On a recent trip to the Maldives, we flew on Etihad Airways in business class and First Class on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. From Malé to Abu Dhabi we flew in business class, and from Abu Dhabi to Washington we flew in First Class.
In conversations with friends and family, as well as during many Points Consulting calls, a question that often arises is “What’s the difference between business class and First Class?” Many people use the terms interchangeably, but for those who are in the know, the difference is stark.
Ricky has reviewed in detail both Etihad Airways 787 First Class and business class products, so rather than doing separate reviews for each, I thought it would be worthwhile to do a side-by-side comparison of the two.
Let’s have a look at the differences between First Class and business class on Etihad Airways’s 787 Dreamliner.
Prior to diving into the comparison, it’s important to note that Etihad Airways has significantly reduced the routes on which it offers a First Class cabin. Prior to the pandemic, the airline offered a significantly higher number of routes with First Class cabins, including the First Class Apartment on the A380.
At the time of writing, Etihad Airways offers First Class on only four routes, between Abu Dhabi and Casablanca, Geneva, London, and Washington. All of these are served by the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, as the A380 has been removed from service indefinitely (and possibly permanently).
By contrast, FlightConnections tells me that Etihad Airways flies its two variations of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner on many more routes.
While the above map may not be entirely accurate, it goes to show that if you’re looking to fly First Class with Etihad Airways, your routing options are somewhat limited.
Furthermore, you’ll want to pay attention to flight times to ensure you’re able to fully appreciate the experience.
Personally, when I am considering paying a premium for First Class, I try to ensure that the schedule allows for maximal waking time. Otherwise, I’m content with a business class seat if I’ll be sleeping for a good portion of the flight.
Flying to Abu Dhabi, the current flight schedules are as follows:
- Depart Washington 8:55pm, arrive Abu Dhabi 5:55pm the next day
- Depart London Heathrow 8:30pm, arrive Abu Dhabi 6:15am th next day
- Depart Geneva 11:25am, arrive Abu Dhabi 7:50pm
- Depart Casablanca 9:30am, arrive Abu Dhabi 7:50pm
Flying from Abu Dhabi, which would give you a better ground experience in the Etihad Airways First Class Lounge, the current flight schedules are as follows:
- Depart Abu Dhabi 11:00am, arrive Washington 5:25pm
- Depart Abu Dhabi 2:10pm, arrive London 6:45pm
- Depart Abu Dhabi 2:35am, arrive Geneva 7:25am
- Depart Abu Dhabi 2:45am, arrive Casablanca 7:55am
In our case, we flew from Abu Dhabi to Washington and, having been adjusted to the time difference long before our departure, we had over 14 hours of waking time to enjoy the First Class experience.
Meanwhile, our business class flight from Malé to Abu Dhabi was an evening flight, albeit much shorter at just shy of four hours.
Another factor to consider when choosing between First Class and business class is the cost in points. This is, of course, assuming that we aren’t paying cash here.
For Canadians, the easiest way to book on Etihad Airways is using Aeroplan points. We’ll need to consult both the North America–Atlantic and the intra-Atlantic zone charts.
For the flight between Abu Dhabi and Washington, there is a difference of 35,000 points between First Class and business class.
For the flight between Abu Dhabi and London, there is a difference of 20,000 points between First Class and business class.
And, for the flight between Abu Dhabi and Geneva, there is a difference of 20,000 points between First Class and business class.
For the flight between Abu Dhabi and Casablanca, there is a difference of 20,000 points between First Class and business class.
Interestingly, the difference for all of these comes out between 2,500–3,000 points per hour flown, which is how I like to think of it.
Whether or not it’s worth the extra cost in points is up to you, but let’s look at the hard and soft products to help you decide.
Etihad has three configurations of its Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft.
The 787-10 version, which shows as “781” shorthand, and one version of the 787-9 aircraft, which shows as “789” shorthand, only feature a business class cabin.
The 781 features 32 business class seats across eight rows.
The 789 without a First Class cabin features 28 business class seats across seven rows.
Meanwhile, the 789 with a First Class cabin has eight First Class suites in the front of the plane, followed by 28 business class seats spread between a mini-cabin immediately behind First Class and another behind the galley.
In my case, we flew on the 787-9 on both flights; however, the flight from Malé to Abu Dhabi lacked a First Class cabin.
All Etihad Airways 787 premium cabins alternate between forward- and rearward-facing seats. In First Class, there’s minimal differences between the two seating orientations.
In business class, the forward-facing window seats are closest to the windows while the forward-facing aisle seats are closer together, making them the best seats to choose over the rearward-facing ones.
Let’s have a look at the business class and First Class seats on Etihad Airways’s Dreamliner.
The Etihad Business Studio seats are aesthetically pleasing with shades of light brown, beige, and gold. The cylindrical light at each seat casts light across the wall beside the seat.
The First Class suite follows a similar colour pattern, albeit with dark brown leather and more gold accents throughout. There is a rectangular light instead of a cylindrical light, and a striking multicoloured pillow.
The First Class suite has a lot of storage space. In the door of the suite, there is a vertical space to store garments.
Underneath the ottoman, there is room for a camera case, backpack, or other carry-on items.
Close to the seat, there is storage space on both sides of the armrest. Some of it is taken up by the minibar, but there is also ample room along the window-side of the suite to place items during the flight.
As a much smaller seat, the Etihad Business Studio has fewer storage options. There is some storage underneath the armrest and underneath the footwell, as well as on the black surface space during the flight.
