Above are some pictures of the city. Including Sheikh Zayed Grand Masjid, Qasr al Hosn, and Hawthorne Inn by Wyndham.
For a preface, I am not into regularly authoring long trip reports, but seeing that there was hardly any trip reports on Etihad, I decided to type this one up. I am unsure if I will be doing more trip reports like these, but I hope y'all enjoy it nonetheless!
Etihad Airways, back in it its heyday, offered some of the most luxurious products in air travel. However, it has been under quite some fire the past couple years. Their crippling financial state of affairs, cost cutting, and downgrade in overall quality have hit the airline hard. In 2019, they resorted to selling snack and dessert items separately and removed the starters from their meals, even on long haul flights. Etihad has indefinitely suspended their A380 operations, removed the A330 from their fleet, and their 777 fleet are expected to retire soon. The 787 currently makes up the backbone of their long haul operations, with their A350 expected to be in service soon. In sha Allah.
I have previously flown Etihad in 2018, on their A380, A321, and A320. On the JFK-AUH-ISB and KHI-AUH-JFK routes, the experience was decently solid with a large sprinkling of cost cutting. Their A380 was immensely comfortable and spacious, even in Economy, which was the most positive aspect of that entire trip. During that time, they did serve proper meals with metal cutlery on the JFK - AUH, AUH - JFK segments, however, the flights between AUH and Pakistan, we were handed a snack bag. Eye masks, earplugs, and dental kits, for the long haul segments only, were in limited quantity and available on request.
In summer of 2021, I was offered a project and happily said yes. My routing was from Houston IAH to Abu Dhabi AUH and back, via Chicago ORD both ways. So I was very interested in how my trip this summer with them will be. While Etihad relies heavily on connecting traffic, my journey was up to Abu Dhabi and back. I was very excited and intrigued to see how Etihad would perform during this pandemic travel era.
On to the trip report…
My 'value' fare class ticket does not allow a free seat selection on Etihad EY, but it was free during online check in. The American Airlines AA main cabin ticket for IAH - ORD already included a free seat selection anytime. Both flights, IAH - ORD and ORD - AUH, were under the same booking. However, online check-in had to be done separately on the respective airlines website. EY did not issue me a boarding pass but I was marked as checked in with seat 32K selected, free of charge.
Despite the mess the big 3 US airlines had to say about the ME3 air carriers, AA is now on quite good terms with EY and fellow OneWorld member QR (Qatar Airways). EY Value fare class tickets are eligible for 50% mileage accrual with AA.
For my first leg of the trip was with AA, the experience with them was relatively mediocre. During check-in at IAH, the AA check-in kiosk required agent assistant, where an agent manually checked my Covid test, passport, and reviews the AUH entry requirements on the kiosk screen while more passengers crowd around him. After he cleared me on the kiosk, I tried to check my bag in, but was slapped with a $30 fee, which was supposed to be included in my reservation. Again, I get a hold of the busy agent, and he told me to wait in the customer service line, which looked horrendously long. For the sake of comparison, the Spirit check in counter next to us didn't look as much of a madhouse as American's counters, which said quite a lot.
I tried to speak with a bag drop agent, who appeared less busy. She bluntly suggested paying the bag fee then later disputing the charge thru my bank, but she wont be able to waive the charge. Since my bag was carry on sized, I eventually gave up and finished checking in, got the boarding pass for both flights, and head to security.
Eventually, I was able to gate check my bag all the way to AUH, Alhamdu Lillah. Therefore, I did not need to worry about lugging my carry on sized bag at ORD. All I had now was my backpack with my essentials.
My AA flight from IAH landed at terminal 3, which primarily houses AA and Spirit (NK). While terminals 1 - 3 are physically connected airside, there was no airside connection to terminal 5, a glaring flaw with ORD connections between AA and EY.
According to the flyORD official website, there is a Terminal Transfer Bus (TTB) that connects Terminals 1,2, & 3 to Terminal 5. However, it is still currently suspended. There is also a Airport Transit System (ATS) train that connects the landside terminals. That too was also not in service at the time of the trip, but as of NOV 2021, the ATS is once again in service for limited hours only. ORD airport was not on my happy list today.
