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After 15 hours in business class on the soon-to-be-extinct Airbus A380 with Etihad, I fully understand how both got their glitzy, luxurious reputation

After 15 hours in business class on the soon-to-be-extinct Airbus A380 with Etihad, I fully understand how both got their glitzy, luxurious reputation

  • The Airbus A380 superjumbo jet is the largest and most expensive passenger plane in history.
  • Although the plane has been largely a bust for Airbus, which will soon stop producing it, two major Middle Eastern airlines — Etihad and Emirates — have used it to introduce incredible new levels of luxury for first-class passengers.
  • But business class often gets forgotten about. So when my wife and I had the opportunity to fly home from vacation in Etihad’s business class with frequent-flyer miles, I jumped at the chance.
  • I’ve flown in different cabins on a few airlines’ A380s, but Etihad’s business class stood out thanks to the incredibly comfortable seat, posh on-board lounge, and delicious food.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The three major Middle Eastern airlines — Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways — have developed reputations for incredible opulence and luxury.

Although some of that reputation comes from clever marketing — like commercials with Jennifer Aniston — some of it is clearly deserved. Emirates has showers on board its A380s for first-class passengers, Etihad offers a three-room suite on some of its double-decker superjumbos, and Qatar has one of the world’s best business-class products.

Of course, the coach experience is different, but the three airlines — known as the “ME3” for “Middle East three” — offer experiences that are pretty much unique.

Over the winter holidays, my wife and I went to a friend’s wedding in India, and then spent a few days in the Maldives before heading home. While we flew United to India, when we had the chance to fly business class with Etihad on our way home, we couldn’t resist.

Although Etihad is not in one of the traditional airline alliances, it partners with American Airlines, which meant we were able to use miles. Otherwise, business-class flights from the Maldives to our home city of New York would have run about $4,000 each.

I had high hopes going in, and even though I slept for much of the flight and skipped the tempting wine list because I was recovering from food poisoning, it definitely lived up to expectations.

Scroll down to see what it was like to fly in business class on Etihad’s A380.

There are separate entrances for Etihad business- and first-class passengers, with a ton of dedicated check-in desks, bag drop-off points, and even security lines to get in to the main terminal.

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Once through security — and past the many duty free shops and luxury retailers — we went straight to the business-class lounge.

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It’s one of the bigger airport lounges I’ve seen, with a ton of different seating areas and services.

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There were a few buffets with hot and cold options. Since our flight was in the morning, the lounge had breakfast foods including eggs, meats, pastries, and a few Indian and Middle Eastern options.

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There was self-serve water, soft drinks, and coffee at each of the buffets. For something stronger, passengers could go to the full-service bar.

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There was a range of different types of seats — couches, armchairs, desks, restaurant-style tables — but I especially liked the semi-private TV “suites.”

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A unique feature of Abu Dhabi Airport is that if you’re traveling to the US, you actually go through immigration and customs before your flight, rather than after you land. US Customs and Border Patrol has an outpost at the airport, and several gates on the other side of the border control are reserved for US flights.

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Airports in Dublin and Shannon, Ireland, and cities in Canada have a similar setup. The downside is that you need to get to the airport earlier and have to go through a second security screening.

The upside, though, is that you land as a domestic passenger, as if you were on a flight from the US, meaning things are quicker on the other side.

We expected to go right to the gate, but it turns out there was a much smaller lounge for premium cabin passengers on the other side of the US immigration outpost.

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Boarding can be chaotic on an A380 because of the vast number of passengers — the Etihad A380 carries 486 plus crew. However, Etihad mostly mitigated this with a huge, enclosed gate area, with passengers sitting on the plane’s upper deck (first and business class) and those on the bottom deck (economy) separated.

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The jet bridge for an A380 actually forks into two paths — one goes directly to the upper deck, and the other leads straight to the lower.

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This also helps keep boarding orderly. The one downside: It was tough to get a good look at our plane! Ah, well. In retrospect, it was a decent trade-off.

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Etihad’s business-class cabin is among the more unique out there, although I found it really comfortable. It takes up about two-thirds of the upper deck, and is arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration.

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Rows alternate between forward and rear facing, with even-numbered rows facing forward. Each seat has a side table, which means the positioning of the chair and the table also alternate.

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What that means in practice is that on the sides of the plane, forward-facing (even-numbered) seats are closer to the windows and farther from the aisle …

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… while rear-facing (odd-numbered) seats are farther from the window and closer to the aisle, making them a bit less private.

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That’s true for the middle seats, too, with the additional fact that even-numbered, forward-facing seats are closer together (although there’s a privacy divider that can be raised if you’re traveling solo) …

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… while odd-numbered, rear-facing seats are farther apart from each other.

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The seats themselves are quite comfortable, and have a handful of helpful features for a long flight.

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Each seat has a small side table next to it …

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… and a slightly larger table across from it. That makes the seat somewhat — although not quite — enclosed.

