Review: Etihad Business Class, Brussels-Abu Dhabi, 787 Dreamliner
I’ve looked forward to the opportunity to fly Etihad ever since they announced a partnership with Aeroplan in 2019. After several pandemic-postponed bookings, when my wife and I discovered we both had a week off starting from Europe, we grabbed the next flight for Abu Dhabi!
Using Aeroplan miles and one of the 50,000-point vouchers that came as a sign-up bonus with my Chase Aeroplan card, booking business class from Brussels to Abu Dhabi and then Abu Dhabi to Toronto to Ottawa cost me 85,000 Aeroplan points plus $180 in taxes and fees. Not bad for 22 hours in business class!
Part One - Brussels Airport
Our trip started from Brussels with a mid-morning departure. Check-in was quick and friendly, and Fast Track security had us promptly on the way to exit customs and then off for a quick visit to the lounge.
With only 5 flights a week, Etihad (understandably) doesn’t maintain its own lounge at Brussels, instead contracting with the independent Diamond Lounge located just above Gate B1. It’s a nice enough space, with all the expected catering and amenities, though when we arrived about 45 minutes before boarding, the agent informed us that the lounge was at capacity, and while we were welcome to enter, we should not expect to find anywhere to sit.
Looking forward to a proper meal on the flight in a few hours' time, we picked up a quick bite from the well-stocked breakfast buffet, spent a few minutes watching the early-morning arrivals, and moved along to our gate. While the flight boarded about twenty minutes late, the Belgian gate crew wrangled a large crowd politely and efficiently.
Walking down the ramp, we caught a view of today’s ride, a Boeing Dreamliner featuring Etihad’s newest business-class product.
Part Two - The Seat
The cabin is beautifully appointed in wood panelling and earth tones that tie in well with Etihad’s visual brand, while - especially enjoyable for this lighting designer - the cabin is tastefully lit with soft lamps during the sleep phase of the flight.
The 1-2-1 business seating layout features a mix of highly-private single seats, and middle pairs ideal for a couple travelling together. Note that as with most non-herringbone pods (in other words, any layout where the pods point along the axis of the plane, instead of lined up diagonally like parking spaces), the staggered layout means half the pods are right up against the aisle, and more easily accessible, while the other half are closer to the window and thus much more private.
Check your seating map carefully to choose whichever works best for you; also be careful to note that Etihad's Dreamliner business class uses a staggered, "back and forth" layout, in which half the pods face backwards. We both found this interesting, but others may not enjoy flying backwards.
The seat… is simply my favourite business-class product anywhere in the sky. The seat itself is spacious, there’s plenty of storage, and several options to configure the seat to your preference. The lie-flat seat actually lies fully flat, and most exciting to this 6’1” reporter, there’s actually room to sleep in multiple positions, with plenty of room in the footwell!
No, seriously, I really love this seat.
I repeat that point both to emphasize how happy I was with that part of the flight, and to underscore just how thoroughly disappointed I was in pretty much every other aspect of the experience.
I hate writing reviews like this. Honestly, before @TravelFake gets the knives out, I already feel like a total Karen, and I truly don't believe I'm entitled, but read my other reviews and decide for yourself. That said, I do my best to give honest, experienced advice on this site, and what follows is my honest impression from spending 20 hours in Etihad Business about how they stack up to their competition.
Part Three - Soft Product / Onboard Experience
Etihad is a globally-renowned travel brand that brags on its award-winning, best-in-the-world inflight experience, selling a high-end product at a premium price, and for me they fell consistently short on nearly every part of the soft-product experience. Catering, cleaning, customer service, communications; you name it, Etihad did it worse than the other guys, and when your regional competition includes Qatar and Emirates, I'm absolutely baffled at how Etihad doesn't seem to be trying to match up.
The seat was dirty. I don’t mean, like there were a few crumbs left over, I mean half the surfaces were sticky with what looked like the previous passenger’s spilled beverage. When we’ve all spent the past two years talking about health, safety and germs, and Etihad proudly touts its “safe to fly” health protocols, it’s just plain gross to realize nobody’s even made an attempt to clean the high-touch surfaces since the previous flight.
