Flight Report : Cheap Christmas in Germany with Etihad

Hong Kong - Munich

Christmas in Asia is a time to travel. Europe traditionally isn't a great place to visit during this time of year, with late sunrises, early sunsets, and unpredictable weather. I originally didn't want to travel so far, but a routine search turned up some great fares on Air China and Emirates even a week before departure. 2 days before my vacation began, their prices moved up but Etihad popped up with a great fare. Having tried Emirates and Qatar before and not so keen on being trapped in a window seat on an A380 or A350, Etihad offered a more humane solution, flying Airbuses with 2-4-2 seating from Hong Kong all the way into Germany.

Etihad seems to be playing low-profile compared to Qatar and Emirates. Their flight times were not the best on the inbound, but the outbound was perfect for a one night stopover in Abu Dhabi to rest. I would fly out after work and arrive just before midnight, sleep in a proper hotel, and continue flying into Europe the next morning for a very comfortable lunch arrival. Hopefully, it would minimize the 7-hour time zone difference.

Etihad's check-in closes an hour before departure, which is a bit on the early side. There was no line-up and I was quickly processed. My luggage would be checked through all the way to Munich even though I will be land-side for the night.

Boarding commenced an hour beforehand, which was again too early because we were all stuck in our seats with nothing to do.

Today's aircraft is painted in new colours and the A330 seat included a power plug and USB charger.

Each seat already had a headset, neck pillow, and blanket in a green bag. The IFE was not turned on and they played their airline music showing the various destinations on their network until it got too annoying.

The flight was full and mostly consisted of non-Hong Kongers. Maybe this is a reflection of their low profile. Emirates was boarding an A380 across from us and there seemed to be much more brand recognition among the local crowd. Etihad only flew once a day while even Qatar will resume a 2nd flight next year.

We took off towards the east and turned south. It was a clear night and the city glimmered under a sea of neon.

There was an announcement on the multinational flavour of the crew, but nobody spoke Chinese. The crew was inexperienced and slow, which was surprising considering the other big Middle Eastern carriers are famous for great service. They seemed to have been shipped out from Eastern Europe with barely enough training to fly. Calls for service went unanswered and even passing crew didn't seem to want to deal with the illuminated call button next to their makeup-filled faces. Initially, snacks and a first round of drinks were served but dinner took almost 2 hours to come out, which was not so great with a 6pm departure.

Disappointed, I browsed around the IFE. Each passenger in Economy gets a noise-cancelling headset, which is impressive and certainly an industry leader. There is an assortment of movies and TV shows but nowhere near Emirates' selection and I would even rank it a notch below Cathay. Not long after take-off, the airshow hung and we could no longer track the flight path. As I browsed the online news feature, the system hung, and it took a few call buttons and almost an hour to get it back online after a few resets.

On a more positive note, there was a live TV streaming feature available, but with a footnote that it may not be available in the jurisdiction we are passing through.

The first half of the long 9-hour flight was quite choppy, and the seat belt sign was turned on for most of the time. This was particularly annoying since service was already slow and the crew was not willing to move their carts around to let me pass for the bathroom. Things calmed down towards the end and a second light meal was served. The sandwich tasted decent and sufficient given the late night. Interestingly, it was made in the UK so it made a long way to get to me.

I forgot how long it took to fly against the wind to the Middle East - even longer than going to Sydney.

You can see I so far am not impressed with Etihad. The final blow was Abu Dhabi's old and small airport. We landed on a far runway and had to cross their 2nd runway to get to the terminal. This took a while as air traffic control held us at the crossing and no announcement was made on the delay. Our plane eventually parked at a bus gate and it took a good 20 minutes to get onto a bus. There was a line of buses waiting so I didn't understand why they couldn't board 2 buses at once to speed things up. This was part of the slow theme that this airline is giving. I would think you need at least 2 hours to connect and that is even a rush. It was a long ride into the terminal and although very few were heading out to immigration with me tonight, it took a good 15 minutes to process me, with the immigration officer seemingly clueless until he gave up and sent me to his colleague for the stamp out. Peeking inside the immigration counter, there was plenty of garbage strewn on the floor. I recall Dubai wasn't impressive when it comes to immigration processing, but this one was much worse. Lucky there were no crowds.

A Night in Abu Dhabi

I purposedly did not choose to connect immediately and opted for the morning flight out as I'm not a fan of red-eyes even if I had a lie-flat seat. The engines are simply too noisy to get a decent night's sleep on board, let alone I was flying Economy this time. I got a good night's sleep at the airport hotel and woke up to a decent view from the rooftop pool.

Abu Dhabi - Munich

Abu Dhabi is building a new airport terminal, which is taking shape between the 2 runways. As of now, it looks like a Doha from yesteryear. With my bags through-checked, I comfortably strolled to the newer T3 to go through the formalities. There was a weird scent in the terminal - not a smell but a deliberate pungent aroma from some flower I probably don't know about. The check-in area was very small for an airline of such a size. I guess being mostly a transit carrier, a large facility was not needed. Abu Dhabi is worth a day on its own, and with new museums opening soon, perhaps a couple more. Etihad runs a shuttle to Dubai so it can indeed be an end-point destination. Perhaps once the new terminal opens all this would change.

