I tried economy class on Etihad, the airline famous for its $23,000 apartment-in-the-sky ticket, and I was surprised to find it wasn't anything special

  • Etihad Airways is the flag carrier of the United Arab Emirates, operating in 75 cities around the world.
  • Though the airline is only 15 years old, it has built a stellar reputation primarily because of its long-haul flights on new planes like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A380 superjumbo.
  • It is also known for its extravagant business- and first-class offerings, like The Residence, a $US23,000 ticket that comes with a literal apartment in the sky.
  • With Gulf airlines like Etihad and Emirates becoming more popular, I recently decided to fly Etihad from Abu Dhabi, UAE, to Cairo. I was curious whether Etihad’s reputation would hold up in economy class on a non-long-haul flight.

Gone are the golden days of Pan Am, American Airlines, and the like. If you want to fly the best in 2018, your best bet is an international flag carrier – an airline owned or previously owned by a government, usually one from the Middle East or Asia.

The consumer-aviation website Skytrax’s list of the world’s top airlines is dominated by flag carriers like Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, Emirates Airlines, and Cathay Pacific, among others.

Coming in at 15th on the list is an airline I’ve heard tons of about: Etihad Airways, the flag carrier of the United Arab Emirates.

Read more:
I flew 13 hours nonstop on the $US446 million Airbus superjumbo jet, and it’s about as good as economy can get

Etihad has made a lot of noise over the years because of its ultramodern fleet of Boeing 787 Dreamliners and Airbus A380 superjumbos and its extravagant first- and business-class offerings on long-haul flights, including Business Studio, which comes with a massaging lie-flat bed, an 18.5-inch touchscreen, and a lounge to hang out in, and The Residence, a $US23,000 ticket that comes with a literal apartment in the sky.

But let’s be real: I’m not flying any of that.

As an average Joe – albeit one who travels quite often – I was curious how Etihad would hold up in economy class. I got my chance recently when booking a flight from Abu Dhabi, Etihad’s hub, to Cairo.

While I wouldn’t say Etihad was bad, it certainly wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.

Here’s what I thought of my flight on an Etihad Airways Airbus A320, departing from Abu Dhabi International Airport to Cairo International Airport.

The UAE is a bit unique in that it has two flag carriers: Emirates for Dubai, and Etihad for Abu Dhabi. Since I had an itch to try Etihad Airlines, I had to drive an hour to Abu Dhabi International Airport.


While a handful of Asian and Middle Eastern airlines operate out of Abu Dhabi’s airport, it is dominated by Etihad. Terminal 3, where my flight was leaving from, is the newest terminal and has almost exclusively Etihad flights.

There’s a giant sign on the side of the building to remind you which airline is boss here. I can’t say I saw signs for any other airline.

Unfortunately, I was unable to check in online because Etihad wanted to see my credit card and ID at the information desk to protect against fraud. A bit annoying, but better safe than sorry, I guess.


Etihad had a dedicated check-in area with at least 10 desks. It made the check-in process super fast.

The best part about flying Etihad is the free checked baggage. Each person gets a weight allowance of at least 50 pounds, depending on the flight. My flight to Egypt allowed a whopping 88 pounds of baggage.

Source: Etihad Airways

Before going through security, I had to stop at the security desk to have my irises scanned. Apparently it’s mandatory for anyone flying through Abu Dhabi.

The one benefit is that the security screening line uses a “Smart Travel” automated system for scanning your passport, face, and eyes. It’s a little creepy in a dystopian sort of way, but it means a lot more time to browse the duty-free section …

Source: The National

… or hang out in the lounges. I got to the airport a couple of hours early so I could use my Priority Pass subscription and stuff my cheeks with free food like a squirrel getting ready for winter.

Unfortunately, there are only Etihad lounges in Terminal 3, which require first- or business-class tickets (womp). The Priority Pass-accessible lounge was all the way in Terminal 1.

At least it gave me a chance to look at all the aeroplanes on the tarmac.

The central rotunda of Terminal 1 is pretty striking with its colourful honeycomb design. Terminal 3 may be newer, but it’s much more cramped.


When I say it was a long walk, I’m not kidding. It was easily 20 minutes to the Al Reem Lounge, the one accessible by Priority Pass. By the time I got there and ate a few bites, it was time to head back.

I should have left more time. My gate was much farther than I thought. The airport really spreads out its gates to the point where it’s a block or more from Gate 51 to Gate 52. At a certain point, I was sprinting along the moving walkway to make it on time.


I barely made it. The entire flight was boarded by the time I got to the gate. The flight attendants were doing last call. I got on the final bus to the plane.

There it is, my chariot: the Airbus A320. In contrast to the Airbus A380, the largest and most expensive commercial airliner in history, the A320 is a pipsqueak. It holds 236 passengers, compared with as many as 800 on the A380.


When the weather is nice, there’s nothing quite like boarding an aeroplane via the airstairs. It makes one feel a bit like the president or a visiting dignitary.

As I got onboard, the flight attendants helpfully told me where my seat was.

Though Etihad is best known for its fleet of Boeing 787 Dreamliners and Airbus A380s, those are mostly deployed on long-haul flights and account for only 30 of its 105 planes. Its most-used plane is the A320, of which it has 32.

Source: Etihad Airways

The A320 is a smallish plane, on par with a Boeing 737. That’s not coincidental — the A320 is the second-best-selling airline of all time, trailing only the 737. The two compete for the same business.

