No doubt there were numerous security protocols to fulfil before Etihad staff were permitted to bring three gold-plated scissors airside for a ribbon-cutting ceremony, but when your company is launching what it claims is the world’s best first-class airline lounge it’s worth going to some extra effort to ensure absolutely everything looks the part.
Unveiled yesterday at Abu Dhabi International Airport’s Terminal 3, Etihad’s First Class Lounge & Spa is the airline’s most significant play for the world’s most discerning (and lucrative) travellers since it launched The Residence – a three-room “better than first-class” cabin aboard its A380 aircraft. As before, this new product should provoke in rival carriers an irksome “why didn’t we think of that” sense of frustration.
A core tenet of Etihad’s development strategy is that it “reimagines” the flying experience, which in the development of this lounge meant looking to the world’s best hotels – rather than existing airport facilities – for inspiration. For Etihad CEO Peter Baumgartner, “it’s no longer enough for [premium] guests to just enjoy a pleasant journey… if we want to retain our position as an industry leader”; with the lounge “the gateway” to the brand, he wants visitors to feel as though they’re relaxing in the likes of Claridge’s or at The Ritzrather than killing time before a flight.
A battalion of staff, including maitre d’, concierge, sous chef and mixologist, is on hand to ensure that’s what happens. After bypassing a ground-level reception area, guests will be greeted by name at the lounge proper, a 17,900sq ft (1,666sq metre) area with 16 different zones. Most expansive of all is the dining area, an attractive members’ club-style facility with a 24-hour a la carte restaurant, casual eating area, confectionary and cake buffet, and two bars.
Etihad’s assertion that the cuisine on offer will rival that of well-regarded fine-dining restaurants is made credible by their partnership with one. I ate from an impressive Emirati tasting menu that has been developed in collaboration with Mezlai restaurant, of Abu Dhabi’s gilded Emirates Palace hotel, and features the likes of roasted lamb with saffron rice and chickpea stew. Alternative breakfast, lunch and dinner dishes, conceived by an executive chef previously employed by the Shangri-La and Ritz-Carlton hotel groups and all available to order at any time, include pan-friend red snapper and king scallops with squash blossom and caviar sauce, and coconut crème brulee with caramelised pineapple.
The bar menu, devised by London-based drinks consultancy Fluid Movement, features cocktails inspired by, and named after, Etihad’s most popular destinations. US-bound travellers who request a New York will receive a concoction of Applejack, walnut-infused bourbon and apple juice; in homage to the city’s Mexican population the Los Angeles is made with tequila, and comes topped with freshly spun candyfloss. The gin-based London is infused with rhubarb and blackberries; the coffee- and rosewater-based Abu Dhabi is, of course, alcohol-free.
Though it’s those areas that will likely preoccupy visitors for the longest amount of time, it’s elsewhere that the lounge is truly distinctive. Named the world’s most innovative airline at The Telegraph’s ULTRAS luxury-travel awards earlier this month, Etihad developed the lounge after consulting with frequent fliers and among the facilities incorporated on their request was a fitness room (not quite comprehensive enough to be considered a gym, but adequately equipped for a basic workout with Technogym treadmills and cross trainers) which stands along a Six Senses Spa where treatments will be offered. Guests will also be able to choose from complimentary express or paid treatments at a Style & Shave area featuring a barbers, hair and nail salon, and shoe shine stand.
Those impeded from entering might instead wish to convene in the cigar lounge or to laze in the Relax & Recline zone. There a succession of Poltrona Frau loungers face a 36ft- (11m-) long wall of 27 screens upon which soothing images and sounds play, and parents will be able to fully enjoy the experience too. At their disposal is a separate crèche and playroom stocked with books and games and staffed with nannies trained at Bath’s Norland College, Prince George’s preferred choice.
The lounge is accessible to Etihad’s first class passengers, Etihad Plaginum members and Etihad Airline Partner airline first-class guests. Return fares from London Heathrow to Abu Dhabi start from £365 in economy, £1,655 in business class, and £3,916 in first class.