Aircraft Type: A380
Class: Business “Studios”
Flight time: 6:40
Date: Februrary 2015
Best for: Savvy one-stop travellers who want one of the very best products in the skies
The crowd: Mainly international travellers, less UAE based passengers than its rivals.
Business or pleasure: Definitely both, however the creature comforts far outweigh the excellent connectivity found onboard.
Routes: Etihad fly to over 100 destinations, and a very good competitor to their rival ME carriers, recent expansion has seen more US destinations on the map too.
Frequent Flyer Programme: Etihad Guest, a well positioned frequent flier scheme and with more and more carriers being snapped up by Etihad, the future is definitely bright.
Best bits: Whilst the food and service are second to none, it’s the brand new aircraft interiors that have stolen the show!
Worst bits: Fautless flight, only disappointment was slow disembarkation and slow immigration in Abu Dhabi.
Etihad A380 Business Studios Report
If you are a frequent reader of the site, you’ll know how much we admire Etihad Airways for bringing a game changing fleet of aircraft to the skies. Whilst Etihad’s previous business class is still one of the best in the world, this new product, coming out before the previous felt tired, was a leap of faith that paid off. We were thrilled to be invited to experience the latest Business Class Studios on one of the first flights (the 43rd to be exact) from London Heathrow to Abu Dhabi. Whilst we had experienced the Etihad Business Class studios in the Experience Centre in Abu Dhabi, last time we came last year, nothing could really prepare us for the real thing.
On the Ground
Arriving a little bit earlier to London’s Heathrow Terminal 4 than we’d like to (7am) the terminal was already in full swing. Once again, our tickets weren’t eligible for chauffeur service, however most business class tickets are, and makes the whole experience quite phenomenal. Only a few airlines offer this service, and it’s well worth organising with the airline once you’ve purchased your ticket. The chauffeur service will pick you up from anywhere and drop you off right at the terminal door. The same service is offered at your destination. Heathrow’s Terminal 4, which used to be one of the worst terminal experiences at LHR, has continued to improve, with luxury boutique shops, faster security and bright open spaces now dominating the terminal.
The Etihad check in is situated in zone C, just to the left of the security channel. On arrival we saw a large queue, and it seemed to stretch the full breadth of the check-in counters, however, when getting a little closer, we realised this was for the economy passengers. Being an A380, there were a few more passengers than we were used to seeing. The business and first class check in counters however were empty, and we took great comfort in being able to whisk ourselves straight to the counter where a lady greeted us in the airline’s new uniform. The “Facets of Abu Dhabi” branding was already noticeable on the airline’s signage, with triangles and low-polygon geometric iconography illustrating all the differing assets of the airline.
The uniform was refreshing to see, although the colours originally released in their promotional material seem slightly off with the execution, which sports brighter orange and more of a brown tone to the uniform, rather than the plum we were expecting. It was excellent nonetheless and certainly was a striking uniform compared to others you see normally at check-in. No sooner had we arrived, than our tickets had been printed, bag weighed and lounge passes offered.
There was a very short walk from Check-in to the fast track queue. Last time we flew through Terminal 4, the fast-track was a sore disappointment, however, this time, perhaps due to the time of the flight, there weren’t any passengers there, meaning we were through security in a matter of minutes. We do feel that the newer baggage security machines however are much slower than the older type, meaning an agonising wait for your belongings to make their way through the machine, especially if you are in a rush. Luckily, we weren’t, and had two full hours to enjoy the lounge and airport before our departure.
The Etihad Lounge is situated opposite gate 10, and can be difficult to spot, however, having visited before, we knew where to head, and made our way there after a quick pit-stop in one of the airside shops.
Situated below the SkyTeam lounge, you can either make your way using the lifts, or the sweeping white staircase, which brings you to the newly updated lounge reception desk, which includes more of the faceted design that dominates the Etihad brand experience.
