In the battle for the “most premium” first class title, airlines like Singapore Airlines and Etihad Airways have gone above-and-beyond, creating large suites for their passengers. As part of a journey between Australia and South Africa, I was fortunate enough to sample the Etihad first class product known as “The Apartment.” Though there is technically one higher cabin class, the renowned “Residence,” the Apartment provided more space than I could possibly use.
Booking The Etihad Apartment
Though they are not alliance partners, American Airlines and Etihad have a partnership agreement for both revenue and award flights. One of the quirky routing rules for AAdvantage awards is that travel may not transit a second region to reach the destination. Recently, Etihad flights through Abu Dhabi became an exception for far-off destinations like Australia, and is a notable sweet spot.
As mentioned, this award was the perfect way to get us from Australia to South Africa. Though we originally attempted Melbourne – Sydney – Abu Dhabi – Johannesburg – Cape Town, within the four-segment maximum, the Melbourne to Sydney award was pricing separately from the rest of the ticket. Though nobody at American could explain why, they said they had no power to change the pricing structure. Knowing we could easily get from Melbourne to Sydney using an Avios sweet spot, we settled for a routing originating in Sydney:
- Sydney – Abu Dhabi: Etihad First Class “Apartment”
- Abu Dhabi – Johannesburg: Etihad Business Class “Business Studio”
- Johannesburg – Cape Town: British Airways (Comair) Business Class
All of this came to a total price of 100,000 AAdvantage miles plus $178.98. Unfortunately, the majority of the cash component was a result of the Comair flight, which carries a British Airways flight number, triggering a fuel surcharge.
At The Sydney Airport
We arrived around 3 hours and 40 minutes prior to departure. We approached the dedicated First Class line and noticed the lack of staff. An agent approached us a few moments later and informed us that they were conducting their pre-shift discussion and would be with us shortly.
Not much later, an agent approached her computer and invited us forward. She was polite, but very matter-of-fact and quick. There was a small issue with our ticket related to a change we had tried to make the day before. After a brief call to a supervisor, it was fixed. We were also handed fast-track passes for immigration and security, which took around 10 minutes total.
Etihad Airways first and business class passengers are invited to use The House, a No.1 Lounge. The lounge was spacious, never exceeding 50% occupancy, and featured an a la carte dining and lounge area. A small quiet area, shower room, and children’s room are also available. There is a nice view of the tarmac as well, which was occupied by an ANA Boeing 787 in Star Alliance livery for our entire stay.
Hungry after a long day of sightseeing, we went straight to the a la carte dining area. Adjacent to this area is a hot and cold buffet, which had a rather small selection of food. The menu read as follows:
I ordered the risotto, and grabbed some hummus, vegetables, and teriyaki chicken from the hot buffet. I washed it down with some champagne. All of the food was high quality, simply served in small portions.
After a dinner and some light drinking, we went to the gate so we could be first on board. Boarding commenced late, and started with 15 minutes of pre-boarding families and the elderly. Boarding for first and business class were called next, with no distinction between the two. Luckily, we were already first in line, so it didn’t cause any problems for us.
On The Plane
Etihad Airways EY455
29 December 2019
STD: 9:50PM / ATD: 9:55PM
STA: 5:40AM / ATA: 5:45AM
Boy, was the 15-minute wait worth it. We boarded through the upper deck door and were greeted by several flight attendants. One of them brought us to our seats personally and gave us a full tour of the space and Etihad first class Apartment. The purser also stopped by and welcomed us on board. She mentioned that she was South African and asked about our trip and if we had any plans yet. This type of interaction is what differentiates first and business class in my mind — the flight attendants make an effort to know you in advance and it showed.
Waiting at the seat was a multicolor pillow, incredibly soft blanket, pair of noise-cancelling headphones, ultra-soft pajamas by A Friend of Mine, and an Acqua di Parma amenity kit filled with premium amenities. The kit itself was a bit oversized considering how little there was in it.
The flight attendant offered us glasses of champagne (Charles Heidsieck Brut 2006), and presented them on a beautiful tray with some Arabic dates, hot towel, and 100MB Wi-Fi pass. Arabic coffee was brought around several times too.