Some weird partner carriers. Etihad, like Emirates, is not in one of the global alliances. But I'm grateful I can earn full AA mileage on these cheap flights.

The security agent turned me around and directed me to T1 for immigration, which was a bit annoying. There is a long covered walkway from T3. On the return flight I would find out I could have cleared security in T3 and walked back to T1 airside. There was a long line at T1's immigration already, although it crawled through reasonably well and the agent was more professional than the night before.

The main gate area in T1 looks a bit retro. There weren't enough seats here although each gate has a few rows more, but still weren't enough.

I was lucky to board from here today and not at a bus gate. The gates circle around a central spiral sort of artwork. Part of the attraction of flying Etihad was the A340, the uneconomical 4-engined plane that other airlines were trying to get rid of. The last time I flew this model was almost a year ago on Thai, which had a technical issue, had to fuel dump, and return to Bangkok. With a 2-4-2 configuration, getting out from the window to the bathroom would be far easier.

I didn't board so early like in Hong Kong this time. The flight was not full with a few empty rows here and there. A German captain welcomed us and informed a manageable 6 hour flight time into Munich. We pushed back on time and it wasn't long before we roared into the sky heading to Europe!

We took off towards the northwest and flew across Abu Dhabi with wonderful city views. The city's waterfront is actually very nice when I visited a few years ago - unpolluted, clear waters like in a tropical paradise.

I suppose the MH incident over eastern Ukraine has forced airlines to be more vigilant. We seemed to have skirted away from the IS warzones in both Iraq and Syria. The snow-capped mountain scenes over Iran and the Caucauses were beautiful.

Unfortunately, the IFE selection was the same as my inbound flight from Hong Kong. A snack and first round of drinks were served, followed by a towel. Almost 2 hours after departure, the meal was served. Service was slow once again. Seems to be a consistent problem. At least the IFE did not hiccup on me this time.

After flying Emirates and Qatar, I had high expectations for Etihad. The base was Cathay Pacific, and so far nothing could even hit the base. The bathroom is not what you would expect from a 5-star airline. On both flights, there was no hand cream or moisturizer. There were also no shaving kits or cups to brush your teeth. I suppose the last 2 were not necessary given both were not red-eyes, but the Hong Kong - Abu Dhabi leg took 9 hours, so I thought these would be good things to have on board.

Now I head back to my seat to enjoy the views.

Seems like a nice day up ahead. It was fairly clear from the Black Sea all the way into southern Germany.

Flipping through the magazine, Etihad's friends include Air Serbia, Air Seychelles, and the more normal Alitalia. There was a short feature on Germany's Christmas markets - where I'm heading!

On the A340, the controller / phone is located on the armrest, while on the A330, it is below the TV screen. The TV screen is touch-controlled but the remote was far easier to navigate than my fingers.

This flight was a lot smoother than last night's, and the airshow worked for the entire flight.

The entertainment was turned off during descent and the crew came by to pick up the headsets. I guess these noise-cancelling ones cost some money so they want to account for them all. I wonder why some airlines turn off the IFE and not let it run all the way to the gate?

Seems fog and low clouds are common during the winter. At least the sun is shining bright and burning off whatever is left at the lower elevations.

The clouds got thicker during descent. The forecast did not call for rain today, so I was confident things won't be too gloomy below. I continued to take photos as the crew passsed by to do their safety runs.

Munich, I return.

Although I complain a lot about service and the software aspects of the airline, the hard product is solid. I particularly liked the neck pillow and noise-cancelling headset. At first I thought the blanket was a cushion until I saw another passenger open it up.

Munich's Terminal 1 is not capable of handling a large widebody jet. The immigration area is a small cubicle past a set of doors. A backlog soon formed and it was not possible to make a few lines for the 2 counters open. Luckily, the people on this flight were civilized although it was still a bit chaotic. I was asked what I was in Europe for, how long, and where will I leave from, got my stamp, and was on my way. There appears to be just 1 luggage belt that snaked around the small space.

As I exited through customs, I saw a huge line snaking out from the departures immigration area, which is also small and not capable of handling the volume of international flights leaving here.

I had some time to kill before my Flixbus leaves for Nuremberg from the bus terminal at Terminal 2. A small Christmas market and ice skating rink has been set up above the Airport Centre. I wasn't interested in buying anything but looked around the food stalls. Quite festive indeed.

With some more time left, I headed to the observation deck at T2 but didn't find too much variety in birds. Then I explored T2 a bit. It is a much nicer terminal but also small, with far shorter lines into immigration though.

Service Sumary

Don't expect the great service from Emirates or Qatar on Etihad. But the price was right. I paid only HKD $6200 inclusive taxes for a roundtrip to Munich. I guess I got what I paid for. The hardware is solid and the relatively lack of IFE choices should not be a deterrent given the discount. But if travelling with a family, Abu Dhabi's airport is quite a drag. When Abu Dhabi's new terminal opens, I might think of trying them again for a transit into Europe.

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