Friendly assistants took our coats and led us to a table in the main dining area, which was perfect for us as we were a little on the peckish side, especially after waking so early. We quickly set up shop, naturally partaking in fresh orange juice and a glass of champagne. After ordering from their extensive a la carte and buffet selection, we quickly headed over to the Six Senses Spa to see if we could sneak in a treatment.
We were in luck and organised a body massage and a foot massage. Surprisingly, the spa receptionist remembered my face after an impressive seven months, and told us we would be collected by the therapist when it was time for the treatment. Heading back to the table, we ordered breakfast, opting for the eggs Benedict and a side order of pancakes.
After tucking in, we explored the lounge once again, and there have been few changes since our last visit and the new brand has come in play. The lounge is still spacious, and even pushed to its potential limits by the increased premium passenger numbers on the A380 everyone could find a seat and it didn’t feel crowded.
The lounge is still split in three, with one area dedicated to just relaxing, with large comfortable armchairs and a contained children’s creche area. In the middle and separating the lounge is a dining area, which has table service by an army of impeccably dressed staff. On the far side of the lounge, another relaxed seating area, as well as a buffet counter with a wealth of breakfast items.
Very soon after, one of the Six Senses team quietly approached to take us for our treatments. The spa is situated by the showers and facilities, hidden behind a frosted glass door. Unlike the more open spa treatment rooms found in British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, these are fully enclosed spa rooms, and whilst compact, wouldn’t be out of place in one of the Six Senses hotels.
The treatments were perfect and in-depth, the only disappointment being that they didn’t last long enough. After the complimentary treatment it was time to board. As the gate was directly opposite the lounge, we didn’t have far to walk.
On boarding, we ended up taking the air bridge to the upper deck, boarding through the conventional premium door. The A380 has been designed to offer two entrance ways for passengers, which feel more like hotel foyers than the usual galley spaces most airlines have their passengers enter through. If you want to read about the design ethos of the carrier, check out our four-part design story here.
The upper deck entrance is impressive. First class (and Residence) passengers turn left, and the 70 business class travellers turn right, heading through the onboard lounge, situated in the middle of the aircraft. There is a wonderful sense of space, with wide aisles leading to the business class cabin. Laminate flooring mimics wooden floor panels, and the galley space looking more like a hotel bar than an aircraft.
Whilst the idea is that all the galley workings are hidden behind lattice work panels, the general operation of the service meant some of the galley spaces were partly opened, to allow crew to offer guests drinks on boarding.
What was also very impressive was the gobo lighting that helped change the conventional look of the aircraft. Pools of patterned light were found everywhere in the aircraft, which were designed to mimic the dappled light that will fill the space of the Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi.
The business class cabin itself is split into two cabins on the upper deck, with the forward cabin being the larger of the two. On entering, there is a sense of tranquility, warmth and sophistication, with most passengers noticeably looking around in awe at the new product, preferring to stand and wander, rather than settle in. In many ways this shows the success of the product, as it over delivered on passengers expectations. There are still the trademark artworks adorning the bulkheads. Compared to the rest of the fleet, the ceiling does feel a little lower, due to the A380 upper deck having a lower ceiling height, but once settled in the seat, it’s not noticeable.
The other noticeable element to the business class cabin is the mood lighting, which changes throughout the flight, constantly changing colour to match the time of day in Abu Dhabi, to help adjust the passenger to the timezone and fight jet lag.
The forward / rear facing combination of seats at first is a little tricky to get used to, especially with regards to the seat numbering. However the seat configuration, compared to the previous business class cabin, gives each passenger a lot more passenger space.
The Onboard Lounge
The onboard lounge is a haven for passengers, which features two semi-circular seating areas for passengers to relax in. A table is inserted during the flight between the seats to complete the area, but dismantled during take off and landing to allow for faster embarkation and disembarkation.
The lounge area also plays host to a wealth of travel relics, including books and rare artefacts that showcase the aircrafts deep roots in the Middle East. There is a large TV for those wanting to watch TV, and offers connectivity to the laptop, for those wanting to host a presentation at 36,000ft.