Terminal 5 is quite a distance from the other 3 terminals, so a landside shuttle bus was needed to get there from terminal 3 (at least these were running). The makeshift bus stop was a bit difficult to find in the busy curbside level, and not all buses serve terminal 5. Disgruntled employees asked me where I'm headed then points me to a crowd to wait with. These shuttles run 24/7 but get crowded fast, as passengers struggle to find space for their bags on the seats and aisle. The shuttles are poorly configured to handle large amounts of baggage and are clearly contracted through a third party agency.
After waiting for a bit at terminal 5, a friend of mine
rescues me picks me up and we head out to the city for lunch.
After spending time with a friend, I was dropped off at terminal 5, which primarily houses mostly international air carriers, plus Frontier, Southwest, and Sun Country. It is my favorite terminal at ORD, due to the fact it isn't as insanely busy as the other 3 terminals and is relatively peaceful. I also appreciate that there are a number of chairs without armrests, a feature becoming rarer at US airports. However, by no means is the terminal impressive.
The check in hall was flooding with abundance of natural light, airline counters were well marked, and easy to locate. I already checked in at IAH, I still felt that the AA issued boarding pass for my EY flight might not work. I head over to the EY check in counter, which was relatively empty, and was immediately assisted by a agent. My passport and Covid test were checked again, the agent did verify that the seat row I was in was empty and that the flight load is very low. Bad news for the airline, good news for the passengers.
Turns out Etihad requires the Covid test to be done within the 72 hour window prior to my EY flight, not 72 hours prior to the initial AA flight, regardless if both flights are issued by EY. Alhamdu Lillah, I did play it safe and took the EY flight window into account when doing my Covid tests, so this was not an issue, but a bit of a draconian policy nonetheless. Upon request, the check in agent handed me some baggage label stickers, and even asked if I would like more as a keepsake, a very thoughtful gesture.
Boarding was slated to begin out of Gate M11 one hour prior to departure.
However, something was not adding up. According to my ticket and boarding pass, EY150 to AUH is to depart at 7:15pm. But according to the FIDS, the flight is slated to be on time at 8:25PM…
Also, speaking of whacky FIDS, apparently Frontier has a cargo flight to London Heathrow…
I did get a hold of the EY ground staff and supervisor, who seemed visibly flustered but informed me that they are urgently working on fixing this glitch and that it is a issue arising from the ORD airport operations. Hopefully this glitch did not cause someone to miss their flight.
During this time of the day, many international flights are scheduled to depart, and as such, security was chaotic. A lot of passengers were having language barrier issues along with many families travelling, resulting in quite a slowdown. While the line was not long, it was slow moving as TSA agents struggled to communicate with passengers and kids were confused on what to take off and what to remove. Many bags were flagged as well. After roughly 15 minutes, I was finally cleared.
The path to the airside had several duty free shops that I passed through before making my way to the gate. Our assigned gate was M11, located right after the security checkpoint + duty free shop clusters, it shares a seating area with gate M10. The gate looked rough! It appeared to be in the process of remodeling because most of the ceiling tiles were missing. There was hardly any natural lighting in the gate area and spotting our flight from this gate was impossible. After taking a picture or two, and avoiding eye contact from a passenger giving me the stinky eye, I went towards the eastern end of the terminal to find a less crowded (if not nearly empty) place to sit.
Most of Terminal 5 was relatively empty, I went to a nearby gate area, where I was able to do quite a bit of spotting. Turkish Airlines, Air France, SAS, Swiss, and British Airways were all in action. The SAS A350 was arriving in from Copenhagen CPH but was not on the departure screen for today. The others will be heading back to their respective hubs by tonight.
By the east end of the terminal, there were plentiful seating areas with tables and power sockets. This side of the terminal also felt more brightly lit, peaceful, and airy.
Todays ride to AUH is a 5 year old 787-9, registration A7-BLG. EY has 2 configurations for their 787-9, this specific aircraft has the non-first class layout. I was not able to see our aircraft from the terminal.
I head to the gate around 40 minutes prior to departure. While I was looking forward to the experience, I was in no rush to board, I will be on that flight for the next 13 or so hours. However, announcements began blaring repeatedly for final boarding calls for EY 150 and that ticketed passengers must board now. The announcements sounded unusually frantic and were repeated multiple times with short intervals.
