Of 100 airlines rated by airline and airport review site Skytrax, three airlines based in the Middle East placed first, fifth and sixth in 2015, with Qatar  Airways in the top spot, Emirates in fifth and Etihad Airways in sixth. Some folks may credit these airlines’ luxurious features for this ranking, but one travel expert writing in USA Today points out another aspect of their success – their geography. Their hubs sit “in a sweet spot allowing them to economically link any two places on earth, with a single connection….Want to fly Miami to Bali changing planes just once?” This is their real competitive advantage, according to this source, “even more than the shiny new planes, exemplary service and flashy airports and lounges.”

Here, though, we’re going to compare the first class experience on those “shiny new planes” with their “exemplary” (or not) service. We start off with the most extraordinarily luxurious offering of all – something that makes even the most seasoned first-class traveler sit up and take notice: Etihad’s Residence Class. Fasten your seat belts!

Etihad Airways

Brian Kelly, aka The Points Guy (thepointsguy.com), sums up the Residence Class experience in the title of his short video: “Why Etihad’s A380 Residence Will Blow Your Mind.” We see Kelly lying on his bed in his own bedroom wearing a bathrobe that he had put on after a shower in his own bathroom with a heated floor. He describes, with obvious delight, his own living room, his own chef and his own butler, as well. Mind-blowing indeed.

Residence is a private three-room suite, a first for commercial aviation. For $32,000 one-way, you and a friend can travel between Abu Dhabi and New York in your apartment in the sky complete with a living room with a double-seat sofa, dining tables, a chilled drink cabinet and a 32-inch LCD monitor. A carpeted hallway leads to a separate en-suite shower room and a bedroom with a double bed with Egyptian cotton sheets and a choice of pillows.

The butler that Kelly refers to was trained at the Savoy Academy in London, and you’ll be assigned your own private chef who will make whatever you’d like – Kelly decided on a turkey dinner.

Let’s bring it down a notch, now, to the still-rarified, but not-quite-so extravagant, regular first-class offerings on Etihad. These are called First Apartment on the Airbus A380s and First Suites on other models. We’ll concentrate on the First Apartment here.

Comfort

Bernie Leighton (AirlineReporter.com) flew from Abu Dhabi to Sydney a few months ago in a First Apartment. “Etihad markets the apartment as ‘your own private universe’ and it is very private but it is also massive,” he reported. While he and two friends “were killing a bottle of Etihad’s usual rosé Champagnes, we realized there were three of us in one apartment with a metric ton of space for all of us….Seriously if you sit back in the throne you can’t see the doors from some angles. It’s lonely at the top, and that’s the best thing ever.”

When it’s bedtime in the First Apartment you’ll be given all-natural bed linens, pillow mist and pulse-point oil along with some of the more usual amenities. James Hogan, chief executive of Etihad Aviation Group, thinks that “airlines have become too much like airlines and not enough like hotels. We want to create more of a boutique hotel experience.” Hence the Poltrona Frau leather seat (the same material found on high-end automobiles such as Ferrari and Alfa Romeo), separate chaise lounge that converts into an 80.5-inch bed, a wardrobe, a vanity unit and a chilled minibar.

Vogue calls the latter “one of the most enticing onboard amenities of any airline: “Hitting the call button for a mid-flight martini might become a thing of the past” when passengers have their own en suite beverage stock, wine and spirits included. Another plus: Apartments can be combined to create a double-bed option.

As for the service, Jo Karnagha (frugalfirstclasstravel.com) says, “Every time I wake, my bedding is whisked away without my asking. I feel like an honored guest whose every need is anticipated.”

Ben Schlappig (onemileatatime.com), said his seat on a flight from Abu Dhabi to London, was “comfortable... and words can’t do justice to how beautiful the cabin is.” He points out that Etihad is the only airline that has a single-aisle configuration on the A380. And he loved the showers. (More about that later.)

Food and Wine

Meals are prepared by an onboard chef who can create “off-menu” items. Karnaghan says “I always love the food and wine on Etihad. For me it sets a standard that other premium airlines….can learn from. From the onboard chef to advise you on meal and drink options, or make you a little something that isn’t exactly on the menu, to the choice of meals and anytime-dining options, everything I try is a great success.”

