Taking passenger experience to new level – Etihad’s flagship B787-900

Welcome onboard, turn right here” or something similar the cabin crew said to us as we stepped into the flagship Boeing 787-900 Dreamliner of Etihad to fly from Abu Dhabi to Mumbai.

I had intended to write a combined review of my flight experience from Rome to Mumbai but the fantastic experience I had on the Abu Dhabi to Mumbai leg meant that I write this as a standalone review.

Last May I did a trip from Pune to Singapore via New Delhi, only to experience the Dreamliner of Air India. Etihad was expected to be a different experience than the modest Air India. Etihad also had the Next Gen 787-900, 20 feet longer than the B787-800 which Air India operates. The latest version also carries more cargo with higher Maximum Take Off Weight (MTOW) and more seats.

Airport & Transfer experience

The two hours before boarding A6-BLA, first of Etihad’s two operational B787-900, weren’t the best of times spent at the airport in Abu Dhabi. Landing two gates away at Gate#59, we had walked in the opposite direction of Gate#61, to transfer areas, went through quick and hassle free security check to come one level below at the departure gates. As we entered section G at Abu Dhabi, we were already stuffed from the last flight and thus did not climb up to the food court and started walking towards the gate. The airport has limited seating and hardly any common areas near the gates to sit, relax or have a cup of coffee.

Boarding

A glance at Gate 61, the last in this side of the terminal and it was clear that the gate had opened much earlier. Around 2045, an hour before scheduled departure time and scheduled boarding time, we made our way to the gate. The automatic entry barrier did not read my boarding pass, but the efficient and helpful staff instantly jumped in, entered the necessary details in the computer and let me in.

We were now in the waiting area, looking at the distinct nose of the B787 and a Jet Airways B777  leased to Etihad at a remote bay nearby.

Within minutes, there was an announcement for boarding for First and Business class passengers. This was followed by an announcement for boarding for other passengers. I was expecting a zone wise boarding and zones were clearly marked on the boarding passes.

We dashed to the gate and made way to the aero bridge. There was nobody to check the boarding pass again or tear off the stub.

First Impression

The aircraft was in mint condition, glowing in yellow light as we made our way from the Business section to the first set of economy sets. The new business class seats on Etihad look fantabulous. However, I wonder how the passengers on eight seats which face towards the tail adjust to the takeoff and landing motion of the aircraft. This was the first time I saw such seats!

Cabin

20150318_210906

The aircraft seats lesser passengers than the A340-600 which it replaced on this route and also the one to Washington.

As we crossed the galley and made our way to Economy, the cabin looked fresh and refreshing with the new styled overhead baggage bins. The seat had headset and pillow but the blanket was missing.

 However, the biggest surprise was the screen. The widest screen I have ever seen in Economy class, a size which could be matching to some Business class seats too.

In Flight Entertainment

Etihad has taken the passenger experience to next level with B787-900 and similar seats and comfort in the A380. Over the period of next two and half hours, I completely enjoyed watching Live TV, playing games, listening to some songs and seeing the live flight display in different modes.

Why am I praising this  system so much? Well, I was watching BBC Live and listening to the speech of US Fed, seeing the flight map on the left on it on this wide screen and playing some game on the wired control device of the screen. Alternately, I could listen to some songs, see the flight map on the main screen and play games on the control unit.

Flight map 1Control Unit   IFE Screen Sizeflight map 2

flight map 2PIP

Flight map 3

Flightmap options

The control unit was to be operated only from one side, unlike the traditional dual side ones. The unit had a touch screen and came with minimal buttons. This device had a screen equivalent to most smart phones if not wider than them!

The plethora of options available on the main screen are available on the control device – which means, you can watch a movie and yet keep the flight map on – yes, on the control device!

If this is not all, at every exit option, the system will ask you if you want a Picture in picture till you select the next thing on the IFE or you want to exit everything – indeed innovative, you can keep watching or listening what you are at the moment, till you find something better!

Description of the in-flight entertainment system would not be complete without having a look at the multiple views for Flight Map. An aviation enthusiast like me considers the window as IFE, seeing outside the window and mapping the terrain with the map on the screen.