The food fell short. Etihad offers a well-appointed menu and a terrific, thoughtfully-planned wine list. That being said, the execution fell utterly flat; my smoked-salmon appetizer still had bits of ice in it, while every part of the entree was thoroughly overcooked. I'd tell you about the dessert, but it was simply never offered; once my tray was cleared away, it was about two hours before the next flight attendant so much as walked through the cabin, let alone checked up to see if anyone wanted tea/coffee etc.
The flight attendants fly, but don't attend. Etihad provides a high staff-to-guest ratio, which made it especially surprising to see them all vanish for most of the flight. I'm not looking to be fawned over, I just want to be able to flag somebody down once in a while if I'm looking for a Diet Coke, and after literally hundreds of thousands of lifetime miles in the air, I still remain firmly - and irrationally - convinced that the "summon flight attendant" button is the equivalent of snapping your fingers for a waiter.
On the plus side, this led me to find a clever feature of the in-flight entertainment system, in which you can order drinks from the touchscreen in your seat, but after I ordered this way and nothing showed up for half an hour, I ended up just walking up to the galley to ask the flight attendants for a drink in person.
Speaking of the in-flight entertainment, I'm glad to go back to talking about something that worked well. The IFE system is thoroughly stocked with a truly diverse range of content from all over the world, organized in a way that suggests someone has put a lot of thought into keeping passengers entertained on some very long flights. I particularly enjoyed the offer of half a dozen different trilogies, perfect for the passenger with ten or fifteen hours to kill.
Another smart feature that caught my eye offered the opportunity to share video links with another passenger, so you and they can watch the same thing at the same time. Particularly useful when travelling with friends or family.
My only IFE frustration was one common to many airlines; while TV shows are presented in binge-able format, somehow, you're only offered four episodes randomly selected from the middle of Season 3. I don't know if this is a copyright-clearance thing, or a "we could only afford to get a few episodes" thing, but regardless of the cause it's enough to make me skip that content altogether.
Data caps on wifi are super dated. I have no complaints if an airline wants to charge premium-cabin passengers for wifi access, even if lower-tier carriers like Turkish are starting to offer it for free, but pairing that with restrictive data caps when your competitors offer unrestricted use, just comes off as greedy. I had a great experience on a trans-oceanic Air Canada flight last week, and a Turkish flight earlier this year, both of which had no problem providing unlimited data for twelve hours on a Dreamliner.
At the very least, I'd like to see Etihad offer a more-expensive unlimited option, as even with Dropbox disabled and all background options turned off, just browsing and reading emails chewed through my 200MB allotment.
Part Four - Arrival Experience
After a quick trip down the west coast of Iran, and a stunning arrival loop over southern Dubai, we touched down on time. A quick bus ride had us at the nearly-deserted arrival terminal, where despite the Business Fast Track immigration lanes being closed due to low traffic, we were still through in minutes.
We stopped in briefly at Etihad's Business Arrival Lounge, a small but comfortable space that seems to exist primarily as a place to grab a cold drink and wait while the staff match passengers up with drivers from the Etihad Chauffeur service, a lovely perk that is sadly-but-understandably offered only to First and Business passengers who paid cash for their flights. That said, the staff happily set us up with a regular taxi and we were checking in to our hotel a little over an hour after touching down on the runway.
Long story short, I'm disappointed because I went into this flight expecting Etihad to be world-class great, and they were only pretty good.
I wondered if I might have gone in with unrealistic or entitled expectations, or if I might be unfairly ripping on less-experienced cabin crew newly-hired during the post-pandemic recovery, but on reflection, everything I noted as a negative on this flight is something I've seen less-expensive carriers like Turkish Airlines, Air Canada and Qantas do very well in the past six months alone.
Considering that Etihad positions itself as on-par with the rest of the "Middle East Three" - namely, Emirates and Qatar - and largely plans its business model around attracting long-haul connecting passengers, I'm simply surprised that they're not working harder to match up to the competition.
I held off on publishing this review until I'd flown Etihad again a week later, with a similar experience, and until I'd heard similar reviews from my wife and a colleague we met in Abu Dhabi.
That said, the aircraft is great, the seat was very comfortable, and I certainly could have solved the service issue by being more demanding or hitting the call button once an hour, so nothing I'm talking about here is unsolvable.
My overall feeling matches something my algebra teacher used to say when I failed a test: I'm not mad, I'm disappointed. I think you can do better, and I just don't think you worked very hard.
This review will continue in Part Two: Abu Dhabi To Toronto