Flight test: Flying London to Auckland with Etihad a reliable choice if you're willing to stop in Australia – Stuff

When Air New Zealand infamously dropped their London long haul route in late 2020, we all had to re-think the traditional UK connection.
While there are plenty of options, looking at airlines that go most of the way and codeshare the last leg is a lateral approach.
Flying Etihad calls for an extra stop in Australia, so is the extra layover worth it to travel on the airline that just nabbed 3rd place (behind Air NZ) in the AirlineRatings top 20 airlines for 2022?
Route: London to Auckland via Abu Dhabi and Melbourne with Etihad, (Melbourne to Auckland on the same booking as a Star Alliance codeshare with Air New Zealand).
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Planes: Leg 1 – London to Abu Dhabi – Boeing 787-9; Leg 2 – Abu Dhabi to Melbourne – Boeing 777.
Time in the air: Leg 1 – we left Heathrow Auckland at 11.22pm, a delay of over an hour due to some technical difficulties on the ground, including a faulty starter for the engines. This may be on the airport, which after all these years is still not up to international standards in terms of customer processing, with the usual ridiculously long wait to get through security. Flight records show this departure delay is unusual though and the flight is generally pretty punctual. Arrived Abu Dhabi 6 hours 56 minutes later, a little slower than normal.
Leg 2 – departed about 30 minutes late, negligible for an international route. Arrived in Melbourne 13 hours, 15 minutes later. After a two-hour transit in Melbourne and a 3-hour 55-minute flight on Air NZ, we arrived in Auckland at 3.05pm for a total flying time of a rather eye-watering 24 hours, 6 minutes.
Entertainment: More than enough to keep anyone entertained, including live global TV channels like the BBC, more than 300 shows and over 100 movies, all presented on an 18.5-inch touchscreen (on Leg 1). I decided to work my way through The Staircase across both flights – what a performance by Colin Firth! – so barely scratched the surface of the other content on offer.
Seats: Leg 1 – 8D in business class, courtesy a surprise upgrade from coach. There are 32 flat-bed business class seats in Etihad’s 787-9 Dreamliner. Configuration is one window, two middle. This was Etihad’s current business ‘hard product’, as they say in the travel game, and it is outstanding. The only slightly odd thing was the promo video that came up for Etihad’s forthcoming replacement Business class seats, which seemed a bit of tease! It does look amazing though, with full privacy screens and is currently being rolled out on the airline’s A350s.
My seat was rear-facing, which was a new experience for me and one I thought I may not like, but the direction my feet were pointing quickly became irrelevant. There’s a sliding partition on the aisle side that helps add privacy and the simple console-based seat controls made it quick and easy to press a button and go into lie-flat mode.
There were good noise-cancelling headphones, loads of little storage bins, old school printed menus (which I liked) and all the usual sockets and outlets. The welcome drink was served with a generous bowl of mixed nuts.
Leg 2 – seat 7E, a continuation in business class. On boarding our captain announced the slight delay was due to a late change in aircraft, and perhaps for this reason we had the older business class seats. They date back about a decade now so were understandably a bit of step down from the other leg, with smaller screens and much less of a cocooned feel. By this point however I was just happy to be at the pointy end and ready to nod off as Colin Firth continued to protest his innocence and then get a good snooze.
Amenities: Both legs featured an Acqua di Parma leather pouch containing body lotion, hand cream, toothbrush and paste, socks, eyemask and small eau de cologne spritzer. Also a ‘wellness kit’ with face mask, gloves, sanitisers and a ‘snood’ (remember them!? All the rage with Premier League footballers about 5 years ago but still a nice touch.)
Food: Aside from lie-flat seats, this is where the rubber hits the runway for me on long flights – and I’m guessing most people – and the cuisine was exceptional. On Leg 1 the ‘Arabic mezze’ starter was a nice nod to the airline’s cultural ties, and while I’m not usually much of a drinker on flights the detailed ‘sommelier’ style wine selection was too good to resist. So I supported the home team on both legs with a cheeky glass of Wither Hills Rarangi Single Vineyard sauvignon blanc.
If you’re into the bubbles, Duval-Leroy Brut Reserve NV is the champagne on offer. The ‘All Day’ menu offered alluring edibles like the tenderloin steak sandwich, madeleines and Arabic baklava. On Leg 2 I was tempted by the ‘Weqaya’ healthy option of seared sea bass for my main but defaulted to the beef tenderloin with gratin, carrot, tarragon beans and mushroom sauce, with fresh fruit for dessert. Happy days.
Service: On both legs the service was warm, attentive but not intrusive, just as it should be. The flight attendants introduced themselves and then appeared – and disappeared – on cue. The overall in-flight experience is certainly up there with the best.
Frequency: With some gaps this is essentially a daily service – Etihad run several flights out of London each day so it’s just a question of getting those layovers timed out (around 2 hours is a safe bet). The Air New Zealand leg was reliably good – people that complain about our national airline would despair over what some other countries endure for shorter flights like this.
Essentials: Overall, I can see why Etihad is so highly rated and wins plenty of accolades – and for Kiwi travellers it can be a cunning choice if you’re willing to pitstop in Australia. Economy class seats for this trip were $1780 one way, while Business typically starts at around $9000.
I booked through eDreams but writing this report I found it hard to replicate the route on their booking engine or third party sites like Google Flights. You can obviously search prices and book tickets direct on Etihad’s website, but it’s always worth scouring the net a little deeper for deals – perhaps once again because NZ is an ‘add-on’ Star Alliance destination for this carrier.
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