Etihad has taken Flight map to new levels. First it comes with multiple options,

Auto Play – which will periodically shift from one mode to another

Flight Preview – which will show the direct route from Origin to Destination

Total Route – which shows the entire route in one view

Mid Flight – Similar information like Flight Preview but with different angles, showing cities around the flight path

Overhead – Another same style information represented differently

Compass – Showing the nearest city and allowing the user to select a city and show direction and distance.

Command Center – This indeed is one option which aviation geeks will find it fantabulous. It shows the altitude, vertical speed per minute, true air speed and lets you select if you want to see this in miles or kilometers. Very thoughtful. This whole screen is like a head up display, showing you altitude, pitch and airspeed in one view!

Window View – Mapped against either Google maps or similar software, this option lets you see what is outside on left, right and front at the current location of the plane.

Only drawback I could note of this IFE and the system was lack of Live Camera. I wonder if it’s the limitation of B787 or a choice which Etihad took to not have the Live Cam – which the airline has on its other aircraft including the A340-600 and A330 series.

Flight overall

Etihad is one of the few airlines I believe who give a menu card before starting the meal service. On offer on this flight was a Paneer Option along with Chicken Biryani and Mutton Kheema, which would be served with bread, salad and chocolate mousse.

However the flight was delayed by over 40 minutes and we spent a lot of time inside the aircraft staring at the same advertisement and information repeating on the oversized screens. The pilot informed us twice about the delay, first letting us know that refueling is taking time, followed by information that the airport baggage system is not functioning and the connecting baggage is being transferred manually by the ground staff. This obviously had all the connecting passengers, which constituted majority of the lot on board, nervous!

food2 Food1 cabin2cabin1

After the safety demo and a couple of more announcements we pushed back about 30 minutes behind schedule with a final announcement from the cockpit with an assurance of reaching on time despite the delay. A promise which was fulfilled since we landed few minutes ahead of schedule.

The service started about half an hour into the flight and we opted for a vegetarian meal and a chicken biryani, along with water and pepsi. The smiling crew obliged with the request and the quality and taste was way better than the Rome – Abu Dhabi leg on the same airline. The flight overall was uneventful as the meal service was followed by another round of drinks and later a round of water.

The toilets were not clean in the later half of the flight.  But the B787 toilets have also been done up well by Etihad.

We encountered some turbulence about 40 minutes to landing and the seat belt sign continued till we had a bumpy touchdown on runway 27 at Mumbai. We had to wait for a few minutes for a vacant gate and that time was enough for some passengers to get up, remove baggage and start queuing up. Sadly even after multiple announcements by the crew informing people that we have not reached our parking spot and we need to buckle up and be seated.

Airport Arrival Experience

We docked next to Lufthansa B744 – thankfully I did not choose Lufthansa for the trip, because their short haul operations were crippled due to strike on the day we travelled out of Italy. A long walk later, we met few people who insisted that we need to fill up an Ebola form – which looks like more of a formality and less of serious business. I hope the government indeed takes care of the Ebola check and not just stamp some information filled up by the passenger.

Immigration took time, since the only line moving slow was the one in which we stood or was it the other way round! This followed with wait at the baggage counter, where I noticed domestic Carrier Go Air operating a flight to Male – certainly a charter.

There were long lines for Green Channel at Customs and as we made our way out, we were asked to only have our hand baggage screened which was quick. Just before the gate, a constable wanted the counterfoil of customs which we did not have. Thankfully, no scene at exit and we walked out with this wonderful B789 experience on Etihad.

Flight Summary

Aircraft: B787-900 Dreamliner                  Registration: A6- BLA, delivered January 2015

STD: 2145 ATD: 2230

STA: 0255 ATA: 0240

Takeoff Runway: 13R Landing Runway: 27 Altitude: 33000 feet

Overall Verdict

The flight was very impressive. Indeed this kind of in-flight experience will take flying to new levels for the passengers. I am yet to understand why the headrest on the seat has support on just oneside, but I am sure Etihad has done some research about it. For such an experience, I would certainly fly Etihad again.

One little thing which I genuinely liked is the hand sanitizer which comes along with the meal. Nice little touch which makes a difference.

However, with code share across Etihad partners and this new flagship product being introduced at a slower pace, would mean lucky draw for passengers travelling on Etihad. The airline should speed up introduction of this new experience across aircraft and later across Etihad partners.

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