Nine years ago, Etihad did not exist. Today the airline flies over seven million people to 82 destinations in 64 planes. They have the record for the fastest growing airline in the world and for one of the largest aircraft orders in commercial aviation history, ordering at Farmborough in 2008, 205 aircraft – 100 firm orders, 55 options and 50 purchase rights. They sponsor football fields in Australia and the UK, the Irish hurling championships, some teams and the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
They have won awards for being the “World’s Leading Airline” in 2009, 2010 and 2011. They have also won awards for their business class and First Class cabins.
I figured it was my turn to try them. I flew Etihad six times in two weeks in November/December travelling 28 778 km (17 882). I sampled three different aircraft. All travel was in Coral Economy.
Etihad does not formally belong to an alliance although it has codeshares with many airlines. It has a very close relationship with Virgin Australia. Customers of Virgin Australia and Etihad enjoy “fully reciprocal frequent flyer programmes and airport lounge access.” What this meant in reality was very interesting. I am a little concerned that this review may sound like a whiney elite frequent flyer! I am not normally that precious!
Booking: 7 out of 10
I booked half the legs through Etihad and half through a travel agent. The most appealing part of travel with Etihad is the cost. For example Sydney to London had Etihad as one of the three cheapest airlines for Economy. In both Business and First class, Etihad was selling seats for $3000 less than Qantas, for example. This pricing strategy may be one reason why Etihad has not made a profit since commencing operations. This is in contrast to the other UAE carrier, Dubai based Emirates. Their load factor is a modest
The booking site flows really well. Making a booking over the phone was strange. The clerk who booked my tickets, took my telephone number for another agent to call me to collect my credit card number.
For some reason, Etihad is unable to store frequent flyer numbers of programs other than its own in the booking. I had to keep re telling and re entering it. It also keeps no record of your frequent flyer status with that airline? So despite Etihad and Virgin having “seamless” connections, Etihad did not know prior to check in that I was a “top tier” flyer.
Emergency exit seating cannot be booked online or via the call centre. It is allocated at the airport.
Check in: 7 out of 10
Check in ranged from organised (London) to chaotic (Dammam, Saudi Arabia). I checked in online using the very straightforward tool on the Etihad website Again, there was no option to enter a non Etihad frequent flyer number and you could not choose exit row or bulkhead seats. Despite flying in Economy, I lined up in the Premium check in line at most of the airports. Staff entered my Virgin Australia frequent flyer number each time. Check in clerks were all efficient but only one I would describe as friendly or welcoming.
One brilliant check in feature is the City Check in downtown Dubai. You can check in, leave your bags and then travel by free bus from the centre of Dubai to the airport at Abu Dhabi for free (you can also take the bus as an Etihad passenge from the Abu Dhabi airport to Dubai. They even give you free water. Business class passengers get a chauffeured car ride). There were two negatives about the check in. The first is that your bags are transported by hand from the check in to the bus through a public alley. The second is that the toilets made available near the check belong to a city car park and not Etihad and were really horrible!
Lounge: 7 out of 10
The Virgin website states that Platinum and Gold guests are welcome in Etihad and partner lounges worldwide.
At Abu Dhabi airport, I made my way to the First and Business Class lounges in Terminal 3 with great excitement. These lounges are supposed to be amazing! However, I found out that because I was flying economy, that even with high frequent flyer status, I could not enter the hallowed temple. Instead I was turned around and went back out through security for a 12 minute walk to Termina1 1 to the Al Dhabi Lounge.
This lounge was a major disappointment. The chairs were arranged like a doctors waiting room and the carpet looked like I was in a 2.5 star hotel. The internet was slow. The food was reasonable and there was a free bar. No boarding announcements were given. It was a 12 minute walk and another sweep through security to get to my gate.
The staff at Dammam airport in Saudi Arabia had never heard of Virgin Australia, didn’t accept my Virgin frequent flyer card and saw no reason to find any way to let me into their lounge.
