MIAMI — It seems everyone is focused on rankings these days. Whether it is who the #1 team in college football, or which restaurant ranks tops in a particular city (thank you, TripAdvisor), ratings, rankings, and awards hold sway. They also spark considerable debate and, in the highly competitive aviation landscape, awards get people’s attention.

For some, the Passenger Choice Awards, created by the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX), which invites air-travelers from around the world to rate their recent inflight experiences via an online survey, are influential because they are determined by actual passenger feedback. For example, Emirates was quick to announce wins in seven APEX categories this year on their Facebook page, including Best Airline for Overall Passenger Experience. Likewise, Etihad Airways was “delighted”, according to its Chief Commercial Officer, when it was awarded Best Airline – Business Class at the 2015 TTG Travel Awards in Bangkok. The airline really markets itself as having redefined luxury air travel, touting the new Business Studios on its fleet of A380s and B787 Dreamliners in particular as setting a new benchmark for business class travel worldwide. But for many, the Skytrax World Airline Awards remain the most prestigious, often being described as “the Oscars of the aviation industry.”

At the 2015 Skytrax awards, which were held in June as part of the Paris Air Show, the so-called “Big Three” Gulf carriers (G3) all placed in the top 10 in the important World’s Best Business Class category: Qatar (#2), Etihad (#5), and Emirates (#8). Parenthetically, Qatar took home the World’s Best Airline award for the third time in the last five years and Etihad won for World’s Best First Class. It seems the gulf carriers have, quite literally, drawn a line in the sand when it comes to the passenger experience, especially when it comes to attracting highly coveted first and business class passengers.

So when my travel plans called for a trip to South Africa this past summer, I scoured the websites of the G3 carriers for an affordable business class fare from LHR to JNB. I looked at Qatar and Etihad first, as I was already scheduled on an Emirates flight from DFW to DXB (see my report here) and wanted to be able to earn miles as an American Airlines AAdvantage member. As luck would have it, Etihad had a Business Saver fare for $3,048 and I jumped on it. What particularly intrigued me was that the routing included three different business class configurations: the new Business Studio on the A380, the traditional Pearl Business Class on an A340-600 and, for the AUH-JNB legs, a Jet Airways leased and configured A330-200, but staffed and catered by Etihad. I saw this as a golden opportunity to assess something that I know business class travelers truly value, namely product consistency. So, how did they do? Did I feel like I was really “Flying Reimagined?”

Things that were really, really good

The Business Studio on the A380, for starters. Etihad calls these seats “the embodiment of style, simplicity and functionality” and I would have to agree. As I was traveling with my wife, we chose seats 10E and 10F which are adjacent to one another and offer ease of conversation. (A partition can be raised for more privacy) In hindsight, this was a mistake, not because I didn’t want to talk to my wife (she is just flat-out fun to be around) but because the seat, once fully reclined, really hems in your legs. As I am a side-sleeper, I found it difficult to bring my knees up toward my chest; I just couldn’t get them past the shell that encased the footrest of the seat in front of me. This problem would have been solved in any other of the seats, whether we had chosen the alternate front/rear facing seats along the windows or the two seats, both rear facing, on the outside of ours.

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The Etihad Business Studio on the A380 (courtesy of Etihad).

Nevertheless, the seats themselves are sleek with direct aisle access for everyone onboard, several convenient storage spaces, a semi-circular console for putting drinks, gadgets, or any other personal belongings on, and some rather tasteful mood lighting throughout the cabin. When it’s time to sleep, the seat converts into a comfortable, fully-flat bed of “up to 80.5-inches” according to Etihad, though I suspect our center seats were a tad shorter as I am 6′ 5″ and could not quite get fully stretched. The seat also has a pneumatic comfort system which allows you to adjust the firmness and an excellent in-seat massage system. I found it easy and intuitive to customize the seat in the Business Studio, whether for reading, dining, or sleep. The 18-inch touch screen TV is one of the best I have encountered in the air, although the noise-cancelling headsets were somewhat below par. Overall then, the Business Studio environment exudes modernity and comfort and gives one quite a different “feel” than the burled walnut veneer and gold-trimmed seats on Emirates!