The lounge also offers a very elegantly designed and fully stocked walk up chilled wine and spirit bar, with canapés and snacks available throughout the flight. The bar, like the lounge and the cabin has so much attention to detail, and couldn’t be further removed from the usual airline passenger experience.
During such a short hop (6.5 hours) the lounge was perhaps a little redundant, as there were so many treats in-store with the actual seat, however, on their longer routes, this lounge will become increasingly popular and become a real focal point in the aircraft.
The seat is mind-blowing. It’s really as simple as that. On arriving at your seat, you don’t fully appreciate the size of the seat, as the configuration is similar to the previous incarnation, with a staggered seat layout allowing every passenger aisle-access. The main noticeable difference as mentioned is the forward/rear facing concept.
Each of the seats has its own unique benefit. For those wanting most privacy, aim for one of the forward facing window seats (A & K), for those who enjoy easy aisle access, the rear facing “traditional aisle” seats (C,D,G & H) are perfect (as the seat doesn’t need to be moved to leave your seat), and for those travelling as a couple, the privacy of the two forward facing centre seats (E&F) are a secluded and private space for two (although a centre divider can offer solo travellers total privacy sat in these seats too)
The seat itself is fairly wide, and although the stats say it is 22″ wide, it has the illusion of being much wider. On arrival to the seat, it doesn’t feel cluttered, partly due to the amenity kits, headphones and other elements being securely hidden away in cubby holes and in the footwell.
Once seated you feel like you have the Starship Enterprise at your fingertips, with touchscreen seat controls, IFE controllers and naturally an expansive touchscreen TV in front of you, allowing you to customise your experience to the nth degree.
Some of the best controls include the seat cushion firmness, which can be changed incrementally to offer a softer or harder seat cushion, along with lumbar support and a brilliant massage function. The IFE controller also acts as a second TV, allowing passengers to view the flight map, onboard cameras, or read about each film. You can even flick through a digital edition of the duty free catalogue whilst you watch your favourite film on the big screen.
There are plenty of lights to play around with, from overhead spotlights through to in-seat ambient lighting, reading lights and the very impressive and beautifully designed seat lamp that offers a softer golden glow to each seat environment.
The seat itself has a lot of legroom, and a shoe storage shelf under the foot ottoman, that turns the seat into a 80″ long bed. Unlike competitors seats, or even the previous incarnation, your feet don’t feel trapped, no matter how you sleep, and there is plenty of wiggle room to make sure you can get comfortable.
Every element has been well thought through, and executed with sturdy precision. The divider between the middle seats is automatic, with well positioned ‘raise and lower’ buttons to ensure they aren’t pressed accidentally, nor require one ounce of effort to operate. It doesn’t rattle, even through turbulence, and that highlights another element that is noticeable. Even through all the design, all the finishes and mechanics of the seats, the product feels robust, and engineered precisely.
Each seat has at least two surfaces to store goods. The main surface includes a lip that keeps your items secure during take off and landing. Each seat also offers a large and sturdy wooden-veneered table, that rolls out of the side wall, and folds down. It then can be pushed away or pulled forward to suit your needs.
Each seat also offers inflight interconnectivity, from two USB ports, through to an international plug situated near the floor. The A380 also offers WiFi onboard, which is complimentary to Business and First Class passengers.
Does the seat live up to it’s more residential name “The Studio” though? Well, honestly speaking, both yes and no. There are elements here that feel residential, from luxurious fabrications, including Poltrona Frau leather headrests, and beautifully tonal colours cocooning each passenger. The design of the TV installation and lighting also add to the feeling of a luxurious apartment, however, there is no disguising the fact it is indeed an airline seat, and to be fair, of all the seats in the sky, this feels the most residential.
Whilst new, there is no radical user-interface difference to the Ebox Panasonic eX3 system onboard this aircraft and that of the rest of the fleet, the system does feel quick to respond. It has a wealth of elements to keep passengers entertained and boasts over 750 hours worth of film, TV and music. The aircraft also provides passengers with Live TV for certain TV channels, keeping those news junkies sated on their trip.