I got to the gate around 40 minutes prior to departure, the gate agents appeared stressed out. My passport was checked almost 4 times in the gate alone, before I went thru the door, where several police officers and CBP officers were waiting on the jet bridge. My passport and boarding pass were confiscated by the officer, and she proceeds to ask questions about why am I travelling, how much money am I carrying, and what I do for work. Upon answering, she returned my documents before interrogating the next passenger.
After being welcomed aboard by the friendly flight attendants, I reach my seat only to see that someone was sitting there. She had clearly made herself at home, leaning on my seat and stretching out on the empty two seats. "I think you're in my seat ma'am" I said, pointing at my boarding pass, she apologized and quickly exits my row, leaving behind the crumpled packaged pillow and blanket she used as her cushion.
There was a soft polyester blanket and pillow in a single use cover, wrapped and neatly placed on every seat. After boarding was completed, flight attendants pass through the cabin, offering earphones, amenity kits, and hygiene pouches.
- The earphones were basic yet functional, not high quality by any means but did not sound too cheap.
- The amenity kit had a blindfold, earplugs, tooth brush, and tooth paste. It was in a simple drawstring pouch. The blindfold did not do too good of a job of blocking light out but it was still better than not having one at all, I thought the "wake me up for meal" and "do not disturb" sides were a smart touch.
- The hygiene pouch contained a face mask, single use hand sanitizer packets, and sanitizing wipes.
The cabin felt immaculately clean and bright. The seat had several features, including a generous cradle recline, lumbar support, cup holder, bi - folding tray table, power socket (at every seat), USB socket (at every seat), an unusual adjustable headrest with one side fixed, touchscreen IFE, a touch screen remote, and a seat pocket with two smaller pockets perfectly sized to fit my phone.
The legroom could have been more generous but was still sufficient for this flight. There were no individual air vents but the cabin was kept at a relatively cool temperature. The power and USB sockets were located conveniently by the IFE screen, a thoughtful touch. There is not much else that can make these seats more comfortable apart from a bit more legroom and perhaps a footrest.
Note, the legroom and recline comparison pictures are from other flights, also on the EY 787-9 in two class configuration.
Right after boarding was finished. The safety video and Dua E Safar (Islamic travel supplication) was played. We took off on time into the golden skies and cruised over Lake Michigan as we made our way to AUH.
The meal service started promptly after we reached cruising altitude.
Etihad does not provide menus anymore. The IFE screen does have a menu icon but it was not displaying the menu. Flight attendants reached my aisle, and informed me of the choices: Lamb with mashed potatoes, chicken and rice, or vegetarian. I opted for the lamb.
A tray was placed, and I was pleased to see it was a proper meal. But at first glance, the portion sizes looked quite tiny. The tray was full of disposable cutlery, including the serving bowls, cutlery, and entrée container. However, it looked delightfully appetizing and palatable. Right after the meal cart was the beverage cart, since there was already a water bottle on the tray, I asked for mango juice.
For starters, there was a zesty chickpea salad with yogurt and herbs. The main entrée was a lamb stew, with mashed potatoes, and steamed veggies. A chocolate mousse with hard chocolate topping was for dessert. In addition, there was a rather hard bread roll, butter, salt, pepper, toothpick, and oddly enough, a coffee creamer.
The lamb entrée was delicious in terms of taste, but the entire meal tasted a bit too watery, it seems that the steam emitted from the food had made the main course a bit soggy. It was still quite delicious nonetheless. The chick pea salad was was very good, although small in serving size, it was dense and refreshing. The mousse was perfect, it was not sugary and the hard chocolate topping added a depth of texture when eating it. The bread roll was quite hard, enough to be dangerous if I fling it hard at someone, but it actually tasted quite grainy and delightful after the initial chewing.
Overall, a decent dinner with Etihad, despite the minor hiccups with the meal. Despite the serving sizes looking small, the food was quite filling and satisfying.
Later on in the flight, I did ask the flight attendants about leftover meals, they informed me that they had vegetarian and lamb options remaining, I requested the vegetarian. I wasn't hungry but curious to see what the other meal offerings were like.
