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Are Middle-Eastern Airlines Any Good?

Middle Eastern airlines have been shaking up the industry, but just how good are they? We check out Etihad Airways for a definitive answer.

When it comes to flying, most of us know the drill. Board the first aerobridge, grab a copy of The Straits Times at Door 1L, turn left and plonk yourself into your flatbed seat. A few hours
later, disembark.

The experience is rinse-and-repeat, whichever of the top airlines you are flying with: Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific or Lufthansa. Yes, the cabin layout may vary slightly, the bubbly might be of another brand but, if you fly often enough, the encounters are largely forgettable.

Not that predictability is a bad thing, if your main goal is to get from A to B reliably and in comfort but, sometimes, you do wish there was a little bit more panache. So, when The Peak was invited to review Etihad Airways’ business-class product and visit its Innovation Centre at the Abu Dhabi base recently, I was suitably impressed by how much attention this airline pays to detail.

IMAGE 1

SWEET DREAMS: Making clever use of dead space in the nose of the A380, the bedroom of the Residence has space for a double bed.

Walk into one of its Airbus A380s or Boeing 787 Dreamliners and, instead of being greeted by an unsightly galley, you enter a calm hotel-like space where custom Arabic fretwork screens and blinds, as well as elegant wood-finish panelling, cleverly obscure the cold metal surfaces of the cabinets and trolleys. On the A380, the illusion continues with a small upscale gift shop along the wall, displaying jewellery and perfume from the duty-free catalogue.

There are no fixed meal times: You dine when you are hungry, not when it is convenient for the crew to serve you. Unlike the set menu you get everywhere else, the one here consists of small plates and main courses, and you are free to mix and match. A food & beverage manager with restaurant experience is on hand to take orders and offer wine pairings that actually work.

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HELPING HAND: A Savoy-trained butler serves guests of the Residence exclusively.

If you’re travelling first class, there is additionally a chef who, like the F&B manager, is hired from a top eatery somewhere around the world. Chefs would whip up a bespoke meal within the constraints of a plane galley ­– and “bespoke” is not merely a buzzword here. Etihad loads up a variety of meat and seafood, prepared sous vide, in what it calls “chilled protein boxes”. Cooks also have at their disposal a range of sauces, spices, eggs and fresh vegetables, with which they can combine with the protein to customise meals for you. Yes, there are airlines that boast rice cookers or freshly poached eggs, but this is on a separate level altogether; it is as close as you can get to five-star dining 38,000 feet in the air.

“We don’t just compete with all the similar ‘superbrands’ out there,” explains Peter Baumgartner, the airline’s effusive chief commercial officer. “We want to operate outside of the ‘undifferentiated superiority’.”

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COMMUNAL SPACE: The “Lobby”, replete with a leather sofa and a stowable marquetry table, is where premium guests can gather for drinks.

Those may be big words, but what the Swiss-born 17-year industry veteran means is rather simple. Take food and wine. In order to provide a superior passenger experience, Etihad benchmarks itself not against Emirates or Qatar Airways, but against – as you would have rightly guessed – fine-dining outfits and the luxury hotel industry.

“That’s why we use the terminology of real estate in naming our cabins,” he adds, referring to Etihad’s new products. On the A380, they are the Residence, the only three-room concept in the industry (see sidebar); the First Apartment, with its separate bed and seat; and the Business Studio, which offers direct aisle access, a private enclosure and, on top of that, is 20 per cent larger than the old seat. The smaller Dreamliner features the same flatbed business-class product, but offers a scaled-down First Suite in the front cabin.

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FRESH PRODUCE: The on-board chef isn’t one who merely reheats a dish; he has at his disposal a plethora of partially cooked ingredients with which he can whip up a bespoke meal.

“When we started designing the new products six years ago, we held the ‘Etihad Big Talks’ in New York, London, Abu Dhabi and Sydney,” Baumgartner recalls. “We put 50 people in a ‘Big Brother’ house and watched them over two days. We asked them what they liked about travelling, what they didn’t like, and what they would like to see in the future.” One of the things that came out of the project was the separate bed and seat in first class. Someone had suggested that although eating in bed could be nice once in a while, he would rather enjoy separate spaces for sleeping and dining, perhaps with bedrooms on the upper deck and a restaurant downstairs. That idea did not make the cut, but led to the First Apartment. A side benefit is that a passenger can now hop into bed, minutes after take-off, to maximise rest.

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EAT WELL: First and business class guests can dine at their leisure, making choices from an a la carte menu.

But, despite Etihad getting the on-board experience to a T – even the Wi-Fi, I might add, is reasonably priced and fast – the ground experience is more of a mixed bag. The good: Premium customers have access to a complimentary chauffeur service for airport transfers and there is an arrivals lounge in Abu Dhabi where you can freshen up or get a haircut. The bad: Not a fault of Etihad’s, but the airport at Abu Dhabi is bursting at its seams and cannot cope with the airline’s rapid expansion. The departure lounge offers complimentary treatments at a spa operated by Six Senses, yet it is not easy to score an appointment during peak hours. Arriving passengers often have to disembark on the tarmac; in the 45 deg C summer heat, this is not the most delightful end to an otherwise solid flight. And the crowded airspace means that flights are regularly delayed. Between Aug 10 and Aug 20, the Abu Dhabi-Singapore service departed late by an average of 50 minutes, with backlogs of up to two hours. These, however, should be alleviated in 2017, when a new terminal and a third runway open.

Despite the temporary inconveniences during transit, Etihad remains an interesting value proposition for passengers looking for one-stop flights to Europe, America and Africa, not least for offering an extensive network with destinations not well served by other airlines. And, if you are so inclined, the on-board experience is truly something else.

AIR BED N’ BUTLER

How much a ticket in the Residence costs, versus prices of other luxury stays.

Bed
01 THE RESIDENCE, ETIHAD AIRWAYS: $45,100 ($679 PERSQ FT PER DAY) The Residence is the only one of its kind, with a sitting room for two, an ensuite bathroom, and a bedroom with a double bed. And your very own butler at your beck and call, trained by the Savoy in London.

Double occupancy, 125 sq ft. New York to Abu Dhabi (12 hours 45 minutes), one-way, in December.

SKY
02 ROYAL PENTHOUSE SUITE, HOTEL PRESIDENT WILSON: $88,400 ($480 PER SQ FT PER DAY):The largest in Europe and the most expensive in the world, this suite boasts 12 bedrooms with attached marble bathrooms, a grand piano, a private gym, a trio of 103-inch Bang & Olufsen televisions, and bullet-proof windows from which guests can gaze at Lake Geneva and Mont Blanc in total security.

Sleeps six, 18,083 sq ft. Rack rate.

MASTER
03 REGENT SUITE, SEVEN SEAS EXPLORER: $90,500 ($2.92 PER SQ FT PER DAY): The most luxurious suite on the most luxurious cruise ship features two-and-a-half baths, its own spa, sauna and steam room, and a wraparound balcony with 270-deg views over the ship’s bow. Covers all food and drink, shore excursions with private transport, and in-room spa treatments.

Double occupancy, 3,875 sq ft. Monte Carlo to Athens, eight nights, in October next year.

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