In June 2020, Etihad Airways from Abu Dhabi attracted some attention with an unusual offer. Those who were willing to buy a voucher valid for two years got 50% of the purchase price added to the value of the voucher. The voucher’s credit was then stored at the Etihad Travel Bank and had to be used up to 2 years after the date of purchase. Without further ado, I decided to take this bet and buy one of the vouchers for $1,000. So I had $1,500 in credit and hoped that the pandemic would end within 24 months and that international travel would then be possible again.
In June 2022, the credit threatened to expire. A quick search with our Go2 tool revealed that there were only two attractive redemption options: Departing from Milan, you could travel in business class to either Seoul or Tokyo, both of which required a payment of around €300 in addition to the voucher value. The longer flight and the fantastic city spoke in favor of Tokyo as a destination. The fact that South Korea was already letting tourists into the country again, and that I had never visited the country, spoke in favor of Seoul. I chose the Korean Peninsula. This brings us to the flight data and the following disclaimer:
Full transparency: This ticket was paid for out of my own pocket. Etihad didn’t throw money at me or offer any other additional benefits to get a more positive review.
- Flight: EY 81 from Milan-Malpensa to Abu Dhabi (
- Seat: 8A
- Plane: Boeing 787-9
- Departure and arrival times: MXP 9:55 – 17:05 AUH
- Flight duration: 5:05 hours
- Month: April 2023
I will also include my experiences from the other flights in this report. However, the images and detailed description are solely based on the segment from Northern Italy to Abu Dhabi.
Table of Contents
Check-In & Lounge
Because of the early departure (09:55), I decided to travel to Milan a few days earlier and explore the city with my mother. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Garibaldi, which is easily accessible from both Milan airports by bus and train. The Malpensa Express (€13) runs every thirty minutes from Porta Garibaldi train station, which is within walking distance. It arrives at Terminal 1 of the airport 40 minutes later.
At around 7:20, a good two and a half hours before departure, I found myself at the check-in counter. A considerable queue had formed at the three economy counters. The business class counters, on the other hand, had no queues and waiting times. After a quick check of my passport, I was handed a boarding pass for both flights, with the seats I had previously selected. Etihad allows free seat selection at the time of booking and at any time thereafter.
Malpensa Airport used to be a horrible concrete monster and has been transformed into a deserted-looking, horrible concrete monster during covid. The reason for this is the withdrawal of Alitalia and ITA Airways: The airline now uses Linate as its European hub and Rome as its international hub, except for a daily direct connection from Malpensa to New York. However, this development also means that there is currently far more capacity than passengers. For this reason, security and passport control ran extremely quickly. I continued my way to the lounge.
Etihad Airways uses the huge Sala Montale, which is located on the first floor of the non-Schengen area of the airport, as its lounge. Here I had my breakfast and enjoyed the view of the sunrise-lit apron through the huge windows. There was enough seating and a commendably varied range of food and drinks, even at breakfast time.
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Five minutes before boarding, I went down the stairs to the gate to take a few photos of the empty cabin if possible. Just like during check-in, a long line of economy passengers had formed. At first, I couldn’t make out a separate queue for business class passengers. However, I was able to spot such a sign at the counter – there was simply no one queuing there. When I asked when boarding would start, I received a short pronto in reply and was let through immediately. It really couldn’t be any smoother.
And it continued that way. While many airlines are happy to state boarding times that are 15 or 20 minutes too early, most of the time at Etihad I was already on board when boarding was supposed to start. This won’t work with an economy ticket, but at least you’re not sitting around at the gate before the process even starts. Full points for Etihad.
Seat & Cabin
The business class cabin of Etihad Airways’ Boeing 787-9 consists of 28 seats in a 1-2-1 configuration, spread over seven rows. In some machines of this type, there is a first class before the business class, but this was not the case on my flights. The 1-2-1 seating is not recognizable at first glance, because three rows of seats are arranged “backward” in order to use the space as effectively as possible. However, the most important element of the 1-2-1 arrangement is in place: every passenger has direct access to the aisle.
My 8A seat was facing forward and was next to three windows, similar to Swiss first class seats. A wrapped blanket, a pillow, a printed menu and a chic amenity kit from Acqua di Parma awaited me at my seat. After I settled in, one of the flight attendants came by, addressed me by my last name, introduced himself, and asked what I wanted to drink. I opted for champagne and orange juice. The sun was shining. Life was beautiful. I hastily took a few photos to show off.
On the right side was a generous platform on which the amenity kit lay and later drinks and snacks were served. Immediately to the right of the seat, there is another closed compartment that can be opened and offers ample storage space, as well as a pair of headphones and a bottle of water. A reading lamp was mounted above it, which emits a pleasant, warm light in the darkened cabin. The seat itself is wide and comfortable. Space for storing personal items is not as generous as at other airlines, but I didn’t feel restricted by it.