Boarding: 8 out of 10
Etihad has a special boarding line for for first, business, gold etc. I assumed this included Virgin customers, although it was never stated. One of the strange things about the Etihad boarding pass is that the seat numbers are printed in very small writing on the right hand side. So small, that many of the cabin crew checking my passess had difficulty making out the number! There was no special welcome for being a Virgin elite- In fact there is nothing on the Boarding pass to indicate your status.
On Board: 7 out of 10
On my first Etihad flight, I arrived in my exit row seat to find an unmistakable stain in the area where my feet would rest. The stench of vomit filled the area. I looked at the guy sitting next to me and said “that’s not good“. He grimaced. I grabbed a member of the cabin crew and said “someone has thrown up in fron of that seat, probably on the previous flight”
Upon examining the stain which had clearly just been merely given a wipe over, she declared: ” replied: “oh no sir that’s just orange juice“. The guy sitting next to my seat smirked in disbelief. I said “thats not orange juice, thats vomit, smell it”
“I can’t smell it sir”
I told her, I refused to sit there because the stench would make me would throw up . She assured me, they would get air freshener. After consulting with another member of the flight crew, they offered me a bulkhead seat which I moved to. The guy siting next to my previous
seatt, grabbed a blanket and covered his face for the whole trip.
After takeoff, the attendant came back and sprayed the area with the promised air freshener. Another passenger clearly eyeing the extra leg room offered by the exit row, asked her if he could sit there and she said yes. I exchanged glances with my ex next seat neighbour who peeked out of his blanket. Sure enough the new passenger brought his bags and settled into the seat. After about a minute, he gathered up his stuff and returned to his old seat and we never saw him again. The seat remained empty for the whole flight with the sickly scent wafting around. In 800 flights I have never had this. What would other airlines do?
I was not successful in getting any other emergency exit seats after my first leg.
Seat pitch (distance between seats) was 30″ on the Airbus 319s and 31.5 on the Airbus 330s and A340. Width is 17″ on all of the aircraft. Emirates is a little more generous with a 0.5″ extra width on the 330 and 340. Virgin Australia who also fly between Abu Dhabi offer the best economy seat with 32″ between seats and a 18.8″ width.
Entertainment: 8 out of 10
Etihad advertise E box, their entertainment system as having over 600 hours of entertainment on demand, including 78 movies (24 new releases and 14 classics from Hollywood plus Arabic, Chinese, Indonesian, Malay, Tagalog, French, Russian, Italian, German, Hindi, Malayalam and Tamil titles). It is centred around 10.4-inch individual touchscreens. The system itself is very easy to use, and highly responsive.
When you break down the reality, those 78 movies are really only 38- Some I’d seen and some I didn’t want to see. The TV selection was surprisingly sparse! I resorted to playing games to fill my time.
Another irritating feature is that each time I started a new show, I had to watch the same three ads which I got very adept at fast forwarding. Was annoying to see same images again and again.
The most impressive feature is that every seat in Economy Class is equipped with power outlets so i could recharge both my laptops and phone. Wifi is coming to all flights which will be cool.
Meals: 7 out of 10
My reaction to the Meals is mixed. The overwhelming commonality was that meal service was overly chaotic. Staff didn’t know who was doing what. I saw some food practices that made me cringe. On one flight the cabin attendant sneezed into her hand and then kept serving meal trays with that hand. Another coughed into her hand, then used that hand to prepare drinks and I watched her placing her fingers inside the cups.
On the short flights we were offerred a snack pack with an okay sandwich which was acceptable. On the longer flights, meals included choices between Dory fish, vegetarian pasta and chinese noodles. Quantity and quality of long haul meals was great.
I found the Crews were not as friendly as Emirates. They did not appear to work together as cohesively. Service was slow and felt disorganised (see meals).
71% (3.5 out of 5) –to me this does not make them world airline of the year- how did they get this award?
Positives: Good website, good prices, ease of online check in
Negatives: Inconsistent service, cabin crew not customer focussed , Abu Dhabi Economy lounge, lack of recognition of Virgin status
Would I fly them again? Not by choice – but I already have three more flights with them. My preference between Australia and UAE would be Virgin Australia, followed by Emirates.