The food and inflight service on all four segments was superb, bar one over-cooked beef filet out of Johannesburg. Other than that, I really couldn’t find fault with the service. The flight attendants were courteous and attentive, not quite as “bubbly” as the Emirates crew I encountered on the A380 flight earlier in the year, but professional, well-groomed, and very, very helpful. Like the Business Studio itself, the crew had an air of understated elegance about them. I noticed that the purser overseeing each leg personally came over to welcome us onboard and made it clear that the staff were just a button away.

 

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The Etihad menu.

To give you a sense of the food and beverage experience, I’ll use the LHR-AUH leg as an example. The menu (shown here) is clean and uncomplicated and, like Emirates and Qatar, offers à la carte dining anytime, as well as a selection of lighter snacks available throughout the flight. I opted for the traditional Arabic mezze to start followed by the pan-seared lamb chop which was served with steamed seasonal vegetables, baked potatoes, and mint jus. This was simply fantastic! I followed that up with a cheese board and, finally, an orange bread and butter pudding that was delicious. Feeling a little dehydrated after the previous night’s flight from DFW to LHR, I stayed away from wine on this leg but the selection looked good: Champagne Jacquart, three whites, three reds, and a Sèmillon dessert wine. The list of aperitifs, spirits, beers and liqueurs was extensive. I also really liked the flatware which has a pummeled, textured look and feel, as do the small bread boards that accompanied every course. The rolls and crackers are served in small, silver bowls. Overall, the entire service is elegant and sophisticated.

Things that just missed the mark

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The business class seats on Etihad’s A330 (leased from Jet Airways).

While the seat and surrounding environment in the A380 was terrific, I didn’t feel the same way about A340 and A330. On the A340 it was Etihad’s standard Pearl Business Class seat which I found narrow and restrictive, with almost no open surfaces on which to put anything. Again, we had adjacent seats (7D and 7E) which offered a little more privacy than those along the aisle, but the seat in flat-bed mode was even shorter than the A380 and the TV screen was small and outdated. (I should note that the seat itself was well-cushioned and comfortable.)

On the A330, things got a little tricky. As noted above, the food and service was superb and all Etihad. However, when I made the reservation, I realized (after checking with SeatGuru.com) that the A330 configuration was Jet Airways’ older, forward-facing herringbone layout, similar to Virgin Atlantic’s first generation Upper Class. As we had chosen 3D and 3K, I called Etihad to ensure that we were actually sitting together and not separated by the partition along the back of row D, which SeatGuru appeared to indicate was the case. I was told that the seats were absolutely side-by-side which, in fact, they weren’t.

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The only real space to put anything on the A330 herringbone seat.

The seats were three across in a 1-1-1 layout, with rows A and D facing each other (pretty good when travelling with someone) and row K, the row I was in, facing inward toward the partition. On the bright side, it gave the row more privacy but I was totally cut off from any conversation with my wife, a little annoying to say the least. What did frustrate me, however, was the lack of space to put anything on (I could just about balance my glass of water and the bowl of nuts on the arm rest) and the fact that there was no way to look out of the window. I know these seats get mixed reviews: some people love them, others hate them. They have even been referred to as “coffins.” I actually found them more comfortable than the A340 seats and there was plenty of room to stretch out once flat, especially after stuffing my pillow between the headrest the extra area close to the window. Nevertheless, the seats on the A340 and A330 simply didn’t compare to the Business Studio on the A380.