In contrast to some other airlines, the individual parts of the Etihad seat cannot be operated individually: the seat can be moved to an upright or a lying position with a button, the backrest and seat automatically moving together. Still, I never had trouble finding a comfortable sitting or sleeping position.
The lying surface of the seat, which is extended to form a bed, deserves special praise. Rarely have I been able to sleep so well and comfortably on board a plane. As a side sleeper, I’m always happy to have the opportunity to turn, and this was possible without any restrictions. The length of the seat is also remarkable, I (1.78 meters tall) was able to stretch out completely without hitting a limit with my head or feet.
The table is installed on the side behind the screen of the opposite seat. A mechanical push of a button lets it emerge from the disguise. It can be easily pulled out and tilted 90 degrees to perform its function. The table size is normal, but my laptop (15″, i.e. 36.5 cm wide, 25 cm deep) found enough space on it. For the mouse, I had to use the platform on the right: this can be a problem if the platform is located on the left – unless you’re left-handed. Two USB ports and an international power socket are available for charging.
In both the 787-9 and the 787-10, the 28 and 32 business class passengers respectively have two lavatories located in the front part of the cabin. The size of the washroom in the 787-9 corresponds to that of ordinary plane lavatories. The 787-10’s additional space was used to make the washroom wider. In addition, with the larger Boeing, you don’t have to wait in the aisle or in the galley but have a separate area in front of the first row of seats. However, at least one of the two washrooms was free on all flights at all times.
The only criticism of Etihad’s business class seating is the lack of privacy. In contrast to many other airlines, the cabin has a more open design: Only the seats in the middle, facing the rear of the machine, offer a sliding door to protect you from the eyes of fellow passengers. If these are open, you can easily look through the cabin to the other side. There is also regular eye contact with the guest sitting diagonally opposite in the middle seat. Overall, I would rate the hard product 4.5 stars out of 5.
Now we come to an area where Etihad Airways has set new standards for me. As already described, there was a greeting with a personal address on the first flight. A little later, I got another visit from the flight attendant, who explained to me that nuts and a drink of my choice would be served after take-off. My meal request was also taken into account. So far, nothing unusual.
Before the red-eye flights to Seoul or Milan, they also asked if one wanted to be woken up for breakfast. The question of when breakfast should be served on the last flight (departure 3:30 am in Abu Dhabi, arrival 8:00 am in Milan) was very attentive: after take-off or before landing. Adjusting to the individual wishes of the passengers here makes a lot of sense and helped me to complete my return trip completely without jet lag.
Throughout the flight, the staff behaved in a friendly manner and with a polite, extremely professional tone. Every individual request was received with understanding and fulfilled. On the flight to Seoul, e.g. another guest asked if he could have a glass of red wine instead of juice or champagne as a welcome drink. A stimulating idea that prompted me to let a glass of Australian Shiraz lull me to bed on my flight to Milan. My special requests for food were also met without exception and with friendliness.
What surprised and delighted me the most was that the procedures and handling of the passengers on all four flights were at the same, extremely high level. The related rollercoaster ride with Aeromexico last year should hardly serve as a benchmark, so a comparison with another heavyweight:
In February, I had the great pleasure of spending about 25 hours in Singapore Airlines’ business class. Even there, there were larger differences regarding the service experience than at Etihad Airways. The apparently fantastic training of the staff, paired with the polite and professional manner, deserve six out of five possible stars.
Food & Drinks
As already described, I started my flight to Abu Dhabi with champagne and orange juice. After take-off, I got water and a mixture of cashews and almonds while enjoying the panoramic view of the Alps. A small praise at this point for the snack selection, because most nut allergy sufferers can eat both – since they are not nuts.
Before the meal, my table was unfolded by a stewardess and set with a tablecloth and cutlery. As a starter, I chose the Arabic mezze. A large tray was served, on which, in addition to the plate with the starters, there was also a filled bread basket, butter, oil and flatbreads. The latter was part of the appetizer, which consisted of a baked dumpling, a vine leaf stuffed with rice and vegetables, hummus, and a pile of lettuce. The hummus in particular stood out, although I prefer it warm.
For my main course, I chose the biryani with lamb, which turned out to be an excellent choice. The meat was tender and flavourful and coated in an aromatic sauce. The rice was fluffy, well-prepared and fantastically seasoned, the roasted onions and cashew nuts as a garnish helped the dish visually and provided interesting flavors. The fruit for dessert also deserves praise, as do the warm and fluffy rolls.
I used the time after dinner to have a nap. After I woke up, we crossed Israel (unthinkable for Arab airlines years ago) and I had some time to work. I ordered a latte, which was served with a bar of chocolate. Warm snacks were offered about 90 minutes before landing, but I passed in favor of another cup of coffee and a scoop of strawberry ice cream. Generally, a small piece of dark chocolate is served with every coffee.
