Caviar on tap: Flying Etihad’s first-class Apartment from JFK to Abu Dhabi
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Editor’s note: We always travel incognito for the flights and hotel stays we review. Since we would be filming extensively in all service classes, Etihad Airways was informed we would be on board. We are therefore not considering this a review flight, and will not be assigning scores.
The Maldives has to be the most aspirational destination in the world for people who collect points — and probably for those who don’t, too.
That’s why we are featuring this month extensive coverage of this island nation, focusing on various new hotel openings. In December, several TPG staffers and The Points Guy himself, Brian Kelly, flew there to cover those hotels and review the flights getting them to the Indian Ocean archipelago (and, in Brian’s case, also to get engaged!)
If you’re going on the ultimate points-and-miles trip to paradise, you might as well go big, and on the first leg of our journey to the Maldives four TPG staffers travelled together from New York to Abu Dhabi on the biggest aeroplane of them all, the Airbus A380. The Etihad Airways A380 features four classes of service: economy, business, first class aka Apartments and The Residence, the ultra-exclusive class above first that only Etihad has.
While the boss claimed The Residence, I was given the honour of the first-class spot in an Etihad Apartment. Having flown it only once before, from London to Abu Dhabi, I was excited to try out the product on a true long-haul flight.
We booked using 172,500 Etihad Guest miles. Etihad is a transfer partner of the UK American Express Membership Rewards programme. The airline opened up the award availability for us, and we did not pay any surcharges and fees since they manually booked these tickets for us. Had there been saver space, this would’ve been a great use of 115,000 AA miles. AA miles are not quite as easy to earn in the UK but you can transfer Marriott Bonvoy points to AA.
Related reading: The ultimate guide to Etihad’s A380 first-class apartment
Had we been flying out of Etihad’s home base at the Abu Dhabi airport (AUH), we would have been driven there by a chauffeur. in New York, that’s not possible: the Etihad Chauffeur service is no longer available at airports other than AUH, or when flying on award tickets.
Etihad offers separate desks at JFK’s Terminal 4 for premium passengers, with little difference between business and first, occupying desks next to each other. In any case, there was no queue when I arrived and the check-in formalities were completed within a couple of minutes.
The lines were backed up at security on this Wednesday night, but helpfully, Etihad staff escorted me through the crowds to the front. We were ushered through and again within minutes we were at the door of the lounge. Ordinarily, you would go through the normal screening process, which at JFK’s Terminal 4 can be far from pleasant even for first-class passengers, as the dedicated lines for premium passengers often feed directly into general security.
Etihad has its own lounge at JFK, for both business and first-class passengers, although passengers flying in the Residence can enter a separate lounge-within-a-lounge through a secret door.
There is a beautiful bar in front of the large windows in the lounge, and the luxury vibe pushed me to order martinis, which were made to perfection.
The lounge is not huge, but there was no lack of seating or space in the relax and dining areas.
There is a buffet with a selection of hot and cold food, and various self-serve drinks.
There was a sit-down, à la carte service. I ordered chicken satay and the grilled salmon with potato mash, and both were hot, fresh and tasty, and came quickly. The salmon with its crispy top was particularly nice. As a hummus obsessive, I also tried the hummus and pita offered but was left disappointed by its wet grainy texture. You can’t win them all!
I ordered a gin and tonic with Hendricks gin. It was a nice touch that they included a cucumber slice, the traditional accompaniment for Hendricks, without me even asking.
The showers were large, clean and nice.
It was quite a walk to the gate, towards the end of the concourse, but the boarding process was chilled and easy. I had chosen to hang back longer to enjoy the lounge and was one of the last to board. There was no waiting, and I marched straight onto the jet bridge and into the waiting A380.
Cabin and Seat
I boarded the plane on the upper deck — which Etihad reserves for The Residence, first and business — to an incredibly warm welcome by the crew.
The cabin looks luxurious, with cream and brown tones, and is set up in a staggered 1-1 configuration with Apartments alternating between forward and rear-facing. I think the best seats in the house are those with three windows; if you prefer forward-facing, choose 4A/K, and if you prefer rear-facing go with 3A/K.
The crew showed me to my Apartment, 1H. This is the front seat on the right-hand side, with a rear-facing seat, set away from the window. It would not have been my ideal choice, but was the only one left available at the time of booking.
You enter the Apartment through double sliding doors, which provide great privacy once you are inside and the doors are closed.
There is a wide and comfortable seat and a separate bench, which is extended to create the bed.
There is a control panel to the left of the seat that allows easy control of the inflight entertainment (IFE), next to a double USB port, an HDMI port, and the outlet for headphones. There is another outlet for the headphones next to the bed so that you can listen to the IFE regardless of where you are in the Apartment.
The seat is controlled by smart-looking buttons in the armrest. However, the seat only reclines a few inches. This is a slight annoyance. There were times when I wanted to really kick back and relax, but without going the whole hog by getting into the bed. Recline aside, the seat is very comfortable.
There is some gorgeous detailing around the seat. I especially liked these lamps, which looked great and provided a soft glow. Three brightness settings really put you in control of the mood.
A pop-open vanity station is next to the seat, with various mirrors and storage pockets. It’s incredibly well lit.
A tray slides out directly below the mirrors. Handy for drinks, or if you want to apply makeup.
There is also a handy drawer right next to this, where I kept my growing tangle of wires between charging. It’s in the perfect position, with a universal power outlet right above.
The tray table comes out from the armrest, and when fully extended is huge. A 15″ Macbook gets swallowed up on it, and the table is big enough for two to eat at when dining.
There are further storage areas including a small coat wardrobe, space under the bench to place shoes and bag, and another small drawer that is actually chilled and contains a small minibar.