The vegetarian option was clearly South Asian inspired, with basmati rice, bhindi (Indian okra stew), and paneer masala (curdled cheese in a spiced gravy). Surprisingly enough, there was even a piece of paratha (unleavened flatbread) as well! This option was definitely designed to cater to Desi passengers, and was quite delicious as well. The paratha was quite hard though.
After the meal, I went to the lavatory. There were some extra airsick bags and paper cups available, a nice touch. The lavatories looked stylish as an aircraft lavatory can be in economy class, with tile pattern wall papers in various shades of brown, adding to the elegance and appeal.
After freshening up, I was able to pray Maghreb (sunset prayer) on the aircraft. The flight attendants were very friendly about setting up a prayer area by the exit, and explained to me this feature is common on all their widebody aircrafts. The screens also displayed the direction to Makkah, where Muslims face to pray, and the prayer (salah) timings. The makeshift prayer area was also partitioned off by a curtain as well, adding to the privacy.
Entertainment is quite a subjective category, and I myself am no exception. I personally enjoy nature documentaries or looking at the flight map, and as such, the entertainment offerings itself was not really to my personal liking. There were a number of movies and TV shows, but the documentary section was quite limited, with no nature related options at all.
However, there was an entire Quran audio playlist which was a huge plus for me. The moving map was wonderful, with several views and angles. The IFE menu was easy to navigate, touch responsive, and overall, quite easy to use.
During the flight, the crew were happy to provide food, such as the leftover mousse cake. For snacks, they had Desi munch which was fried potato sticks with 'masala' spices and seasoning, "Its quite good, we enjoy it too!" the flight attendant told me cheerily when offering me a pack.
As we flew over western Europe, the second meal service commenced. I was offered a bag of chicken or vegetarian sandwiches, the FA was happy to give me both.
Each bag had a sandwich, Oreo cookies, and a water bottle.
The chicken sandwich had a flavorful chicken mayo spread with crunchy lettuce, it was simple yet tasty. The vegetarian sandwich had lettuce, cheese, tomato paste, and hummus, it too was quite good as well but a bit drier. Interestingly, the chicken sandwich bread was tougher while the vegetarian sandwich bread was significantly softer.
Meanwhile the sun rises outside, but we are hardly halfway done with the flight.
After munching on the snack and using the lavatory, I prayed Fajr (sunrise prayer) and soon fell asleep. The flight was starting to feel quite long, Alhamdu Lillah, I was very thankful for the empty row.
The crew did not lock the window dimming controls. An FA told me its not allowed for them to lock the controls, and as such, there was a very inconsiderate passenger who undimmed their window for a while, flooding the dark cabin with light, until a FA came by to darken it.
I actually slept quite well, before I was awoken by a flight attendant cheerily asking, "Would you like something to eat sir?" I woke up, and groggily asked what choices there were, "Chicken pasta or vegetarian sir" and I asked for the chicken option. Right after the meal trolley was the beverage trolley, where I just asked for more water.
The meal had a similar layout, with a lot of disposable cutlery and utensils, but still quite palatable and appetizing. For starters, there was a bean salad with lemon dressing. Main entrée was a chicken dressed in a zesty flavorful gravy, with eggs, zucchini, and cherry tomatoes. For dessert, there was a fruity mousse cake garnished with white chocolate pieces. There was also a hard bread roll, butter, plastic cutlery, salt, pepper, a toothpick, and coffee creamer.
The meal was wonderful. The eggs were well prepared and not rubbery, and paired well with the flavorful chicken and veggies. The starter was refreshing and energizing, while the dessert added a delightful sweet note to complete the meal. The bread tasted good, it was still quite hard. All in all, a good meal! Just like the dinner, the portion sizes looked small but were quite filling.
As we neared AUH, the windows were undimmed, and the cabin began to wake up.
By now, I was ready to get off the plane. The flight could not have been much better, but it is LONG. After a delightful meal, I freshen up. During the entire flight, the FAs would regularly clean the lavatories, which resulted in the lavatory looking immaculately clean and smelling pleasant even right before landing.
One of the FAs even offered me extra sandwiches to take with me as we prepared for arrival. I did ask the FA about the catering, she showed me a paper with the catering, turns out DO&CO was our flights caterer.
Our aircraft flew over the city and landed at AUH airport on time, we parked at terminal 3. The glass jet bridge made it easy to get lovely views of the aircraft that was my home the last 13 or so hours.
