Review: Etihad Business Class, Abu Dhabi-Toronto, Boeing 777
This is the second half of a two-part review of Etihad's business class; on the outbound, we flew a 6-hour hop from Europe to Abu Dhabi on the 787 Dreamliner, while today I'll take you along on a 14-hour ultra-long-haul on the 777.
Abu Dhabi - Toronto is an odd route; while Etihad operates AUH-YYZ every day except Tuesdays, this flight is operated by a Dreamliner 4 days out of 6 and the older 777 the other 2 days a week. Keep an eye on which aircraft you'll be getting; while both are good products, they're certainly noticeably different.
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 - Abu Dhabi Airport
A 9:20 departure from Abu Dhabi Airport meant an early wake-up call at the hotel, but once we arrived at Etihad's dedicated Business / First terminal entrance, with a dozen check-in agents waiting, plus a dedicated fast-track line for Emirati exit customs, we found ourselves at the entrance to Etihad's Business lounge with plenty of time to spare.
Having had a disappointing experience with Etihad's in-flight catering the previous week, I definitely approached this trip a bit wary of what to expect, hoping I'd just lost a dice roll on the last one. Sadly, Etihad's lounge started us off with much the same experience; it's a comfortable, beautifully-furnished space with catering that seems more appropriate for a United lounge in Pittsburgh than the home base of the "World's Leading Airline 2019".
As I said in the last review, I'm not expecting champagne and caviar, but powdered eggs and plastic-wrapped pastries are just plain underwhelming from an airline selling itself as a high-end luxury brand. This is hardly the end of the world, given that we're about to board a flight that starts with a full meal service, but Etihad's business model leans heavily into connecting long-haul passengers, and if I were on a long layover here flying Toronto-Johannesburg, I'd be searching for the nearest airport cafe.
After bidding my wife farewell on her flight back to Brussels, and after navigating a slightly chaotic gate experience, I headed for the jetway and caught a view of today’s ride, one of Etihad's older 777s with vintage livery. Got to love those giant engines towering over the luggage carts.
Part Two - The Seat
The 777 cabin lacks a few of the finer design touches found on the newer Dreamliners - I'm still in love with those low-glow lamps - but it's still perfectly comfortable. The pod-style seats are the same product you'll find on Asiana's Airbus 380 and Thai Airways' long-haul fleet, with plenty of legroom, ample storage, and a wonderfully large, sturdy tray table that actually felt good to work on throughout the flight.
The 1-2-1 layout of the cabin means that each row is staggered, and the result is that even-numbered window seats are much more private than the odd ones; at one point, the flight crew had to wake the gentleman seated behind me as his feet were sticking out into the aisle. However, this same spacing makes the pairs of seats in odd-numbered rows of the center section perfect for couples flying together.
After a glass of proper champagne, we pushed back from the gate and took off immediately, with a western departure taking us right over Yas Island, home to the Formula 1 racecourse and Ferrari World.
Part Three - Soft Product / Onboard Experience
Long-haul flights are always a bit weird when it comes to meal times; our flight departed just past 9AM local time, and in this case Etihad's decided to follow conventional airline-industry logic that means the only logical choice for a morning departure is to immediately serve dinner. Fine, fair enough, pretty much everyone does it that way, and I suspect the idea is to get the passengers so full they want to hibernate.
As new aircraft continue to set new distance records, I realize that while today's 14-hour epic would have counted only a few years ago as one of the longest flights in the world, today it's barely in the top 100, as it's now common to see 18-hour ultra-marathons. Still, 14 hours is rather a long time, and as I read the menu, it seemed awfully surprising that Etihad only planned to serve one meal on this flight.
They offer a handful of on-demand snacks, and bring around a basket of chips at about Hour 10, but that's it. So, while I'm usually interested to try local flavours, I skipped the chicken margooga in favour of the heartier-sounding beef tenderloin.
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 their main competition, Qatar and Emirates, consistently rank as the best premium-cabin products in the world. So, as with Part One of this two-part review, I was absolutely baffled at the consistently poor quality of catering on this flight.
The presentation was well-executed, but the meal just... wasn't. The bread was stale, the beef was overcooked and tough, the potatoes were cold and rubbery and I just plain don't know what you have to do to chocolate fondant to give it a crust.
When we reached the 12-hour mark and I hacked together a breakfast tray out of four items on the snack menu, I figured at least breakfast cereal was hard to mess up. My flight attendant was clearly fairly new to the job, which is completely understandable as the whole industry re-staffs after the pandemic, but I should have realized I was in trouble when she referred to Rice Krispies as "I think we have the rice one". By the time the bowl came out, it had clearly been sitting in the galley with the milk poured on for ten minutes or more, while they took the plastic wrap off the croissant. Mmm, Rice Soggies.
I realize how I sound complaining about this, but read my other reviews, I'm often very happy with in-flight catering. This was was just plain bad, and I do my best to write honestly; this isn't worth publishing OR reading if I just write polite fiction.
Speaking of fiction, I had been dying to get into a new book on this flight, so between that and a few hours' work to start transitioning out of vacation mode, I didn't spend a ton of time with the In-Flight Entertainment system. I browsed long enough to see that it had a similarly varied, if not quite as in-depth, selection as the incredible library of content on Etihad's Dreamliner the week before.
On the wi-fi front, after feeling a bit put off by the stingy data caps on offer, I opted to pay $2 to connect my phone to the text-messaging only service. As airlines like Delta, Qantas and Emirates start to offer this for free, it was a bit irritating to see Etihad try to squeeze this one, but a whole lot more irritating when the service kept disconnecting every two minutes the whole flight. Again, not the end of the world, but frustrating when it's something the competition has been doing well for years.
Part Four - Arrival Experience
As anyone who regularly flies trans-Atlantic to Canada can confirm, that last hour crossing Northern Quebec always seems to take longer than the rest of the trip combined, but we still landed at Toronto a few minutes ahead of schedule due to helpful wind patterns at high altitude
We docked at Toronto's older Terminal Three, otherwise known as the "everyone who's not Star Alliance" terminal, and by the time I'd made it halfway down the long hall to Canadian Customs, my AirTag had confirmed the arrival of my luggage. Note that while Etihad and Air Canada are interline partners, on this route your checked bags do NOT go through automatically. If you're connecting to Air Canada, you've got to collect your bags, carry them over to Terminal 1 and re-check in as if you're departing Toronto. Not a big deal, but definitely something you won't want to overlook.
As with the Brussels flight, I'm disappointed because I went into this flight expecting Etihad to be world-class great, and they were only pretty good.
The things about this flight that didn't work for me are all completely doable, as evidenced by the dozen airlines that have been doing them well for years. I don't need Etihad to start sending a floppy-hatted chef aboard each flight, but it's probably worth teaching the flight crew why it's bad to leave cereal sitting in milk for a long time. I don't need the in-flight wifi to be free, but Air Canada and Delta manage to provide stable service with no data caps at the same price.
The things about this flight that I didn't like, all feel like cost-cutting measures, and that's tough to see from a global brand representing itself as a a high-end product.