When Etihad Airways announced earlier this month they were upping the ante for lovers of luxury-in-the-skies with the creation of The Residence – a fully-fledged apartment on its A380 planes for first-class passengers who prefer to do their long-haul travel lying down – the attention of Australian business travellers turned firmly towards the airline.
For the fledgling carrier to make such a bold play in the highly competitive luxury travel market was like a marker in the sand. A mile-high statement designed to attract attention as much as it was to attract travellers.
And so it got us wondering. If they were going to create an entire “apartment” for their first class passengers, what was going on just that little bit further back in the bus with their business class offering?
Lots, as it turns out.
On a recent trip to Europe, to cover the Cannes Film Festival, the gods of upgrade smiled down upon me. At the check-in counter my 48K transformed magically into a 9A – and a journey that I was bracing myself to endure became one that I was able to savour.
The first thing to note about the Etihad business class experience is the exceedingly high level of service. From Sydney to Abu Dhabi and on to Paris, the ground crew manning the check-in desks, lounges and departure gates could not have been more obliging. It’s a credit to an airline undergoing rapid growth that it manages to maintain personalised, personable service at the ground crew level – an area so often left to slip by other airlines.
The second thing to note about the Etihad business class experience is the quality of the brand new business and first class lounges that the airline has built both in Sydney and Abu Dhabi.
My flight left Sydney at 2pm, which meant a leisurely lunch could be taken in the lounge. And we’re not talking a cold cuts buffet or a beef curry in a bain marie. Guests select their pre-flight meal from an a la carte menu, whereupon a team of chefs prepare it in the adjoining kitchen. Silver service, linen napkins and a wine list that is surprisingly comprehensive mean you find yourself willing the clock to slow down and delay your departure.
The lounge itself has been sleekly designed. A touch of wood panelling, a lot of white leather furniture with alloy highlights. It’s all very modern traveller.
On board, and once you are finally in the air, the service continues to the same high-standard set down on the ground. Though you can’t imagine eating another thing, orders for dinner are taken before the flight takes off, minimising that post-take-off fussing for which airlines the world over are renowned. Overall, it leaves you more time to plot out your movie binge – poring over the forty-plus feature films on offer.
The entertainment system is adequate for business. The screens are big, the navigation is relatively straightforward and the ability to pause, rewind and fast-forward means you can pop up and down to the bathroom without worrying you’re going to miss a vital scene in the whodunnit.
Seats that recline to 180 degrees make for a relatively comfortable bed. Travelling as I was on the A340-600, the business class seats seemed not as wide as those you find in bigger aircraft, creating an ever so-slightly cramped sensation for my six-foot frame - but given how close I had come to spending the journey in 48K, it seemed churlish to even notice it.
The meals were beyond fault. Served with professionalism atop linen tablecloths and complemented by miniature salt and pepper grinders (it’s the little things…) the food was very good. Drinks were plentiful and glasses were refilled without asking – all of which helped when finally it came time to press pause on the movie binge, flatten out the seat and catch a bit of shut-eye.
It was sometime in that parallel time continuum that is the exclusive preserve of international travellers that we arrived in Abu Dhabi. It was neither night nor day. One of those pre-dawn hours that seem to stretch for an eternity.
Business travellers making the onward journey to Europe are whisked directly to the brand-spanking new first and business class lounge. The waft of essential oil burners greets you as you step inside. Your bags are magically taken from you by Etihad elves, who lead you to plump leather sofas under soft light.
In a fully-fledged dining room, couples sit primly, partaking of freshly prepared delicacies. Depending on which time zone they had come from, some tucked in to eggs benedict while others busied themselves with the rib-eye steak.
My preference was to eschew more food and make a beeline instead for the Six Senses spa, located within the lounge. A team of immaculately dressed masseurs stood to attention in the ylang ylang-scented air, their overly-developed forearms ready to do battle with my contorted mess of upper back muscles.
It’s such a simple and obvious idea, to put a spa in a business lounge at an airport through which lots of long-haul flights pass. And for anyone lucky enough to spend their layover being expertly manhandled by Etihad’s obliging team of masseurs, it’s a godsend.
Treatments on offer range from a shoulder and back massage, to leg and foot massage, aromatherapy and facials.
Team any one of the treatments with a long shower in the adjoining, private bathrooms and you emerge feeling almost human again.
From there, the onward hop to Europe was a mere formality, passing in the blink of a business-class eye.
Competition for our travel dollar is so fierce these days, airlines have had to lift their game, from 48K forward. The offering from Etihad is proving so compelling, airlines traditionally dominant on the Australia-Europe route are smarting (the flying kangaroo included). And with construction underway on the new Abu Dhabi airport, it’s an option that is only likely to become more compelling.
Of course, it helps immensely when the upgrade gods are feeling benevolent.
For information about Etihad, the Residence or any of its other offerings, visit their website.