As with the service, the level of food and drinks remained consistently high on the other flights. I chose the same breakfast for both Milan and Seoul because of the outstanding taste: cheese omelette with pan-fried poultry sausage, mushrooms and an asparagus potato rosti with tomato confit. However, since the egg dish couldn’t keep up with the side dishes, I asked on the last flight not to have the omelette. This wish was also granted. With a mischievous smile, the steward served me the “omelette without omelette” for breakfast.
The quality of the food and the associated service also are beyond the usual standards here. We still stick with five out of five stars.
Entertainment & Wifi
Enough with the praise, as unfortunately, Etihad’s entertainment program didn’t live up to the otherwise excellent product. The selection of films seemed small to me, only the controversial Oscar winner Everything, Everywhere, All at Once aroused my interest. However, I slept, read or worked so much during the flights that I ended up not watching it. A single hour after taking off from Abu Dhabi for Seoul, I turned my attention to my screen for a recap of the past NFL season.
Etihad can’t compete with any airline I’ve flown in the last 20 months in terms of film and series selection. This also applies to the Wi-Fi: I found the prices so exorbitant and the options for use so limited due to the time difference that I refrained from buying it. The following options were available:
- 20 MB for $2
- 100 MB for $7, limited to an hour
- 200 MB for $16, limited to 6 hours
- 350 MB for $30, limited to 24 hours
A great price-value ratio – for 2010. For 2023 unfortunately almost unacceptable. At least, the Arabian airline has announced improvements in this area. A nice touch is the fact that the remote control itself has a small screen that can be used independently of the larger monitor. For instance, you can watch a film (if you can find one) and meanwhile keep an eye on the flight map on the smaller display.
Since my disinterest in the program is of course also related to personal preferences, I award two out of five stars.
A business class review naturally includes a look at the lounge, which at the beginning of the article for the Sala Montale in Milan turned out to be quite brief. There’s a reason for that: instead of describing a lounge at a single departure location, I took a few pictures of the lounge that all Etihad business class passengers will visit.
When I last flew out of Abu Dhabi in 2014, I noticed a new terminal building under construction in the middle of the two runways. Without finding out more, I was looking forward to visiting the new terminal nine years later. To find out when landing: It is still a construction site.
So Abu Dhabi Airport is still made up of Terminal 1 (pretty, but too small and impractical) and Terminal 3 (an endless glass rectangle). The Etihad Business Class Lounge is located in Terminal 3, pretty much in the middle of the looooong corridor in the departures area. When you land in Abu Dhabi, you must first go through security and duty-free before you can reach your departure gate (or lounges).
The signage is pretty confusing and on my first visit caused me to walk in circles twice and pointlessly change floors before finally finding my way to the lounge. The Etihad Business Lounge is huge and visually stunning, with several individually designed seating areas.
There is a limited selection of hot Western and Indian/Arabic dishes that do not necessarily go together. The Western offering consisted of chicken in piri piri hot sauce (meh), lime-crusted salmon (okay), steamed veggies and squishy potatoes that were supposed to be baked and crunchy (no). As expected, the Indian-Arabic food was heavily seasoned and delicious. However, those who don’t like this cuisine will have a disappointing experience.
The food was presented in two buffets, another buffet is set up in the middle of the lounge and provides desserts of all kinds. Nothing I tried stood out in any way. Overall, the food offerings in the lounge are average.
The biggest problem in the lounge is the scarce supply of sockets: I didn’t even find the opportunity to charge my work PC or mobile phone in the work area specially set up for this purpose. This is simply a catastrophe and unacceptable. Only at a kind of counter with uncomfortable bar stools could I make out a working socket, which at least offered USB connections (as a supplement to Arabic sockets).
But here, too, improvement is in sight: the new terminal should finally be put into operation at the end of this year. Until then, it stays at 3 out of 5 stars.
- Check-in & Boarding
- Seat & Cabin
- Food & Drinks
- In-Flight Entertainment
Etihad Airways impressed in almost every respect, even eclipsing Singapore Airlines’ highly acclaimed business class for long stretches. The fantastically trained and highly professional cabin crew managed to make all four flights an identical experience at the absolute top level. The same praise applies to the food.
The slightly unusual seat is among the most comfortable and roomy I’ve experienced at 30,000 feet; although in many pictures it resembles a small cell with plastic walls. Rarely have I slept so well on board a plane.
Etihad’s biggest weaknesses are its average entertainment program (which is becoming less important in the age of tablets and notebooks), the overpriced internet service and its own business class lounge in Abu Dhabi. It is not bad, but cannot keep up with the otherwise good product.
If you can get hold of an Etihad business class ticket for €1,600 or less for more than 20 hours of travel time, based on my experience, you won’t go far wrong with your purchase.