Changing planes in Abu Dhabi makes for a long journey to Tokyo, but Eithad's open-jaw tickets meant that it was the most cost effective option when I was planning a complitcated trip. Besides, I was also curious to try out Etihad and, as a side benefit, their flight arrives in Tokyo mid-afternoon; most of the European carriers arrive early in the morning, which makes mitigating jet lag all that harder and can add expense if you want to check-in to your hotel early.
Etihad operates from Terminal 4 at Heathrow. Having not used T4 since BA moved out a few years ago, I was expecting it to be a rather sleepy, half empty building - I've often taxied past it and been surprised at how few aircraft are parked there. I've clearly not been looking at the right time; early in the morning it was a zoo. We hit very slow moving traffic a couple of kilometers from the terminal - I assumed there had been an accident, but it was, in fact, the queue to enter the drop-off zone; I don't remember this happening even when the place was packed to bursting by BA.
Check-in lines snaked in every possible direction from all manner of airlines, but, thankfully, there was no line at Etihad's premium check-in area. I was quickly checked through to Tokyo and on my way, armed with a lounge invitation and a pass for fast-track security. Now, while there weren't many people waiting to use the fast track line, those that were seemed, for the most part, pretty determined to slow the process down as much as possible. Given the traffic delays and wait at secutrity, by the time I reached Etihad's lounge, I had gven up hope of having time to take advantage of the spa services they offer.
Etihad's T4 lounge isn't huge, but it's pretty impressive. There a common facility for both first and business class, but I can't see many first class passengers feeling short-changed.
I grabbed a table in the dining room and ordered breakfst pancakes. While I was waiting for the food, something extraordinary happened; a staff member from the spa wandered around the asking if anybody would like to book treatments. With the exception of Thai's First Class facility, my experience of airline spas has always been that you have to turn up hours in advance to have any chance of securing a treatment before your flight leaves, yet here was an Etihad employee actively offering slots (in fairness, I am led to beleive that BA now allows online booking in advance). Assuming that I woudn't have time, I declined, but my pancakes arrived far quicker than expected. Once I'd finished eating, I wandered over to the spa and asked if there was still availability. At first, the receptionist told me that nothing was available (my flight was leaving in 45 minutes), but then a passing therapist said that if I felt like a pedicure and was ready now, she'd fit me in. By this stage, I was coming to the conclusion that Etihad could do no wrong.
After 20 minutes, I was collecting my things together and heading towards the aircraft. This flight was operated by an A340-600 featuring Etihad's newest business class seat; distinguishable from the earlier version because it's coloured tan and black, rather than various hues of teal. The newer version also has more storage space, something I'd come to appreciate on subsequent flights. Both versions of the seat are fully flat and are in a staggered layout which gives aisle access to everybody, although the seaths closest to the window offer much more privacy than those on the aisle.
One quirk of the seats that should be noted is that the table is in a fixed position which, at first, seems rather far away from the seat when you're trying to eat. During the second flight, I realised that the entire seat could be moved forward or back, in the upright position; effectively bringing you closer to the food. This isn't communicated well (or, indeed, at all) by Etihad and I did notice some older passengers on one of the sectors struggling to eat.
Once onboard, Champagne was quickly served and the stewardes suggested that, as the flight wasn't full, I should move to one of the better window seats.
Lunch service started without any delay. Like Qatar Airways, Etihad offer an Arabic meze as an appetiser option on all flights; in general it was fine, but not, I think, as good as Qatar's version. The chicken breast in a curry sauce was, on the other hand, one of the tastiest dishes I've eaten on a plane.
Terminal 3 at Abu Dhabi isn't huge, so connecting is no problem. It does, however, seem to be bursting at the seams despite being a recent addition to the airport. With many flights leaving during the evening peak, the business class lounge was packed, although there were a few seats available. There's a wide selection of food on offer, as well as complimentary drinks from a staffed bar.
My onward flight, to Narita, was operated by a slightly smaller A340-500, this time fitted with the slightly older, teal colured, business class seat. Indeed, all subsequent flights featured the older product. While the general arrangement and spacing is the same, this older seat really does offer absolutely no storage space. There's a small slot for the safety card and that's it. The table is also slightly smaller. I know that magazine racks and table size seem like small issues when you have a fully-flat seat, but coming straight after a flight with the newer seat, both were very noticeable.
