by Haas Mroue
Route: London Gatwick (IATA: LGW/ICAO: EGKK)–Abu Dhabi (AUH/OMAA)
Date: March 31, 2006
Aircraft: Boeing 777-300ER
Seat: 29K (exit row)
Departure time: 1100; Arrival time: 2045
Passenger: Haas Mroue
The first thing that strikes you when you find the Etihad Airways check-in counters at LGW’s North Terminal is that all the staff members are immaculately dressed in Etihad uniforms, which are quite eye-catching with silk scarves and hats for the females and tie-free suits for the males. It is also highly unusual for a company operating one flight per day to have dedicated staff wearing the airline's own uniforms.
There is one customer service agent on the ‘floor’, to help passengers find the right queue for their flight—and that is a welcome perk. If you have ever tried to check in for British Airways or EasyJet flights at LGW you would know that there are hardly ever any agents available, with the lines snaking around the terminal during busy times of the year. This was the first day of spring vacation for all UK schools, but the check-in line, though long, moved swiftly.
Every one of the 375 seats on this 777 was occupied. Thus, the line for boarding was very long, and it took about 45 minutes to get everybody onboard.Newspapers in both Arabic and English were available on a rack just outside the cabin door. When you step onboard, you notice the difference. Airy and spacious, this new airplane has a novel lighting system that is very soothing.
Smiling FAs were on hand to help passengers stow luggage and settle in. Seat-pitch is 32-33in (81.3-83.8cm) in Y-class, but I had ample leg room as I was seated in 29K—an exit row ‘window seat’—albeit with no adjacent window. Small pre-packaged cups of water were passed to all coach passengers before pushback—a rare occurrence indeed on most airlines today. Announcements were made in Arabic and English, and a brief Muslim prayer was played.
The door was closed precisely at 1100, but then the captain announced a 40-60min ATC delay. We remained at the gate and the ‘Fasten Seat Belts’ remained off so passengers could use the toilets, if necessary, during the wait. We eventually pushed back at 1140 and took off at 1155. The exterior camera, mounted underneath the aircraft, showed the concrete of the runway slipping away as we lifted off, followed by the green fields beneath. Luxurious headsets were distributed immediately after takeoff, and the moving map display came on but failed to display the two most important pieces of information: ‘Distance to Destination’ and ‘Estimated Arrival Time’. Those items read ‘Not Available’ for the duration of the flight.
Large, soft blankets were distributed next. After crossing the channel, northeast of Lille and just west of Brussels [Bruxelles/Brussel], 30 minutes after takeoff we reached our cruising altitude of 35,000ft. The Moving Map display began showing the direction to Mecca from our present position—for the benefit of Islamic passengers wishing to pray. Hot towels (they were actually lukewarm) were distributed, and then the drink trolleys rolled down the aisles with large bottles of wine and other liquors prominently displayed. I asked for a Bloody Mary, which was mixed on the spot—with a smile—using real Tabasco sauce. The meal cart followed—no menus were available—with a choice of pasta, chicken, or lamb. Wine was not offered with lunch, and passengers who wanted a drink had to ask for it. This is done so as not to offend Muslim passengers who may be abstemious. I tried a glass of white wine—Australian and quite acidic. The lunch tray included a small appetizer of smoked ‘mystery’ fish, a delicious mixed salad with mint, a wedge of brie, crackers, a soft roll with butter, and a raspberry cheesecake for dessert. I chose the chicken main course (entrée), and it turned out to be a succulent chicken curry with rice and potatoes. Everything was tasty and fresh. Coffee, tea, and liqueurs (again, poured from large bottles) were available after lunch. The service was somewhat slow as there were 350 coach flyers to serve.
Meal service ended around 1415—over two hours after takeoff—after which most passengers settled back to watch movies on the extra-large screens. During the flight FAs worked hard, going up and down the aisles with water and remaining ‘visible’. More drinks and snacks were available in the aft galley, where cabin crewmembers did not congregate and chat, as on most other carriers today. Indeed, service was extremely professional at all times. Most FAs with Etihad are brand-new, and their seven-week training is exhaustive, including two days devoted to personal grooming. The male flight attendant serving my cabin had been with EY for only three weeks. Previously he had served with Philippine Airlines, working exclusively on domestic routes. Etihad has over 1,000 FAs, drawn from 75 different countries including South Africa and Britain. An hour-and-a-half before landing, a light snack was offered consisting of mini tuna-and-chicken sandwiches, and fresh fruit salad. Again, everything was delicious and served with a smile.
We landed only 20 minutes behind schedule. Passport control was quick, and bags were on the carousel within 15 minutes of landing.
Etihad Airways is working hard to become a leading luxury airline, and already positive results are evident. Starting with check-in and throughout the flight, passengers are treated as ‘guests’, and service is gracious and warm. These new 777-300ERs are fitted to the airline’s specifications, and thus very comfortable. The IFE (In-Flight Entertainment) system with large screens and on-demand video—featuring over 200 hours of programming—helps time pass quickly. It is also obvious that Etihad does not skimp on catering. Two meals were served on a six-hour flight, and there is no charge for alcoholic beverages. If you are flying coach, this is as good as—or perhaps better than—it gets.
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