A couple of hours into the flight, I asked the crew to make up the bed. The bench, which is split in two, is dropped down to make one flat surface. Two mattresses are put on top of the flattened bench, and it is then made up with a soft and comfortable comforter and pillow set.
The bed is narrow, but wide enough for me. It is also perfectly flat. My only gripe would be that it is a little hard. A thicker or softer mattress, or slightly softer bench, would have been my preference. If you like a slightly harder sleeping surface, though, you will like this.
There are two bathrooms available for first-class passengers. One is slightly larger, while the smaller one has a shower.
They both contain the same luxury amenities, including Acqua di Parma hand wash and hand lotion and Edition Voyage facial mist and hand cleaner.
The real magic is the bathroom with a shower. You really can’t beat the feeling of a hot shower on board before getting into a freshly made bed. It’s one of the most joyous experiences I’ve had flying.
Each passenger can book a shower slot and is given a five-minute time limit to ensure the water is rationed correctly. The shower automatically stops, so you can’t go over time. You are able to pause the shower, which I took advantage of when lathering up.
Acqua di Parma shampoo, conditioner and body wash are provided.
Between the first- and business-class cabins in the middle of the upper deck on the Etihad A380 is a lounge area. There is a round table with six comfortable seats around it. It’s a wonderful place to chill, chat and drink during the flight.
Also in this area is a bar, with premium spirits, wine and champagne. It’s the most high-end self-serve bar setup I’ve seen in the sky.
Amenities and InFlight Entertainment
Acqua di Parma amenity kits were handed out at the start of the flight. They included lip balm, lotion, cologne, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a pair of socks and an eye mask (which was nice on the inside but a bit cheap and tacky on the outside).
Soft, silky and very comfy pyjamas were also handed out, as well as a pair of slippers.
The noise-cancelling headphones worked very well and were comfortable to wear.
A soft and luxurious blanket completed the amenities.
Wi-Fi vouchers were handed out, giving 90MB free to first-class passengers. The largest package available for cash was 100MB for US$29.95 (about £23). The Wi-Fi didn’t work for the first couple of hours, but once it got going it was OK. Speeds were sufficient for light use at speeds of 3 Mbps for download and 0.18 for upload.
The IFE system offers a wide range of movies and TV shows. It also has a live TV function and I enjoyed watching BBC News for a chunk of the flight. There’s also an interactive moving map, and the all-important and wonderful tail cam.
Food and Beverage
Menus were waiting on seats at the start of the flight and the onboard chef was excited to tell me that I could eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. Did that include caviar for dinner and breakfast, I asked? The reply was a strong “Yes,” and so my challenge was duly set and accepted.
Pre-departure, Arabic coffee and dates were served.
Shortly after takeoff, Charles Heidsieck 2006 Champagne was served along with a snack selection of wasabi peas, mixed nuts, cornichons and olives. I really appreciate a varied snack selection with a drink. A couple of almonds simply wouldn’t have cut it in the Apartment!
Then, round one of caviar, with all the usual trimmings, was served along with more champagne. It was as delicious as ever, and served on high-quality china. which makes all the difference in the already luxury setting.
Because of the late departure time, I was desperate to sleep, so I ducked out of more food and drink after the caviar to take a shower and get some rest.
The bed was set up with a bottle of water within easy reach before bedtime. A note and chocolates were also left on the pillow.
When I woke up in the morning, I took a cappuccino, which was surprisingly good for a plane, but the foam was a little “cheap”. The accompanying biscuits were a nice touch and they were crunchy and tasty.
After a little freshening up, round two of the caviar challenge commenced, and I thoroughly enjoyed my second helping.
But I needed more than just caviar, so I ordered a more normal lunch, starting with the salmon filet. However this was very fishy, with mushy skin, and the whole thing including the accompaniments was cold. I mentioned this to the crew, who were mortified and couldn’t have done a better job of taking this away and replacing it with something better incredibly quickly. You can’t avoid a dud here or there, but what matters is how that dud is dealt with, and they did a great job.
On the chef’s recommendation, I ordered the kale and ricotta ravioli as the replacement. The pasta was al dente, the filling satisfying and tasty and the tomato and mozzarella dressing fresh and lovely. It was a winning dish.
For dessert, I had the fruit tart, which had a delicious cream filling and fresh, crunchy fruit on top.
The service both from the ground staff and the onboard crew and chef was excellent. On my previous flight in the Apartment, I actually found the service quite stiff and reserved and I was expecting more of the same. This time around, they were relaxed, efficient, friendly and fast. As often happens with Middle Eastern carriers, a diverse crew — this time a Spaniard, a Kenyan and a Brit were looking after me — made for a winning combination.
I was greeted by name throughout the flight, which was also a touch that made the whole flight feel special.
The little touches really stood out. The way the poor first main course was dealt with was excellent, and made it irrelevant that the dish wasn’t perfect. I also loved nipping to the bathroom and coming back to find out the crew had slipped in and remade the bed and freshened up the cabin, as if had been the work of fairies. I really didn’t want for anything at any time. I did give the call bell a go at one point, and the response time and resulting service were literally a matter of seconds.
The Apartment is a showstopper. There is something very special about having a, well, apartment in the sky. The whole setup is very comfortable, with the only gripe being the slightly hard bed (but that is personal preference) and the lack of major recline on the seat.
The food, drink, lashings of caviar and an onboard shower really are brilliant.
The mixed business- and first-class lounge at JFK is just about good enough to pass the test and doesn’t feel very exclusive, but this experience is really about the onboard moments.
With some decent point-redemption options, the Etihad Apartment is really something you must experience, and I wouldn’t hesitate to jump on board again, maybe next time on an even longer flight.
All photos by the author.