove of American AAdvantage miles, Geoff took a ride in the Etihad A380 First Class Apartments… twice. While he had plenty of nice things to say, he was able to dig deep to find some actual faults in what many consider to be one of the most incredible onboard products to grace the skies.
We’ve set this trip report up a bit differently than most. So read through, enjoy, and let me know if you’d like to see more from Geoff.
When Etihad began flying its A380 with over-the-top First Class “Apartments” in late 2014, they rocketed to the top of my Must-Fly list. Their design goal seems to have been to create the preeminent First Class in the skies, an experience that would one-up their U.A.E. rival, Emirates.
Located at the front of the upper deck in an ultra-wide single aisle 1-1 layout, Etihad gives nine First Class passengers significantly more space than Emirates, Singapore and pretty much all other carriers, which use a 1-2-1 double aisle configuration for 12-16 suites or seats in the same area.
The Apartments are huge walled enclaves with doors that slide shut at the aisle, containing both a standard seat and a long bench that transforms into a bed. Inside, there’s a vanity, a minibar, a 24” flat screen TV and more storage space than you have stuff to store. The cabin also includes versions of two Emirates signature features, a lounge area and a shower. And to top it all off, Etihad has matched Turkish Airways by having an onboard chef personally prepare meals for passengers in the Apartments.
So when American Airlines recently announced that mileage redemption rates will increase for many partner award flights effective today, I decided to use my remaining stash of AAdvantage miles to see if Etihad has indeed set a new standard for luxury travel.
In my small sample size of two flights, New York/JFK-Abu Dhabi and Abu Dhabi back to London/Heathrow, there was a lot to like – from the spaciousness of the bed that was several inches longer than my 6’4” frame, to the highest quality wine glasses and champagne flutes I’ve ever seen on an airplane and the customized approach to meal ordering and service.
Only one was a contender for my personal “Best Flight Ever” (which I previously conferred on a Cathay Pacific SFO-HKG flight back in 2011). Surprisingly, it was the shorter and second leg from Abu Dhabi to London, and I didn’t even bother taking a shower or using the lounge on that flight
Some of the difference between the two flights was luck-of-the-draw. Things like my rapport with the Flight Attendants and a lighter passenger load had a big impact. Another important element was that on Abu Dhabi-London I had one of the four Apartments where the seat is located at the window instead of at the aisle (and one of only two window seats that face forward). The difference in terms of privacy is significant compared to the aisle-adjacent seat I was in from New York to Abu Dhabi, as were the much better views out the windows.
It may have also been that by the second flight I had gotten over my disappointment about some of the areas where Etihad lags. For one, their version of an onboard lounge is a far cry from the Emirates bar. It’s a table located right outside the galley where all First and Business class meals are prepared. There is no bar, no bartender and it’s not a place I imagine that gets much use. Also, the shower is cramped and awkward to comfortably use compared to its Emirates counterpart. And there are a few small oversights, like how the personal closet in the Apartment can barely fit an overcoat — and cannot fit a second hangar with your clothes if you choose to change into the provided pajamas. (I know, I know. Some serious 1% problems…)
Another big miss in my opinion is the largely undifferentiated ground experience for First and Business class passengers. At both JFK and Abu Dhabi, there were only minimal exclusive touches for First Class passengers; nothing like the wonderful Lufthansa First Class Terminal in Frankfurt or Singapore Airlines’s Private Room. (Etihad says that a dedicated First Class lounge will open in May in Abu Dhabi, but they’ve apparently been promising it for quite a while.)
But all that said, let’s be very clear that the Etihad Apartments are an excellent way to fly. The personal space of the Apartment is unrivaled, and that is more meaningful to most fliers than a bigger shower or a fancier lounge. I’ve had more opulent food and wine on other flights, but Etihad’s offerings were solid.
Flight attendant service ranged from very good to excellent, and on both flights the chefs were genuinely eager to customize meals to my tastes.
If anything, the biggest regret for fliers may be that Etihad only has five A380s in their fleet and five more on order, meaning that the Apartments only fly between a select group of cities, currently Abu Dhabi to JFK, London, and Sydney with service to Mumbai and Melbourne starting later this year. (Compare that to a stunning *75* A380s in the Emirates fleet, with 30 more on order.)
The Trip In Photos
Etihad 102 Lv JFK 235p Arr Abu Dhabi 1227p (next day)
New York/JFK: Gate 47, Runway 4L, Depart 5m Late
Abu Dhabi: Gate 303, Runway 31R, Arrive 12m Late
A6-APA, Airbus A380-800, Standard Etihad colors, 8/9 Apartments occupied (Residence empty)
Flight Time 12h3m
Etihad 19 Lv AUH 812a Arr LHR 1230p
Abu Dhabi: Gate 33, Runway 31L, Depart 12m Late
London/Heathrow: Gate 413, Runway 27L, Arrive 25m Late
A6-APA, Airbus A380-800, Standard Etihad colors, 6/9 Apartments occupied (Residence empty)
Flight Time 7h46m
Etihad’s website makes it relatively easy to check award availability, though flexibility with travel dates is critical. I originally intended to fly over New Years, but Etihad did not open any First Class award seats from JFK to Abu Dhabi, even when there were unsold seats the day before departure. I then shifted my sights to late January, and was able to grab an award seat just after it became available, two weeks before the outbound flight.
Booking also required Skype calls to American Airlines’ reservations line in Australia, because US-based AA agents can’t always ticket Etihad First and Business class awards. It’s not clear if this is a glitch or intentional – but seemed yet another reason to book and fly it now, in case it is a loophole that gets closed.
The good news is that American does not charge high fees for Etihad redemptions. The JFK-Abu Dhabi one way ticket cost 90,000 AAdvantage miles (which climbed to 115,000 today) and a mere $7 in taxes. For variation, and to avoid the 3am Abu Dhabi-JFK departure time, I booked my return on Etihad Abu Dhabi-London with an overnight stopover and a connecting flight to the US the next day on British Airways in First Class on their A380. That return ticket cost 90,000 miles (again, climbed to 115,000 today) and $300 (and could have cost less if I had flown AA from LHR instead of BA). The $75 charge for ticketing award travel less than 21 days in advance was waived because of my AA Gold status.