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There’s a small storage compartment inside of the smaller side table — you simply lift the table to get to it — and a pocket on the front for magazines and the safety card. (I was also able to fit my iPad in there.) There’s also an atmospheric lamp above the table.

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The basic seat and light controls are on the bigger table …

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… along with a touchscreen panel with the full controls.

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There’s a cubby in front of the seat under the in-flight entertainment screen, which is where your feet go when you recline your seat flat into bed mode.

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There was a comforter waiting at each seat — I stored it in the cubby until I was ready to take a nap.

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Each seat also has a large in-flight entertainment monitor — almost a given, even though some airlines have cut back on these screens in recent years.

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It had a solid movie selection. I ended up watching the second Zombieland after lunch.

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The monitor could be controlled with a retractable touch-screen remote, which was located next to the seat controls.

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You could also use the Android OS-based remote to play games or look up the flight map while watching a movie on the main screen.

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All in all, it’s a comfortable and luxurious seat, even if a bit narrow. I didn’t mind that, but I’d imagine some people would.

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It’s also a seriously stylish cabin. Cream and purple coloring set the tone, along with gold accents, leather, and mood lighting (which made it difficult to take my normal flight-review photos during boarding, but was quite pleasant otherwise).

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The business-class seat is definitely comfortable for a long flight. But if you’re in the mood for a change of scene during your flight, there’s an exclusive lounge area at the front of the cabin, in between first and business class.

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There are two couches with seats for about six people, plus a coffee table.

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There’s a bar with drinks and snacks available, too …

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… just behind one of the couches.

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There was also a large television. It looked like passengers could pull up movies from the in-flight entertainment selection, but I didn’t try it.

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I noticed a couple of people in the lounge during the flight, mostly working on laptops.

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Eventually, after taking all of these photos, I settled into my seat, where there was an amenity kit waiting for me.

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A flight attendant came by and offered me a welcome drink — I opted for the lime-and-mint juice that Etihad stocks on flights out of Abu Dhabi.

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The flight attendants working in the business-class cabin were fantastic throughout the flight. They were friendly, attentive, and helpful without being overbearing or intrusive. They were all knowledgeable, too — it was nice to have a chance to chat about the airline with them.

Another flight attendant came by to offer a hot towel.

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… a series of “anytime” snacks and meals …

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… drinks, including tea, juices, and coffee …

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… a wine list …

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… and spirits. I was still recovering from a bout of food poisoning from earlier in my trip, so I ended up skipping the hard stuff.

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After what felt like a short wait, we were in the air. Flight attendants came by during our taxi to take orders for a first drink for after we took off, plus lunch orders. I asked for a cup of the Moroccan mint green tea, which came quickly once we were in the air (although I forgot to take a photo until I had finished it).

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Lunch was served quickly after that. I had tried the Arabic mezze on my flight the day before, and although it was delicious, I decided to try the kale and sunchoke soup this time. It was equally tasty — a flavorful, not-too-salty start to the meal.

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For my main, I had the beef tenderloin — a difficult dish to pull off successfully on a plane. However, there was nothing to worry about. It was excellent, even if maybe a little more well done than I would have wanted on the ground, but definitely not overcooked.

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Finally, for dessert, I had chocolate ice cream.

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I logged onto the plane’s WiFi for a few minutes to check in as I watched a movie.

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After that, I opened up my amenity kit …

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… which came stocked with the essentials, including a toothbrush and a sleep mask.

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Then, I lowered my chair into bed mode …

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… and napped on and off for most of the remaining 11 hours. It had been a long and active trip, which, combined with the recent food poisoning, meant I was happy to lie back and snooze.

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I woke up a few hours before landing and decided to eat again. I had another cup of the Moroccan mint green tea and asked for the “light bites” from the all-day menu. They had just run out, so I went with the steak sandwich instead, which was delicious even if it meant eating beef twice on the flight.

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About an hour before landing, the lights started to come up in the cabin. It was around 4 p.m. in New York, so it was still light out.

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As we made our approach into JFK, I pulled up one of my favorite features on the A380 — the in-flight camera.

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There were a few different cameras to choose from, but I always like the tail cam the best — especially as the plane makes those final turns to line up with the runway. Before we knew it …

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… we were on the ground. Since we did pre-clearance immigration in Abu Dhabi, we went through the domestic arrivals area, which led to our one and only hiccup …

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… baggage claim. The JFK Terminal 4 baggage belts were definitely not designed to handle 486 passengers from a single flight, and the crowds were wild. There were also a few delays, and our bags ended up being the last two off of the plane. It took more than 90 minutes to get them.

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But other than that one small inconvenience on the ground in New York, our Etihad flight was fantastic, and one of the best experiences I’ve had in business class. Based on this flight, I’d say the airline has earned its glitzy, luxurious reputation — at least, in premium cabins.

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Etihad Airways
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