The Etihad First Class Apartment Cabin
The cabin itself was beautiful. It had no overhead bins whatsoever, which made it feel open and spacious. The mood lighting was used to the fullest, including Etihad’s signature geometric shapes. We noticed that the entire cabin (minus the Residence) was occupied, despite it being only half full according to ExpertFlyer just a few hours before.
The Etihad First Class Apartment cabin is set up in 5 rows of a 1-1 format, with the Residence occupying the front left side; the remaining 9 seats are all standard apartments. 1A, oddly, is located on the right-hand side, adjacent to the Residence, and is a rear-facing seat. With the exception of 1A, odd-numbered seats are forward-facing and even-numbered seats are rear-facing.
Seats 3A/4A and 3K/4K are unique; they contain a movable dividing wall. This wall is near the head of the bed, and slides around one meter to create a more open suite. Naturally, we opted for 3A and 4A for this effect.
The seat was massive and had no shortage of functionality for recline, massage, and individual component movement. It was clean, with comfortable beige leather contrasted by the bright Etihad pillow.
Each individual Etihad First Class Apartment itself is incredibly spacious. There were three well-placed windows outfitted with two-layer, electronic blinds. For the majority of the flight, these were locked in the open position, which surprised me because it was a night flight. Across from the seat was a beautiful, high-definition television screen. Under the screen was a large couch that spanned the entire width of the apartment (this turns into the bed). Next to the seat was a remote and a mini-television screen.
There was a small closet where I placed my street clothes. A door next to that revealed a large, well-lit mirror. Just under this was a slide-out cupholder and warm, non-alcoholic mini-bar (two can play this game, Emirates).
Finally, between the seat and the window was the upper-deck, A380-standard bins. Already inside them were the sheets for the bed.
Perhaps my favorite part of the seat was the lighting. In addition to the reading light, there were two small lamps – one near the seat and one near the entrance — with multiple brightness settings. These lamps added to the ambiance and geometric design of the apartment.
My one gripe: the lack of storage space for bags in the Etihad first class Apartment. I carry a full-size carry-on and a backpack with me on all my trips, and never check my carry-on. The area designed to hold the carry-on didn’t quite fit it, meaning I had to leave it unlatched (luckily, my bag didn’t slide around at all). My backpack was also too thick to fit in its designated area, so I left it by my feet for takeoff and landing.
After three champagne refills, we were ready to takeoff. I kicked my feet up, switched on the A380 tail camera, and breathed out as we began the 15.5-hour journey to Abu Dhabi.
The in-flight service was already off to a good start before takeoff, when the chef delivered food & drink menus. He worked with each passenger individually to craft the perfect dining experience. If certain menu items don’t appeal, Etihad First offers the unique opportunity to create your own dish using any onboard ingredients. You could eat whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted. Even in dine-on-demand situations, I tend to eat my main meals at the start and end of the flights. The large Apartments also permit dining with another passenger who can sit on the couch which is outfitted with seatbelts.
Shortly after takeoff, my rosé was delivered alongside a trio of canapés: nuts, olives, and dried peas.
After I finished my snacks, I asked for a mojito and went to Apartment 3A to begin our phenomenal dining experience. The table was set beautifully, nothing short of what you would find at a five star restaurant. One small gripe is that the table was just slightly too small for two. As more drinks and food were placed on the table, the less room there was.
I ordered two appetizers: the cauliflower soup and signature Arabic mezze. After trying a delicious pumpkin soup on Turkish Airlines, I order soup whenever I can on planes. This soup did not disappoint. The Arabic mezze was also delicious.
Afterwards, I ordered caviar; I only eat it on planes, after all. It was more delicious than the Thai and Lufthansa First caviar experiences.
After the palate-cleansing sorbet was served, my main — Lamb Shank Mandi — arrived. Once again, the presentation was immaculate. The flavors were well developed, and the variety of textures made it a pleasure to eat. However, there was too much rice; I left a lot on the plate. At this point, I switched to the Twelf Tree Australian Shiraz.
I finished the meal with dueling desserts: Pavlova and Häagen-Daz vanilla ice cream. The Pavlova was not great, though I believe that’s more of a personal taste than a fault of the dish.