Given the late hour of departure, I was happy that the dinner service, again, started soon after we left the ground. The food on this flight was less impressive than on the previous sector. The champagne was served by a curious (bad curious, not pleasant curious) "sushi noodle roll" - basically cold noodles wraped in nori.
I was dull and went with the mezze again, then ordered a fried fish dish as a main - the best of a bad bunch. Why do airlines insist on offering anything fried in batter when they must know that reheating just turns the batter to a greasy mush? Dessert, chocolate cookie cheesecake, was the highlight of a fairly unimpressive meal.
Check-in at Sydney was chaos. It was shortly before Christmas, which is why, I suppose, so many people had turned up with ludicrous quantities of luggage, slowing down the wntire process. The line for economy check-in looked to be endless. I waited half an hour to check-in for business class, and I saw people waiting at least fifteen minutes at the first class desk. Not a great start. Meanwhile, somebody spent twenty minutes having a screaming match (and I'm talking about howling like an injured animal) with Etihad staff about, it seemed, an expired passport. All in all, not a great airport experience.
When I finally reached the check-in desk, I made a half-hearted enquiry about the possibility of upgrading to first, only to be told that every seat, in every class, was full. Etihad use Air New Zealand's lounge at Sydney, which isn't particularly exciting, but does have great views of the airfield and fast wifi.
Onboard the aircraft (another A340-600) the older business class seats were visibly worn. Sitting down for a fourteen hour flight, on which I intended to sleep for at least ten hours, something felt wrong. I soon realised that the cusioning on the seat back had been worn thin by use, to the point where the underlying structure of the seat was pushing into my back in a few palces. I mentioned this to a passing cabin attendant who told me that, as the flight was full, there was little he could do, but that he'd check if there were any spare mattresses in first class. I never heard from him again. Indeed, for the most part, service was pretty poor for most of this flight. The crew were all very young and very reluctant to leave the galley.
In the fully reclined position, the hard points in the seat back were not as prominent, so I did manage some sleep. The food on this flight, the longest of the four I took with Etihad, wasn't great. I thought I was playing it safe by ordering the mezze again (that's not as boring as it sounds, two weeks had passed since I arrived in Japan), but the offering on this flight was a poor shaow of that served on the outbound sectors, while the steak main was tough and tastless.
We seemed to be the first arrival into Abu Dhabi, so breezed through security before dawn and into an empty lounge. I arranged to have a shower and a shoulder massage. As in London, the spa treatment was excellent. In the time remaining before my final flight back to London, I tried to catch up on news and such like, but the lounge wifi is so slow as to be useless.
My heart sank when, walking to the gate, I realised that the onward flight was aboard the same, tired, aircraft I'd just arrived on. Thankfully, I was in a different seat that was in much better shape.
From the outset, the service onthis flight was excellent, a vast improvement on the crew that brought us from Sydney. Indeed, things started terrifically on the ground as the Champagne was poured with an "apology"; the (non-vintage) Mumm on the wine list was out of stock, so they were serving Veuve Cliquot Vintage Reserve from the first class selection. The food, however, wasn't great, a fact the crew seemed aware of - the lady serving me, without directly criticising any of the food, very diplomatically guided me away from some of the options on the menu. I should have paid more attention later on when, despite the polite grimace from the stewardess, I ordered the duck main course for lunch - it was predictably hateful
Let's give Etihad the benefit of the doubt and say that the chaos in Sydney was a function of Christmas travel and that the badly worn seat was an anomoly which will be eliminated as the new business class is fitted across the fleet. All things considered, they offer a business class seat that's comfier than most at a competitive price. Service with the odd exception, is great, but it's efficient and Abu Dhabi is also a reasonable airport to connect in.
If I was going to Australia again and they were still competitive on price and timings, would I fly with them? Probably, yes. Are Etihad, as they advertise, one of the world's leading airlines? Absolutely not.
While some aspects of the experience were excellent, notably the ground service at Heathrow and both spa treatments, there's just too much inconsistency in the quality of the onboard service and food, as well as small things (e.g., lounge wifi) that should be easily fixed. And yes, I know that picking holes in business class flights is the very definition of a non-problem, all I'm tryng to do is offer an accurate picture of the reality behind Etihad's PR.