Do you remember a time when flying an American or European airline was glamorous? I don’t. By the time I started doing my part to burn a hole through the ozone layer it was already the era of plastic cutlery and pay-for-food and surly, long tenure cabin staff.
But then I moved to the Middle East and discovered that air travel can be enjoyable, even in economy. Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways, Dubai’s Emirates and Doha’s Qatar Airways consistently top the airline industry’s best of lists. Last year, Etihad won the travel industry’s equivalent of the Oscar for best airline in the world. While struggling American and European airlines whinge in the press and launch legal challenges to try to stop the Gulf’s aggressive oil-backed airline expansion, travellers are benefiting from more competition and better service.
I fly Etihad whenever I can because air travel is better with a bit of bling. My recent flight from Bangkok to Abu Dhabi was up to the standard I’ve come to expect.
I used Etihad’s straightforward website to book my flight online and ended up flying almost for free. I redeemed some points left over from my expat frequent flyer days and taxes on the reward flight were only CAD$50, much lower than they would be on American or European carriers. A few weeks later I called customer service to change my flight date and the change was free.
Check In and Boarding
The Etihad agent who checked me in at the airport in Bangkok was efficient and polite. I did my “so, is the flight quite full?” routine which is code for “if you bump me up to champagne class I promise to behave”. She liked me – not business-class liking, but enough to put me in a window seat and block the two seats next to me so I had a row to myself. Once we hit cruising altitude I lifted the arm rests, put my feet up, and relaxed into my own flying couch.
I showed up at the gate an hour before departure, as instructed, but boarding started 30 minutes late. This has happened to me before – I think Etihad does this because they make much of their on time departure record. We did leave on time, but I wasted 30 valuable duty free shopping minutes stuck in a crowded departure lounge, eavesdropping on my neighbours.
On Etihad, inflight service is actually that… service. Granted, I was coming off two months of hopping around South East Asia on pay-even-for-your-water budget airlines so I was easily impressed. But when the polite (!), young (!), attractive (!) flight attendant handed me a warm towel, I felt like a princess.
The cabin was new and clean, and even for a six hour daytime flight, a fleece blanket, pillow and earphones were provided to each passenger. Etihad hires cabin crew members from all over the world so when they list the languages spoken on the flight it’s like roll call at the United Nations. I could have chosen chicken or fish in Tagalog, Hindi, Arabic, and most of the languages of the former Soviet Bloc. That said, small procedural choices reinforce that Etihad is an Arabic airline. For example, the inflight announcements are done in Arabic first, followed by English. My rusty Arabic came back, word by word, starting with matar (airport).
The choices for inflight entertainment were extensive. I could have watched every 2013 Oscar winner, some great 90s throwbacks, or HBO-quality TV series from Australia, the UK and the US. There were power and USB outlets in the entertainment consoles and pay per use wi-fly service for passengers who can’t unplug for even a few hours.
And then there’s the food. I usually eat pre-flight because unimaginative airport chain restaurant food is always better than inflight meals that taste like they were prepared in a prison kitchen. But breakfast on the Etihad flight was better than anything I found at Bangkok International. The scrambled eggs didn’t require a steak knife and they came with all the little add ons that other airlines have dropped. A piece of old cheddar. A warm croissant. Organic yogurt. Fruit salad. Real OJ. There was no wondering about the mystery meat, and everything tasted as it should. When the flight attendants cleared trays they didn’t wear gloves so it actually felt like an airline, not a hospital cafeteria.
Landing and Luggage
The landing path in Abu Dhabi looped over teal water and mangrove forests, and then several of the Emirate’s iconic buildings. I wouldn’t put it past the Emirate to have chosen this route intentionally, just another strategy to rebrand Abu Dhabi, one transfer passenger at a time. Prior to landing the flight crew announced gates for connecting flights and the luggage carousel where we could collect our baggage. I expect this was extra information was home ice advantage as we were landing at Etihad’s hub.
For most passengers, Abu Dhabi is a transfer point, not a final destination. This means bags are unloaded quickly. After immigration I had just enough time to buy my five allowable bottles of duty free booze before grabbing my bag and heading out into the sunshine.