In a post on the best meals in first class on AFAR, an online travel magazine, Etihad ranks No.4 of 5. What AFAR liked best was “that you can build your own main – the preparation, the sides – everything. For those who spend forever ordering at a restaurant, this is the meal service for you.”

All of this comes served on bone china from NIKKO with Royal Oak cutlery and Lucaris glassware. A special cognac glass from Norman of Copenhagen gives the airline the chance to showcase “exquisite XO cognac,” as a company promo brags, served with cookies, cakes and pastries.

Extras

And what a glorious extra they have to offer. The showers! First-class passengers can reserve 20 minutes in the shower, but that comes with only five minutes of water, so you need to be strategic about how you soap and rinse, shampoo and rinse, turning the water on and off. Schlappig especially liked the Bergamote 22 by Le Labo toiletries that are standard issue in Etihad onboard showers. To give you an idea of just how luxurious they are, the travel-size liquid balm is $90, according to the perfumer’s website.

Besides the shower, Etihad has what it calls “The Lobby” (another reference to James Hogan’s wish to make passengers feel they’re in a hotel, not on a plane). The Lobby is a lounge shared by both business and first-class passengers. It’s cozy and comfortable, seats six, and Schlappig says “’it is a great place to talk.” Food and drinks are available there.

The Telegraph reviewer likes the technology on the A380 – especially the “seat-to-seat calls and e-chat that means you can commiserate with anyone confined to economy.”

To get to the terminal, chauffeur service is available to some first-class (and business) passengers – for the most part that means full-paying customers. You need to book the service at least 24 hours in advance and if you qualify, you will be picked up and driven up to 60 miles to or from the airport. Distances vary with the part of the world you are in but as an example, you will qualify for trips up to 60 miles to and from JFK.

Emirates

Emirates is the world’s biggest global carrier, flying more than 143 billion international passenger miles a year. It is also “among the most influential airlines, breaking up old alliances and introducing innovative perks, notably showers,” according to the Telegraph. Here, as with Etihad, we’ll concentrate on the airline’s Airbus A380 first class.

Comfort

“Emirates is all about privacy,” according to the Telegraph. Seats are arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration with 14 first-class seats in all. Seats fold flat and are 79 inches long (one and a half inches less than Etihad). The suite’s decor is pretty glitzy – gold accents abound – and it includes a lamp, fold-away mirror, a writing set (charmingly retro), newspapers and magazines. A reviewer for the Telegraph had one complaint about the private suite arrangement: “Passengers may be disturbed by the not insignificant noise made by others’ seats and doors as they recline and slide.”

The 14 first-class passengers have four staff members assigned to look after them so they can expect to be “waited on hand and foot,” according to the Telegraph. “Air stewards assist with the conversion of seats into bed form, replenish minibars before passengers can request another drink and prepare shower suites for use.”

Food and Wine

No need to wait for a set time to eat or drink; everything is à la carte. Keeping to the spirit of Arabic hospitality, staff distributes dates and Arabic coffee on boarding as well as Dom Pérignon vintage Champagne. Meals are influenced by the route; the Telegraph reviewer who traveled from Dubai to London chose from a menu that included appetizers of wild Iranian caviar and traditional Arabic mezze, a main of pan-fried Pacific cod with wild rice, yellow squash and sauteed eggplant and a cheese selection that included Yarra Valley Persian feta and Pyrenees Pere Toinou.

One online post describes the lounge with its extensive seating, elegant lighting and a horseshoe shaped bar to allow for passengers from both business and first class to mingle. “Worried that the booze selection won't cut it? Just tell your bartender what you want from the First Class menu and he or she will bring it out to serve you (and perhaps your new BFF from Business Class).”

A Telegraph reviewer claims that Emirates had “the best breakfast at 39,000 feet….a fresh ginger, mint and lime wake-me-up juice and a cappuccino with the Emirates logo in the chocolate on top – as well as a cheeky glass of Dom Pérignon 2004.”

Extras

Schlappig, no stranger to first-class travel, says that in more than 4 million miles of flying “possibly the only time I’ve giggled uncontrollably was when I took a shower on the Emirates A380.” He said it was “awesome” flying 500 mph at 35,000 feet showering in a shower suite “larger than an average NYC apartment bathroom.” There are rules, though, and two full-time shower attendants to help you figure them out.