Overall, the meal was delicious, certainly on par with Thai and Lufthansa First which are my benchmarks for first. In total, it took around two hours from start to finish. The crew all coordinated well to serve each course as we were ready. That said, I felt like the crew were not warm during these interactions. They did their jobs well, but I felt like asking for more of something would be a burden. This is an attitude I’ve come to expect in business class, where crew have to manage dozens of passengers, but first class is another story.
Stuffed with food and alcohol, I was ready for some sleep. I scheduled my shower for 4 hours prior to landing, which gave me nearly eight full hours of rest. I asked for my bed to be made, which required them to lower the sofa into a flat position and attach a mattress pad, duvet, and several sheets.
What about the IFE screen, you ask? Well, that swivels out so you have a perfect view of it even while laying down. And there’s a remote conveniently to your side as well. Even in this position, you have easy access to lighting and window settings with the additional buttons.I slept for around four hours straight and woke up to the feeling of turbulence. I noticed that when the captain switched on the fasten seatbelt sign, there was no chime. This is very nice for first class passengers, as it allows them to rest without interruption. I slept on-and-off for several more hours and was woken up by a flight attendant inviting me to use the shower.
The Etihad Onboard Shower
The flight attendant showed me the shower, an amenity found on only two commercial aircraft in the world: the Etihad and Emirates Airbus A380s. The shower has a maximum of six minutes of water per passenger, though you’re able to switch it off and on as you wish. The flight attendant also told me that he would reset the timer if needed. In total, passengers are given a 30-minute slot to use the lavatory for the shower.
The shower was outfitted with Acqua di Parma body wash, shampoo, and conditioner, along with dental and shaving kits. A thick, Etihad-branded towel was hanging on the door.
The water pressure was fantastic, and the ability to shower after sleeping on such a long flight was incredible. Unfortunately, even though I had the water temperature turned to the highest setting, the shower went between hot and cold frequently. It wasn’t ice cold, and the ability to shower on a plane is simply so revolutionary that I didn’t mind.
I left the lavatory feeling so refreshed, it was almost as if I was on the ground. I used my Wi-Fi allotment at this point, which was fast and seamless, so unfortunately, 100MB did not last long.
Three hours from Abu Dhabi, I was hungry for some breakfast. I went to Apartment 3A again to enjoy the meal. The table was set up just as beautifully as the night before; unfortunately, this is as far as the crew’s polished behavior went during the second service.
I ordered the fruit smoothie, which was just Naked-brand juice, and scrambled eggs, which were served as part of a Full English breakfast.
My companion and I ordered multiple dishes, some of which arrived, some we had to remind them to bring. Some were delivered to the wrong person. I waited nearly 10 minutes for a latte, despite reminding them that I had ordered one. The food quality was fantastic, but the poor service really made the meal stand out for all the worst reasons. It’s a long flight, so crew are likely approaching delirium by the end of it, but as I’ve said before, this is first class, which has a whole new standard of service compared to business.
I finished the last meal service with a selection of cookies and baklava, which were dry. Afterwards, we visited the lounge area, which was full of business class passengers who shared breakfast there. Unfortunately, it was too busy to get pictures.
I took my seat and asked for one more latte, which, by the way, was the most delicious espresso beverage I have ever consumed on a plane. Its presentation made it even more delicious.
30 minutes later, we began our descent into a dark and foggy Abu Dhabi. We didn’t receive any farewell message from the crew, as I experienced with both Thai and Lufthansa’s first class.
The Etihad First Class Apartment is rivaled only by Singapore Airlines’ First Class Suites product in terms of space. Even so, the modern, geometric design of the Apartment speaks to me much more than the timeless design of Singapore’s product. While I would give Etihad the win in hard product, their soft product is too inconsistent compared to the nearly perfect Singaporean crews and food. The dinner was nothing short of excellent, but the breakfast was so confused and disheveled, it left a poor taste in my mouth (no pun intended). After flying Etihad Business on the next flight, I’m not convinced that the First Class food is of significantly better quality, either.
Of course, I would gladly fly the Etihad First Class Apartment again, and highly recommend it. The 100K AAdvantage miles and low taxes are a bargain considering the time in the air and incredible premium cabin experiences possible with Etihad.
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