There are some great elements for #avgeeks too, including the chance to watch two outside cameras on both your handset controller and the main TV. If you don’t want to flick through a digital form magazine, you can instead, flick through the real things. Etihad offers a range of newspapers and magazines, but also offers their own suite of titles, including Aspire, their Boutique Duty Free magazine and eBox entertainment guide.
The headsets are comfortable, and offer noise reduction, and perhaps in a stroke of genius, offer the same magsafe connectors that you find with Apple Mac power cords, meaning getting up with headset still on, doesn’t mean ripping out the headset.
Like our last trip, the food and drink service onboard is truly outstanding for a business class traveller. Being welcomed onboard there were a variety of juices, water and champagne. Opting for the champagne, we stuck with this after take off too, with a glass being delivered to the seat shortly after take off including a hot refreshing towel, scented with a Six Senses fragrance.
The champagne is poured at the seat, which is a lovely touch, and a clear differentiator compared to their competitors.
Before take-off however, our food order was taken, and being an early morning flight, the recommendation from the ever-attentive cabin crew was to try one of the All Day dining options to start with, and opt for the main meal further into the flight.
Taking her recommendation onboard, we opted for the scrambled eggs and toasted bagel, as an after take off meal.
Both were tasty, beautifully prepared and presented, and served with choreographed precision, both plates presented at the same time.
The scrambled eggs were fresh, light and moist, and the accompanying potato rosti was crisp and flavoursome. Meanwhile the bagel (served with accompanying chocolate muffin was delicious, rich in flavour and perfectly toasted. Still feeling a little peckish, I opted for the baked cookies although my arm was twisted by the cabin crew who presented a sweet plate, featuring a chocolate mousse and a baked almond pudding.
After a few more hours, and starting to feel hungry (somehow!) we asked for our main meals. One of us opted fro the Arabic Mezze starter, a regular option on Etihad, whilst the other went with the Alaskan crab and cold-water prawn salad.
The Mezze, served with Arabic bread was light, and had a punchy fresh flavour. The crab salad was delightful and wouldn’t have been amiss at a fine dining restaurant. For the main course, we opted for the Braised Beef Cheek with purple majesty potatoes and pickled onion sauce, and the Pan-seared fillet of salmon with beetroot mash, spinach and lemon vinaigrette.
To pair with the food, we opted for the Brancott Estate Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, from New Zealand, although there was a wide selection of other wines available to pick from.
Dessert came in the shape of another chocolate mousse, this time served with a coffee syrup. About 90 minutes before landing, cabin crew checked to see if passengers wanted any more food, offering anything from the menu that was available. It’s a lovely touch to have such flexible and varied dining on offer, providing a far more personal touch to the passenger experience.
There are a wealth of extras on offer in Etihad’s business class. From the chauffeur service and spa treatments on offer in their lounges, through to onboard lounges (only on their A380).
We love the new fleece-lined blankets and cushions featuring the triangle design. Then there is the amenity kit, whereby Etihad partnered with Sougha, a social enterprise initiative which preserves Emirati traditions and promote local artisans. The beautiful and unique amenity kits feature patterns of Sadou, a colourful, intricate and centuries-old Abu Dhabi weaving craft, inside are a wealth of extras, from Korres products, through to socks and the usual amenity kit offerings.
There was nothing at fault in the business class experience that Etihad now offer on their A380. It’s surpassed the hype, the expectations, and delivered far beyond its cabin class. For all intents and purposes, this is a first class product at a business class fare. What is remarkable is the experience is priced identically on the route to the rest of the fleet, making the A380 the aircraft of choice, although the departure times are what will make it less appealing to travellers between London and Abu Dhabi.
We are thrilled that the investment financially and in design time has paid off. It’s quite remarkable to think the design journey started over six years ago, yet still feels as contemporary as a passenger cabin can get. There is very little more we can say apart from we hope that you will be able to try the experience for yourself sometime in the future, and share in the enjoyment we experienced travelling on one of the very best aircraft interiors in the air.
The Big Picture