REVIEW: I was upgraded to Etihad's first class - the world's best - but wasn't as blown away as I'd hoped

A glass of rose champagne before take off? Oh yes, I definitely loved that bit. Photo: Simon Thomsen

Going, on what, for how long?
Abu Dhabi-Paris, Etihad, A340-600, 7 hrs 45 mins
Flight frequency: Twice daily

Economy from $1070
Business from around $4,400
First class from around $10,700

Where am I?
First, 2D

8 first (1-2-1)
32 business (1-2-1)
276 economy (2-4-2)

Economy: 1 x 23kg (or double that depending on fare and FF status)
Premium/Business: 2 pieces up to 32kg each

On deck
Your heart can’t help but sink the moment your boarding pass is scanned at the gate and computer says no.

In economy, that often means the gods of overbooking have chosen you to take the next flight, rather than the one you wanted.

But around 20 hours after checking in at Sydney, and flying business, they’ve just found a golden ticket inside my chocolate bar, which is broken with a new boarding pass, a smile and the phrase “you’re in first class” .

My travelling companion is also suddenly also blessed with the same predicament and we’re both “woah, how did lightning strike twice?”

Until that point in my life, I rated my chances of flying in first class up there with Kate Winslet asking me out on a date. Kate, if you’re reading this, I’m still available. I’m sure my wife will understand.

Yes, I spent part of the flight working… Photo: Jeanine Bribosia

There are some funny ironies in that moment that keep it real: like the fact that about 25 economy guests get through the boarding gate faster than us, and then we end up at the back on a long queue waiting to enter the plane on a single gangway. Does this happen to Nicole Kidman too, or does she only fly on Etihad’s A380s in 3-room The Residence?

But there’s something magical about turning left once inside, although the first thing I notice is just how much more luxurious business on the A380 is compared to the older A340. The same goes for first, which is almost like a cabin on the A380. This version is still generous, but nowhere near as high tech, although the privacy of being able to close the Arabic-styled screens make you feel special in an experience that’s generally challengingly communal.

And there’s something seriously lovely about having room to spread out, including in the toilet. And the PJs, which come in a bag with your toiletries and slippers in a fashion that makes you feel like your shopping’s just been delivered from High Street.

The crew
Cabin manager El Hadji, attendant Tatiana and Maria, our in-flight chef. Lovely, amazing and a nothing’s-too-much trouble attitude that makes you feel like royalty – or in my case started to make me worry that I could all-too-easily slip into becoming high maintenance.

Is it wrong to start with the wine list? It’s 9.30am local time, but if you can’t start the day with Bollinger La Grande Annee 2005 champagne, warmed cashews and almonds, olives and chips at this moment in your life, when can you?

Etihad’s e-box entertainment system is pretty impressive, but I’m caught out when I touch the very large screen and nothing happens, but to be fair, that does require leaning a very long way forward and it’s probably a safe bet most people in first don’t do that. The movies are dominated by spin-offs from the X-Men franchise, but there are more than 120 to chose from, including a strong offering of Arabic, Indian, European and Asian movies, as well as the excellent doco Iris.

The TV choices range for four key and epic episodes of Games of Thrones – one from each season between 3 and 6, to the first 8 eps of Philip Noyce’s remake of Roots, to ABC TV’s drama The Secret River and the first 3 eps of Vikings.

But if you want to tell your Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram friends you’re in first class in real time, then you can get 2 hrs of wi-fi for $US11.95, or the whole flight for $US21.95.

Food and drink
So alongside the Bollinger, there’s Duval Leroy rose champagne, three whites – a French 1er cru chablis, Neudorf sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, and a German riesling. The reds are even more eclectic – a pinot noir from Stellenboch, a Spanish rioja, Argentinian malbec, the Torbreck ‘Juvenile’ grenache blend from Australia’s Barossa Valley and from France, a 2006 Chateau La Tour du Pin Figeac St Emilion grand cru – or, as they’d call it in the movie Sideways, “f-ing merlot”.

The 1st class wines are very, very good. Photo: Simon Thomsen

The dessert wine is a tokaj from Hungary by Diznoko. When it comes to wine, first class delivers on its reputation.

There are 12 different teas, your choice of coffee from Sumatran single origin beans and even cocktails.

There’s a breakfast menu of cereals, fruit and free range eggs cooked as you want. The grill gives you the option of black cod, wagyu sirloin or chicken breast with your choice of side and sauce, alongside dishes such as pulled beef sliders and a steak sandwich that looks pretty damned good – and large.

The first thing on the a la carte menu is foie gras with plum jelly and brioche, but it gets sensible straight away with a mezze plate with kibbeh, tabouleh, hummus and flatbreads, and bissara soup – an Emirati dish made from fava beans.

I stayed with the local flavour for mains and had the Gulf lamb biryani, which was aromatic and deliciously spiced, the meat flaky amid the saffron-coloured rice.

There’s a chocolate caramel pudding, cheese or ice cream. The “textures” – a trio of date pudding with jelly and a chocolate-coated mousse – looked smarter than it tasted.

An absolute pleasure and privilege, but compared to Etihad’s offer on the A380, the cabin is good, rather than great. The space is delightful, but if you’re the sort of multi-millionaire who counts the pennies, it’d be worth checking what plane you’re flying on before paying the extra over business class. And because it was a day flight, I didn’t even use the bed. Still, it was a pretty nice office with good wines for 7 hours.

Etihad won the world’s best first class award this year, but not for this. Not on an A340. This feels old and almost measly compared to the A380’s opulence.

I don’t have any way of benchmarking its first class offering against others, but the fact that it still exists in an era when so many airlines have ditched it completely on their planes to install business instead is testament to its appeal – and perhaps the incomes of Emiratis.

So thanks Etihad, I’ll take your wonderful, cosseted, indulgent upgrade any day, if only because my wife will be slightly less annoyed with me than if I’ve come home from a night out with Kate Winslet.

My dining table was bigger and better set than most fine diners I've tried lately

The A340's 1st class seats in the centre row let you be together, or have some privacy

And you can shut the screen from the rest of the cabin

A welcome note from the cabin manager

The contents of my 'goodies bag' - PJs, slippers and toiletries

The toiletries bags are pretty smart and worth keeping

And I liked the sleep face sprays

A welcoming Arabic coffee before the flight takes off

There's wi-fi if you're keen to answer emails and get some work done

Or you can chat to the other passengers

But the entertainment options are pretty good

The noise-cancelling headphones are decent, but I preferred using my Bose set

There are plenty of options for keeping things charged up and connected

Etihad sponsors the Sydney Opera House - it was pretty cool to see it being promoted halfway around the world

Emergency snacks and water are hidden in a 'glovebox' in front

It's a pretty impressive menu, cooked to order

And the Williams cutlery, designed especially for Etihad, is a long way from the bendy plastic knife you're given in economy elsewhere.

The meal starts with an amuse bouche like in a fancy restaurant

I tried the mezze plate featuring kibbeh, tabouleh, hummus and flatbreads

And the bissara soup - an Emirati dish made from fava beans - is excellent

Gulf lamb biryani was aromatic and delicious

The black cod was also impressive and opulent

And of course there's a citrussy sorbet to cleanse the palate

This is the 'textures' dessert - it didn't rock my world

Time for a cup of tea and rest - or as I called it, movie time

The controls are easy to operate to get you comfy

Etihad's 1st class is a reminder of how good life can get

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