First look: Etihad’s new business class on board the inaugural A350 flight to Paris
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Editor’s note: Etihad Airways provided Nicky Kelvin with flights to Abu Dhabi and on the inaugural A350-1000 route, but all opinions expressed are entirely his and weren’t subject to review by the airline.
This flight had been a long time coming. Etihad began taking delivery of A350-1000s from Airbus way back in the summer of 2019. We all know what happened next, but suffice it to say it was not an ideal period to be adding a new aircraft type to the fleet.
Today, almost three years later, I was lucky enough to be invited aboard Etihad’s very first commercial flight with the aircraft. What made this even more exciting was the fact that this was the first time Etihad’s new business-class product has taken to the skies. This launch is another step towards normality for the world of travel and aviation and there was a palpably positive energy in the air amongst the airline executives, dignitaries and media on board.
We flew as flight number EY37 departing from Abu Dhabi (AUH) at 7:59 am, arriving in Paris (CDG) 6 hours and 55 minutes later on this two-year-old aircraft, registered as A6-XWB.
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Etihad’s Airbus A350-1000
Etihad has now taken delivery of five of these Airbus A350-1000s and has another 15 on order. Etihad’s configuration of the aircraft has 371 seats in total. This is comprised of 44 business-class seats, based on the Collins Aerospace Super Diamond seat, which is also the foundation of the British Airways Club Suite. Further back are 45 Economy Space seats with extra legroom and 282 regular economy seats, all laid out in a 3-3-3 configuration.
One notable omission from this aircraft is a first-class product. Etihad has indefinitely grounded their Airbus A380s, with the much-hyped Apartments and the Residence aboard. Now Etihad only maintains a first-class cabin on some Boeing 787s and the lack of first class on its A350s is likely a signal that, in line with many other airlines around the world, first-class seats might be on the way out.
Although it was created for long-haul flights, Etihad will first operate the A350 on medium-haul routes to Istanbul, Cairo, Jeddah, Delhi and Mumbai with the following frequencies:
- Istanbul (IST) — daily flights from April 1 to June 20, 2022.
- Mumbai (BOM) — daily flights from April 1 to June 30, 2022.
- Jeddah (JED) — six flights per week from April 3 to June 30, 2022.
- Delhi (DEL) — daily flights from April 30 to June 30, 2022.
- Cairo (CAI) — four flights per week from May 2 to June 30, 2022.
The A350-1000 is able to operate on ultra-long-haul routes with over 16 hours of range, though. So from July, the aircraft will begin serving North American routes, starting with New York (JFK) and Chicago (ORD).
Stepping on board
Boarding the aircraft at door 1L and coming straight into the business-class cabin I was immediately impressed. Etihad has chosen to remove the overhead storage bins from the centre of the cabin.
This allows for higher ceilings and a more open ambience, and while there is a loss of space for bags, it certainly provides a noticeable sense of space.
The tones and colours are all classic Etihad, with golds, browns and cream tones throughout the cabin coming together to provide a stylish and chic environment. The lighting is designed to mirror natural ambient light and there are some newer features such as a dark-mode interface on the inflight entertainment system to help reduce light pollution for the best sleeping environment and to combat jet lag. Wi-Fi is also available throughout the plane.
New business class
I was most interested to set my eyes on the airline’s latest business-class seats.
Aside from some leaked images from the Dubai Airshow in November 2021, there has been scant detail, photos or videos of this new product.
The business-class section of the aircraft is in a single cabin with seats arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration, with direct aisle access for each passenger.
I was assigned a window seat, 10K. Though angled, all seats face forward and are 20 inches wide. They convert into fully flat beds measuring 79 inches long.
Each seat comes with a sliding door that closes almost all the way.
It adds a certain level of privacy but you’ll find this most effective when lying down, as the door is not high enough to fully block you from view from the rest of the cabin when sitting upright.
There is some, but not much storage in various compartments around the seat.
A shallow storage area is housed in the console by the window, with a slightly deeper unit next to it containing a touchscreen control for the inflight entertainment system and a universal power socket.
A smaller open bin for storage by your legs and water bottle storage in the movable armrest comprise the remaining stowage areas.