Two other things that just missed the mark were the amenity kits and the boarding procedure for the Johannesburg flight at AUH. I know business travelers don’t generally pay much attention to the amenity kits but they do leave an impression, and here Emirates is simply streets ahead of Etihad. The kit itself provides all the basics but is underwhelming and on par to what we received on a Qantas Premium Economy flight three years ago. The boarding at AUH, on the other hand, was a bit of a shambles. The plane was parked offsite and we were told that buses would provide a shuttle with business class passengers taken in a sleek black bus and economy passengers on regular Etihad buses. When boarding was announced, everyone rushed for the buses in a bit of a mad dash, which wasn’t a huge deal, but then the buses idled for twenty minutes at the terminal with the doors open in 110+ degree temperatures. By the time we finally departed for the plane people were visibly disgruntled, annoyed, and sweaty. It just wasn’t quite as seamless as it should have been.

Finally, let me touch on the bar/lounge on the A380. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure whether to put this in the “really, really good” category or here in the “just missed the mark” section, but I settled on the latter and the reason is simple: I am still not sure what the lounge actually is.

Like Emirates and Qatar, Etihad has set aside a section of the upper deck as a premium lounge, in this case located between the business and first class cabins and shared by both. It is aptly called The Lobby and takes a page right out of the world of luxury hotels. Simply put, it’s a gorgeous space with a circular leather sofa with six seats, a marquetry table and a 32 inch TV screen on which passengers can watch live TV channels. Like the Business Studio and the rest of Etihad’s decor, it’s sleek and modern yet pays homage to the carrier’s Arabian heritage. The design is inspired by the concept of the Majlis, a term that is used to refer to a private place where guests are received and entertained. However, as I was the only one to use the space on the 7-hour flight there wasn’t a lot of entertaining going on! There is a drink display and the lighting is spectacular, but it is clearly not a bar, certainly not in the same vein as the Emirates onboard bar. Now that’s a social space where one is constantly entertained. So I left The Lobby not really knowing what I was supposed to do there, besides have a coffee and read a magazine, which I did. A great space but entirely under-utilized.

And one surprisingly problematic experience

Overall, I would have to say that my experience on Etihad was very, very good. The food and service were consistently top-notch, quite outstanding, actually. Indeed, had the entire experience been in the Business Studio I would have certainly struggled to find anything to gripe about. Except this…

Luggage. No, not missing luggage (though the business and first class passengers’ luggage was sent to the wrong terminal in AUH after our London leg and we waited an hour and thirty minutes for it to show up) but, rather, the Etihad crew luggage. As we waited at the carousel for our missing bags to arrive, Etihad flight attendants were, quite literally, clambering over one another and fellow passengers to retrieve their bags as they came rolling down the chute, flight after flight, suitcase after suitcase. Surely there is a better way to do this? A dedicated carousel for premium passengers or, better yet, a separate drop-off point for the crew would be my suggestion. Frankly, anything would have been better than the rugby scrum that unfolded in front of me.

So, would I fly Etihad’s Business Class again as it was on my dime? If it was on the A380 (or the Dreamliner, where Business Studios are also installed) then absolutely I would. The environment, the food and the attentive, yet understated, service trumped all the other issues that, in some cases, just missed the mark. I wouldn’t say what I experienced sets a new benchmark for business class travel worldwide, but it certainly is a terrific product.

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By day, Mike Slattery is Director of the Institute for Environmental Studies and Professor at Texas Christian University, USA. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Oxford, England. Originally from South Africa, Mike is an internationally-trained geographer and environmental scientist who has written more than 85 scientific articles and a book on a range of environmental issues, from human impacts on rivers systems to the socio-economic impacts of large-scale wind farms. But he is also an AvGeek with a particular interest in (and extensive collection of) airline menus. Mike’s work takes him all over the globe to landscapes as diverse as the cloud forests of Costa Rica to the game reserves of Southern Africa. At last count, he had flown more than 1.4 million miles, equivalent to being in the air 118.5 days or 5.8 x the distance to the moon. “I’ll never understand how an airliner gets off the ground, but I sure love being in them!” He lives with his family in Fort Worth. drmslattery@gmail.com