With competition for air passengers as fierce as ever – things have just got a little tougher for the established airlines. A new player has emerged from the Middle East. Freelance Journalist Steve Cooke reports on his experience of Etihad Airways, the flag carrier of the United Arab Emirates when he flew from London to Sydney in economy (Coral) class.
Etihad was voted the World’s Leading New Airline for three years in a row at the World Travel Awards between 2004 and 2006 – and it’s not difficult to see why. New planes; a decent seat-pitch; a state-of-the-art entertainment system; laptop plugs; a generous reward programme, cheap airfares and quick journey times. It ticks all the boxes.
“Within ten minutes we had checked-in and were ready to make our way airside”
It all didn’t start too well mind. My efforts to book seats over the Internet ended in abject failure as the website returned multiple error messages at the payment stage. A twenty minute call to the reservations department later my wife and I were ready to pack our bags. We booked our seats in advance and managed to get two side seats together on each leg from the planes 2-4-2 configuration. We were especially pleased with the £625 airfare for travel at the tail end of Chinese New Year. After days of research it was nearly £300 per person cheaper than the best alternative quote we’d received.
“It is also a forgotten luxury to be able to use stainless steel cutlery on a plane”
Etihad really set themselves apart from the moment we arrived at the airport. Within ten minutes we had checked-in and were ready to make our way airside. We boarded the new Airbus A340-600 to be awed by the 10.4 inch seat-back screen – the largest in the sky. Over 500 hours of movies and TV programmes kept us entertained. There were films for every taste – 74 of them. From classics and new releases to Asian, Arabian and European cinema. Then there were the 29 games. A repetitive strain injury beckoned. In between I worked on my laptop courtesy of the 110 volt plug under my seat. The socket needed an adapter for a UK plug which was provided free of charge by an air hostess. The 32 inch seat pitch competes with Emirates Airways and Singapore Airlines for size and beats the 31 inches offered by BA. All fall short of the 34 Inches offered by Air New Zealand. It was the little things that made a big difference. There were water fountains and frequent refreshments offered. The toilets had a window. I personally like the idea of a number two with a view – however my wife was more impressed by the full length mirror and moisturiser. It is also a forgotten luxury to be able to use stainless steel cutlery on a plane. The headphones plug was in the front of the arm rest and not in the side digging in to your leg. Etihad’s Frequent flier programme is one of the most generous in the sky. One round-trip to Australia is enough to earn you an Etihad Holidays Voucher worth USD 200. Two round-trips are enough for a free trip to Abu Dhabi. As for speed, the total flying time is 20 hours 55 minutes. Only 50 minutes slower than Qantas.
|A spectacular mosaic work of art doubles as the International terminal. Blue green and white tiles sweep under your feet and increase in size as they climb up the walls until they finally explode like fireworks above your head|
If I had to nit-pick I would say that the side armrests are fixed and that there are only single arm-rests between seats. This is an issue for those who have to fight with a stranger for elbow rights. Also you can’t regulate your temperature as there were no individual air-con nozzles. However these issues are hardly unique to Etihad. In addition I was able to check-in online, but not print my boarding passes, which meant we had to check-in again at the airport. Finally Etihad only fly to Sydney and Brisbane – where for us our ultimate destination was Melbourne.
On the ground in Abu Dhabi the standard set continued. A spectacular mosaic work of art doubles as the International terminal. Blue green and white tiles sweep under your feet and increase in size as they climb up the walls until they finally explode like fireworks above your head. A dozen free Internet terminals are available, however I settled in at the Costa Coffee with my laptop and plugged-in to the UK socket. Free wireless Internet is available but unfortunately my browser was unable to make a connection. If I have one serious complaint it is the non-stop tannoy. It was so loud that it was difficult to hold a conversation. We eventually zoned-out from listening to it – which defeats its purpose. Plenty of plasma screens advised us when our connecting flight was boarding and we made our way to the plane. All the gates are visible from each other and only a short walk away. To make the process more seamless the UAE does not require passport holders from the UK, US, NZ, Australia and most West European countries to have a travel visa for a transit or stopover of up to 30 days.
All nit-picking and technical blips aside – with a few tweaks here and there, there is no reason why Etihad can’t compete for the top prizes including World’s Leading Economy Class. They will be the first airline I check next time I travel to Australia. If I were Singapore Airlines or Emirates Airways – I’d be looking over my shoulder.