The attendants will take your reservation for shower time when the flight begins, and you can have 30 minutes in the shower, but only five minutes of actual water time. If you are strategic and put the water feature on pause frequently, it all works out. In the shower, there are all the shampoos and lotions you need (Emirates-only Timeless Spa products) plus razors, toothbrushes and even a fresh orchid. Schlappig says that the rule is “maximum two occupants in the shower,” which piqued his curiosity: He was told it meant two if someone needed assistance.

The Telegraph likes the global feel of the service on Emirates: Speak any language and the crew probably will too. And with more than 2,000 channels of movies and TV shows, they call this “the best entertainment system in the sky.”

Emirates offers chauffeur service to and from the airport in over 70 cities (compared to Etihad’s 40).  

Qatar Airways

Schlappig found that there was virtually no difference between first class and business class on Qatar. (For more on this topic, see Top 5 Differences Between Business and First Class.)

Comfort

There are no showers on Qatar’s first class, but as a consolation, the bathroom on the plane is pretty comfy with its long leather bench and fresh flowers. Schlappig dubs it “spacious and soothing” and “well stocked with amenities.”

As for privacy, Schlappig thinks it is not as good as on Emirates and Etihad. He writes that perhaps that’s because Qatar’s longest flight on the A380 is seven hours, so privacy may not be all that important. He likes the “understated luxury” look of the plane as compared to the level of “bling” on Emirates and Etihad.

The Telegraph calls the first-class seat on Qatar “the biggest, plushest, softest in the sky” with its 90-inch seat pitch (that’s the distance from any point on one seat to the exact same point on the seat in front or behind it), its 180-degree flat bed option and built-in massage function. Schlappig likes the seat too, and says it’s one of the most comfortable airline seats in the upright position. 

Food and Wine

Two master chefs are in charge of the food on Qatar – Nobu Matsuhisa and Vinceet Bhatia – both of whom have won the coveted Michelin star for their restaurants. When planning the menus, both chefs take into account how flavors and spices affect taste buds that are altered by the altitude. 

According to a report on CN Traveler, “Qatar Airways takes its wine seriously: the Doha-based carrier hired Master of Wine James Cluer to climb atop 19,331-foot Mount Kilimanjaro armed with nine bottles of wine, in order to learn how altitude affects their taste. In his arsenal: Taittinger rosé champagne, a 2007 Château Monbousquet Saint-Emilion Grand Cru and a 1974 Kopke tawny port from Portugal’s Douro Valley.”  All that effort seems to have paid off, at least for one Telegraph reviewer, who writes that there’s “plenty of caviar, of course, but it’s the wine that stands out.” 

Kelly gave high marks to his meal of  “delicious Oscietra caviar” followed by crispy prawn, shimiji and oyster mushroom salad and vanilla panna cotta with mango coulis for dessert, proclaiming it all “excellent.” Schlappig loved his breakfast starter of an “oh so tasty date and cinnamon smoothie.” 

If you have any special dietary needs, Qatar is ready and willing to help. Just a few of the choices include Hindu, Muslim, Jain vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, low salt and more. 

Extras

No pajamas for Schlappig or the Points Guy on their flights, although Frette linens and take-home Giorgio Armani amenity kits are a couple of nice perks. Schlappig appreciated the “gorgeous bar” that served Krug, but he found the service disappointing on his flight: “The crew didn’t want to be there and they made sure we knew it.” Still, Qatar was rated first on the Skytrax list, which is presumably “the people’s choice award” so there must be lots of people who would disagree.

The Bottom Line

Airlines based in the Middle East are known for their over-the-top perks – fresh flowers and being able to take a shower at 30,000 feet are glamorous indeed (to say nothing about a three-room apartment in the sky). Still, when choosing which airline to fly first class, always research the plane model (seatguru.com) and go beyond the airlines’ promo material and read the reviews by the folks who have “been there, done that.”

You may also be interested in reading The Best Time to Buy First Class Airline Tickets and Private Jet Charter Vs. First Class: What's Best?

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