Where to begin? I recently flew Etihad Airways on a Sydney – Lahore – Melbourne routing (via Abu Dhabi on both legs), and well, perhaps my expectations were too high. This is not one of those reviews where I get stuck on how bad everything was; there were some great highlights, but some serious disappointments too.
Etihad is the national airline of the United Arab Emirates; while Emirates Airlines is older and much bigger, Etihad (Arabic for ‘united’) trumps it in terms of officialdom. Etihad quickly built its reputation for service and luxury through its Diamond First Class, Pearl Business Class and Coral Economy Class offerings. The airline’s recent relaunch, complete with a commercial featuring actress Nicole Kidman, promises “Flying Reimagined”, and in some ways they deliver.
The new classes are the Economy Smart Seat, Business Studio, First Suite and “The Residence”, a self contained hotel-like space with a private lounge, bedroom and bathroom (and a price tag to match the luxury).
The economy smart seat is indeed an impressive upgrade from the regular cattle class offering. Available on A380 and Boeing 787 flights, it has a swept-style ‘fixed-wing’ headrest with a rigid panel on the side, which I actually found really comfortable for resting my head on. The seat also comes with a cushion which tears apart at the centre to form a (rather flimsy) neck pillow – it’s the thought that counts. And a cozy fleece blanket which actually keeps you warm! So far, so good – it’s not business class, but it’s about as comfortable as economy is going to get.
The dramatic, Arabesque boarding music, the chic, on-trend staff uniforms, the dappled mosaic light projections on the ceiling and floor, and the pretty travelogue of destinations screened while you’re waiting to take off is all rather inspiring; you may have just stepped aboard a flying palace.
Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. A palace’s prestige must be maintained by its staff and service, and this is where Etihad was lacking on each sector I took. The flight attendants were at best cold, and at worst rude. Like the crew who, seemingly bereft of any interest in their job, dispensed meals as quickly and unsmilingly as they could. Once done, they were hardly anywhere to be seen until the next meal service – one of my neighbouring passengers went into the next cabin in search of a cup of water.
One hostess ignored another passenger’s request several times, before finally turning around and angrily blurting out “what?!”. Meanwhile the crew member who ran over a passenger’s toe with the meal trolley directly advised “sir – move”.
The in-flight entertainment was poor in comparison with rival Emirates; instead of a wide catalogue of music, television shows and movies, expect a more limited selection of titles. The box office consists of a handful of moderately successful recent movies, a couple of golden oldies (think ‘The Sound of Music’), and a plethora of films I had never heard of, and had little or no interest in. Similarly with television shows, expect a variety of average American TV series, with single episodes picked out at random. The music selections were depressingly meh – nothing to look forward to, so I returned to my iPod. The screens are big enough and the headphones are excellent quality, but the ‘E-box’ system is clunky and outdated.
And then there was the woeful food – dull, just-passable meal trays on the longer flights imposed by heat-sealed main dishes, reminiscent of supermarket-bought ready-meals, that all seemed to be infused with the same toxic plastic flavour. On the shorter flights we were subject to the ‘Express Snack’; a paper bag filled with a bottle of juice, a frozen muffin and a heated pastry overfilled with mashed olives and feta; the result was weirdly sickly and way too-salty.
Ok, so Abu Dhabi International Airport. I think I just landed inside David Bowie’s brain. Either that or I dropped acid somewhere over the Rann of Kutch. Windowless, centrifugal Terminal One will have you reaching for the airsick bag before you’ve even stepped on the plane. The mixture of smells doesn’t help; old fried food, drying paint, and the ever so slight yet distinctive fragrance of stale sweat and nicotine.
There is, of course, another claustrophobic terminal down the line a little; at least that one doesn’t have the crazy tiled ceiling, but the lack of psychedelia leaves it boring and characterless.
There is a mammoth ‘Midfield’ terminal under construction, but that’s not due for completion until 2017.
Etihad resembles a window-dressed version of a typical state-owned Gulf airline. Like Gulf Air, or to a lesser extent Kuwait Airways which I flew many years ago, Etihad promise the famed Arabian luxury and hospitality, but in the end deliver a half-baked, cut-price version of it. Ultimately for me, the poor service is a deal breaker.
The thing is, Etihad (or ‘Regretihad’ as a friend of mine used to call them) could be really good – all the framework is there – great aircraft, great cabin, excellent branding (LOVE the contemporary mosaic design). However it takes much more than all this to make an airline great – and it begins with service. This could so easily be fixed, and I sincerely hope it is – because Etihad deserves to do well, and it already has a great reputation that it really ought not spoil.