The window seats face outward and have two windows apiece. So if you’re like me and could stare out at the world below for an entire flight, you’ll be very happy. The centre pairs face inward and would be better for a couple. They do, however, have a privacy screen between the two seats if you are traveling alone.
The seat’s tray table slides down to two different height settings and folds out to double in size. It was sturdy and made a great surface for both working and eating.
The mechanism itself is incredibly satisfying to move up and down and feels “just right” for whatever you are trying to do. No fiddling around and pulling on sticky latches here.
The inflight entertainment system is comprehensive, with a wide selection of movies and TV shows and multiple live TV channels, all viewable on the 18.5-inch touchscreen.
Alongside the power plug and USB ports (including USB-C), there is also a built-in wireless charging dock and Bluetooth headphone pairing, which are both features that should hopefully become the standard in today’s world.
I did try charging my phone on the wireless charging dock, but because I kept picking it up (perhaps more of a reflection on my severe smartphone addiction) the phone struggled to power up and I switched to a wire instead.
Overall, the seat was very comfortable and I could have stayed far longer than this almost 7-hour flight. I also tested it out in its fully flat position.
It was soft and wide enough around the shoulders for any type of sleeper, although the footwell felt a little small, and if you like to wriggle your legs in your sleep, you might find your range of motion hindered.
The stylish Etihad lamp that you might recognize from other aircraft has been added to this seat, too.
There is also a smaller push-out reading light at shoulder level.
Etihad’s new business-class seat does indeed feel very similar to the British Airways Club Suite but I would consider this to be an upgrade due to the fabric upholstery, the cabin colors and the high-end finishes such as the marble effect on the seat’s flat surfaces.
Economy and Economy Space
I didn’t spend the whole flight up front, though.
I was also curious to check out how the airline had refreshed its economy cabin
The seats The seats feature the signature Etihad adjustable headrest, USB charging ports and Bluetooth headphone pairing and a 13.3-inch inflight entertainment screen.
In the front portion of the economy cabin you’ll find the 45 ‘Economy Space’ seats which have an additional four inches of legroom, but are in the same 3-3-3 configuration as the rest of economy.
I tried out both versions and the “normal” economy seats were fine for me, however, the extra four inches were definitely noticeable and would make a difference if you were taller, especially on a longer flight.
For instance, this is what my legs looked like in the Economy Space seats.
And this was the legroom in economy.
The flight experience
As for the flight itself, there were a number of touches to mark the special occasion. A box of Mirzam chocolates was placed at every seat with “Celebrating the A350 entry into service” wrapping.
Since the destination was Paris, the flight attendants served a special French-themed menu.
The food was perhaps not the norm that you might expect from Etihad for breakfast, with particular highlights including lobster eggs Benedict and a French omelette with caviar.
I began with the fresh fruit followed by the French omelette.
The omelette was presented beautifully and tasted delicious, although I do prefer a runnier egg which isn’t often found in the sky.
I noticed the breakfast service took around four hours to complete after take-off. This could mean that Etihad might experience the same problems British Airways had on its A350s, with a very small galley and a relatively large business-class cabin. Or it could have been the special nature of the flight and the menu. Time will tell whether teething problems are easily smoothed out and service becomes more efficient.
Back on the ground in Paris, a media briefing was hosted at the gate, complete with speeches and an incredibly elaborate carved melon.
I particularly appreciated the accurate melon-skin-representation of the Etihad logo — that must be one talented fruit carver.
“The Airbus A350 is an absolutely incredible aircraft, and we are proud to introduce it into the Etihad Airways network today,” Tony Douglas, Etihad’s CEO, told the crowd. “Our teams have worked closely together to craft a product and travel proposition that will ensure every journey with Etihad is a choice well made – both for our guests and for the planet. With highly efficient fuel consumption and CO2 savings, the A350 will support our goals to reduce carbon emissions and deliver an unmatched flight experience for our guests.”
Overall, Etihad’s A350 is a beauty and, in particular, the new business-class product has a lot to make a passenger comfortable and happy.
As for me, it was a wonderful experience to be back on board an inaugural flight and experience some aviation magic, but this aircraft is one I would definitely recommend trying out for your next trip to or through the Middle East and especially once it begins flying between Abu Dhabi and the U.S.
All photos by Nicky Kelvin / The Points Guy.
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