The entertainment screen on the Etihad Business Studio measures is nestled between the shell and the adjacent window. It is controlled by a wired remote, which is housed in the shell of the neighbouring seat.
In First Class, the entertainment screen is much larger, and is controlled by a remote housed in the armrest next to the seat.
First Class passengers are given a Wi-Fi voucher, but must pay for additional bandwidth if they exceed the limit. Business class passengers do not get free Wi-Fi.
In lie-flat mode, the Etihad Business Studio measures 73 inches long in lie-flat mode and 22 inches wide. The bedding consists of a mattress pad, blanket, and pillow.
By contrast, the First Class seat measures 80 inches long in lie-flat mode and 26 inches wide. Passengers are (usually) treated to a mattress pad, a plush blanket, and a pillow.
Upon boarding, passengers in business class are asked which welcome beverage they’d like to enjoy. The beverage is then brought out on a tray and presented.
Passengers in First Class on Etihad Airways are presented with a choice of welcome beverages. On my flight, I could choose between a Charles Heidsieck 2006 Brut or Rosé.
The flight attendant then came with an empty glass and some fresh dates, presented the label, and poured it in front of me.
The contents in the Acqua di Parma amenity kits are largely similar for business class and First Class, although the kits themselves differ.
While business class passengers receive a thin pouch, First Class passengers are treated to a stockier, more fulsome leather bag.
Aside from the obvious differences in seats, perhaps this is where the largest distinction between business class and First Class lies. This isn’t specific to Etihad Airways; the same is true when comparing First Class and business class with other airlines.
In business class, we enjoyed dinner onboard our flight. We didn’t have time to eat at the airport, as there was only one security lane open and despite arriving three hours in advance of our flight, we had to sprint to the gate to make the final boarding call.
Prior to takeoff, the flight attendant took our orders from a small menu. He also took our drink orders for the meal service at that time.
In total, we had a three-course meal. We had a choice between two appetizers, four main courses, and a dessert.
After putting down a tablecloth, the flight attendant brought out a tray containing my Arabic mezze appetizer, fresh breads, sparkling wine, and sparkling water.
After finishing my appetizer, the main course was brought out.
The flight attendant cleared my tray once my main course was finished, and then brought out my dessert with fresh cutlery.
The entire experience was perfectly fine, and I found the quality of the food in Etihad Airways business class to be better than many other airlines.
However, our experience in Etihad Airways First Class was elevated to another level when compared to business class.
Whenever a beverage was brought out, it came accompanied with ramekins of fresh dates or other snacks.
When it came time to dine, our flight attendant prepared the table in my suite to accommodate two passengers. My wife Ashley joined me for what became one of the highlights of our trip.
The flight attendant placed each piece of cutlery down one at a time and carefully arranged our napkins. This presentation set the stage for a memorable four course meal.
We began with a staple of the First Class experience: caviar service.
We had four appetizers to choose from on our menu. We both decided to have the Arabic mezze, which was both visually and gastronomically appealing.
Of the five options for our main courses, I opted for the lamb thareed, and after a long deliberation, Ashley settled on the herb halloumi courgette cakes.
Following our leisurely dinner, we wrapped up our culinary journey with a date & fig pudding and passionfruit bavarois.
Without a doubt, the dining experience in Etihad Airways First Class was noticeably greater than that in business class. This isn’t to say that the meal in business class was awful; it’s just that First Class was that much better.
The separate beverage menu is also notable. While the business class beverage selection was perfectly fine, the First Class list had two champagnes, four white wines, four red wines, and a number of other hard and soft options.
As someone who appreciates beer, I am usually disappointed onboard aircraft. Etihad Airways had two craft beers from Side Hustle brewery in First Class, and I’m happy to report that both were delicious.
If I had to summarize the difference between Etihad Airways First Class and business class, I’d describe business class as being just a meal service, while First Class was an entire gastronomic experience.
It felt like we were in a fine-dining restaurant in the sky, and it’s something I’ll remember for many years.
Is Etihad Airways First Class Worth It?
This is the million point question.
This was my second First Class flight, with my other comparison point being Lufthansa First Class, and my wife’s first experience in First Class.
We both agree that First Class is worth trying at least once if you have the points balance to support it. The elevated experience from start to finish is memorable, and if you can experience it together, it makes it even more special.
It’s also interesting to compare different airlines and how they aim to make their First Class product unique. For some, it’s the ground experience, and for others, it’s all about the glitz and glamour onboard the plane.
We’ve both flown on a number of different business class products and are perfectly happy with a lie-flat bed and (ideally) a delicious meal. Having some Champagne sure makes it special, too.
Personally, I’m fine with flying in business class most of the time, especially if it’s an overnight flight. Should the opportunity present itself, I’m very open to flying First Class, though, as it’s a step above and beyond what’s usually offered in business class.
If you’re considering a First Class flight, luckily Etihad Airways is one of the easier airlines to book using points. Be sure to consider the flight time and aim for a daytime flight to fully maximize the experience.
Etihad Airways offers a strong product in both business class and First Class. While both are entirely comfortable ways to fly, First Class offers a heightened experience from start to finish.
We both agree that we’d fly in either class with Etihad Airways again. With a strong route network across the world and ample award space, I imagine we’ll get to know Abu Dhabi a lot better over the coming years.
Should Etihad Airways reinstate service on the Airbus A380, I will be one of the many people clambering to secure a booking in an Apartment while it would be still possible. Until then, we’ll have to settle on an entirely comfortable product in either business class or First Class.