I head to passport control, where I was issued a visa stamp on arrival. While Dubai has had a relatively welcoming policy for tourism during the most part of the pandemic, Abu Dhabi is more strict, despite both cities being in the same country. For a good portion of the pandemic, Abu Dhabi operated on a green list policy, with US being removed from that list numerous times. Non - green listed countries did not qualify for quarantine free entry and require a 10 day quarantine. At the time of this trip, USA was on the green list, but on my second trip, USA was removed from that list 5 days after I reached AUH, talk about a close call!
The Emirati officer spoke little English and was courteous based on our limited interaction. No questions were asked, my picture was taken, passport stamped, handed back to me, and I was allowed to go through. After a baggage screening and security check, I head to the arrivals hall, where I was easily able to locate my bags. I made my way to the arrivals hall, where I was directed to a Covid screening site and had a green sticker and QR code fixed to my passport. The green sticker was verified by security staff at the exit, Abu Dhabi definitely took their Covid protocols seriously.
AUH is not an impressive feat of architecture by any means, but it is still one of my favorite airports. The airport felt peaceful with no music or recorded announcements blaring over the intercoms. There were an abundance of resting areas scattered throughout terminals 1 and 3 in addition to complimentary showers in terminal 3. Such amenities are nearly unheard of in US airports, unless you have lounge access. Power sockets were quite limited, however, due to how empty the airport was as of late, this was not a serious issue for me. The airport is not as flashy or glamorous as its neighbor in Dubai, but this added to the ease of transiting through without much issue of getting lost or confused.
For departing or transit passengers, the US Pre-clearance facility is a huge benefit for passengers flying to USA, it is a huge peace of mind to clear US immigration prior to boarding and not deal with the stress of large crowds and wait times at busy airports after getting off a lengthy flight. There is a new terminal in AUH that looks to be near complete, I eagerly await the opening of it.
AUH airport is located far east of the city, but there are a number of public transport bus lines that serve the airport. There is the A1 and A2, which run more or less like a express line. They operate 24 hours a day, and are fitted with baggage holds, overhead baggage racks, reclining seats, and even a tray table. Both the A1 and A2 run towards the city, and even run parallel for a bit before branching out, finishing up near Corniche hospital. There are also a number of local bus lines serving AUH airport as well.
My hotel, Hawthorne Inn by Wyndham, was more or less in the center of the city, I chose this hotel due to its favorable location within the city, in addition to the decent transit accessibility. Both the A1 and A2 have stops within walking distance of that hotel. Taxis to the center of the city cost roughly 70 AED / $19.06 USD, while the A2 bus costs just 4AED / $1.09 USD. Cash is not accepted but there was a machine where you can purchase a Hafilat card, and load money onto that. After praying Asar, then later Maghreb salah at the masjid in terminal 1, the A2 bus pulls in on time in front of the air conditioned bus shelter. The bus operator steps outside to help passengers load their baggage.
Above are some pictures of the city. Including Sheikh Zayed Grand Masjid, Qasr al Hosn, and Hawthorne Inn by Wyndham.
ORD airport: Inefficient connectivity between terminal 5 and all other terminals. Crowded shuttles, disgruntled airport staff, basic amenities, FIDS glitches posing a risk in misinforming passengers, but still well connected to the city in terms of public transit via the 24 hour CTA blue line.
AUH airport: Easy to navigate, passenger friendly amenities such as showers and rest areas, bright and airy in terminal 3, polite staff, and great public transit connectivity. Much easier and calmer compared to DXB airport.
Etihad Airways: Etihad has really stepped its game up. The crew were all well honed, the airline seems very goal oriented and focused on providing an excellent passenger experience from hard to soft product. The only real complaint was that I don't really like the seat pan sliding forward in the cradle recline feature, and the seat did not feel very spacious.
The flight being empty made the crew seem more geared to going above and beyond, with little details such as asking if I would like extra sandwiches to take with me, to regularly checking up on passengers, and keeping the bathrooms in a pristine condition. I really enjoyed this flight, and even taking the low flight load out of account, I would not mind flying with Etihad again. This summer, I did 4 long haul flights with Etihad, and all were incredibly solid and wonderful.