Read more:
The amazing story of how the Airbus A320 family became the Boeing 737’s greatest enemy

There was more than enough overhead space to store my backpack. It wasn’t anywhere near full — one of the benefits of not taking a long-haul flight.

Legroom was unspectacular. Economy seats on A320 have 18.1 inches of width. I can imagine that if you are tall — I am only 5-foot-8 — this could be a problem. The 32 inches of pitch isn’t much either. And as you can probably see from the seat back, the plane was a bit worn.

Source: SeatGuru

While not ancient, the seat-back entertainment systems aren’t exactly new either. Etihad’s A320s are between three and 11 years old. Perhaps I got one of the older models, but the plane looked more than a decade old.

Source: Planespotters

The worst part about an aged entertainment system like this one is how fuzzy and washed-out the picture is. You can get an idea of what I’m talking about from the safety video.

And then it was time for takeoff! Once you get above Abu Dhabi, there’s a not a whole lot to see — just desert and highways for miles. It is the Gulf, after all.

A cool feature of the entertainment system is the flight cam, which you can turn on at any point during the flight and get a bird’s-eye view of what’s below. It feels a bit like being in a spy plane.

After a while, the flight attendants came around with complimentary headphones. They were single-pronged, which was great because now I have an extra pair of headphones for my travels.

Then they came by for the beverage service. I appreciated that they did this before mealtime, after the meal, and then a third time. It makes a big difference when you don’t have to ration your water intake.

Another perk of a half-empty flight? Entire rows that are yours for the taking. The other passengers didn’t seem to care about the open seats, so I moved up and snagged this row to myself. It was only a four-hour flight, but it was nice to stretch out.

I took a peek into business class. On other flag carriers, first and business classes often look like a different planet entirely, with specialised pods and giant screens. It’s likely it was because it was a short flight, but business class didn’t look like anything special — just slightly bigger seats.

Etihad offers paid WiFi on the flight, but I skipped it. I paid for WiFi on my Emirates flight to the UAE, and it was so slow as to be unusable. I could wait the four hours to check the ‘gram.

Then came lunch. These days, a meal is unheard of on a four-hour flight with an American airline. Not so with the flag carriers. It’s still the good old days of mashed potatoes, chicken in some curry sauce, and soggy veggies. Hey, I’m not complaining.

I have to note that both Etihad and its sister airline, Emirates, give out metal silverware. It’s a much better experience than fumbling with plastic knives.

The chicken was surprisingly hot without being dry. The sauce was richly seasoned and went well with the mashed potatoes — especially if you mixed it all together.

The side salad is where the meal really shined. We got pita to go with a healthy dollop of hummus, pickles, and tabbouleh salad (I think). It was very refreshing.

After eating, I browsed the entertainment selection. It was a far cry from the spiffy Android-powered tablets you see as seat-back entertainment in the newest planes, but it was good enough.

There was a wide selection of both new blockbusters and old favourites. I hadn’t seen “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” so I gave it a spin for a little while.

The magazines behind the seat included Etihad’s in-flight magazine. This year would have been the 100th birthday of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, known as the founding father of the UAE. There were signs about the “Year of Zayed” everywhere in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Shortly after the meal, the flight attendant came around to take orders from the magazine selling duty-free wares. I never buy anything like that in the air. I always wonder: does anyone?

I’m sure you spotted it in the previous photos, but I saved this red velvet cake to eat while I watched “Ant-Man.” Nothing like a tasty treat during a movie.

Before I knew it, we were landing in Cairo. After taking a gauntlet of 12-hour flights in the past year, I found that four hours was a piece of cake. Plus, I got to watch the plane taxi on the flight cam.

So what did I think of Etihad’s economy class? Overall, my experience with Etihad and the A320 was solid, if unspectacular.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

While it’s one of the best-selling planes of all time, the Airbus A320 is starting to show its age – at least when it comes to Etihad’s fleet.

The seats were dated and worn, and the legroom was nothing to write home about. It wasn’t cramped, but it wasn’t roomy by any stretch. Thankfully, the plane was barely half full, meaning I could take a whole row to myself.

The entertainment system was also aged. While there were plenty of movie options, the screen was fuzzy and hard to watch during a daytime flight. I didn’t end up finishing “Ant-Man” because the screen was annoying me. Also, whenever you try to press selections on an older touchscreen like that, you have to press so hard that you end up annoying the passenger in front of you whose headrest you’re poking.

It’s time to refurbish the plane.

The food was decent, but definitely not the best I’ve had on an aeroplane. (That still goes to Japan Airlines, which gave meal after meal of tasty, fresh Japanese food.) But in an age when airlines are cutting costs, I have to credit Etihad for giving passengers a full meal – with a delicious cake! – on a four-hour flight. That doesn’t happen often.

The flight attendants were very friendly and always willing to help, and they came around often to offer coffee or water.

That said, I would definitely fly Etihad again; it just comes down to price. It was a solid experience that was competitive with mid- and higher-tier airlines, but it does feel as if the airline probably puts most of its efforts toward the flashier long-haul flights on Airbus A380s. I imagine that’s a completely different experience.

That may be changing soon. Etihad announced in June that it would begin using Boeing 787 Dreamliners on the Abu Dhabi-Cairo route. I wonder how long it will be until it phases out the rest of the A320s.

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