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March 12, 2008

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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET?                                 London to Abu Dhabi

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Greetings from the Middle East! Last week, we were in London checking out Heathrow's new Terminal 5 and this week, we're touring around one of the world's most up-and-coming destinations: Abu Dhabi. Getting to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was half the fun as I took my first spin on the country's national carrier. But checking into the city's newest hotel was even better! Then there was the desert safari ... initially, I thought this might possibly have been the stupidest thing I'd ever signed up for but the desert BBQ at a Bedouin camp made up for it. If you can't put your media-induced fears of the Middle East aside, then how about joining Richard Frinta as he explores Rossland, B.C. and San Juan Island? Whatever you decide, enjoy the ride!

From Central London, I took the Heathrow Express back to the airport and arrived almost two hours before departure, just like a good boy. I was flying Etihad Airways to Abu Dhabi and their flights depart out of Terminal 3. After seeing British Airways' new Terminal 5, T3 couldn't have looked any more depressing. The good news is there was no wait at check-in and the Etihad agent was pleasant even though she enforced the carrier's ridiculous one carry-on rule. If that wasn't enough, my carry-on was over their weight limit of 8kg (17lbs). What a joke! I removed the heavy items like magazines and books and put them in my now checked bag. I hate when airlines do this since my carry-on takes up little space and has everything I need … laptop, cameras, chargers, adapters, foreign money, medicines … To cheat a bit, I did the ol' bait and switch routine and weighed my bag while my 3lb laptop was under my arm. Haha! It worked!

Heathrow is so busy that most of the time, the airlines don't know which gate they are departing from so they don't post the gate number until about an hour before the scheduled departure. I really think it's just a ploy to get people to shop in their duty free stores but the only thing I bought was a £1.40 ($2.83) bottle of water for just £0.70 ($1.41). There was a promotion running: buy The London Times and get the water for free. What's crazy is that the guy in front of me paid full price for his water because he said he didn't want the paper. Duh! The clerk and I both looked at him like he was the biggest idiot around. Uh, hello?! Anyone home, McFly? When my gate (16) finally displayed on the departures board, a sign read that it would take 20 minutes to reach that gate. I don't know how they reached this calculation because it took me just five minutes.

At the gate, SAS (Scandinavian Airlines) agents were checking tickets and passports. FYI: They don't stamp your passport to leave England. Inside the pen was a TV tuned to CNN and a shelf filled with free newspapers and travel magazines (CNN Traveler, Business Traveler and Spa Finder). Score! I stocked up and my bag was now back up to 15 kg.

In Arabic, Etihad means "united". Etihad is the national airline of the United Arab Emirates and although they only began service four years ago, this company is already making some serious strides. In 2007, they flew 4.6 million passengers to the 45 cities they serve in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. Because Dubai-based Emirates Airlines has been so successful promoting their destination, the Abu Dhabi leaders figured they would mirror it and start their own excellent airline. That's why they placed an $8 billion order with Airbus that includes four A380s; Emirates ordered 52! It's a good thing that the UAE is geographically desirable -- it's sort of in the middle of the world and they are trying to leverage their positioning by acting as an air bridge between Europe, Asia, Australia and the U.S.

I had heard some good things about Etihad Airlines from one of my travel writer friends who took their nonstop flight from Toronto (YYZ) to Abu Dhabi (AUH). Etihad's other North American gateway is New York's JFK airport. Currently, I'm on an around-the-world trip and I was stoked when Etihad Airlines came up as my cheapest option to get from London to Asia. They have three flights a day from Heathrow. For this leg I, had our partner travel agent John Dekker (1-800-Johnny-J) book this ticket. I had planned to fly from London to a popular city in Asia but when John Dekker said I would save $600 by stopping in Abu Dhabi for a 90-minute layover, I figured ‘what the heck?' Abu Dhabi is directly along the path to where I was headed and since I had never been there before, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and spend the night. I'm glad I did!

I flew in Etihad's economy class. They call it Coral Economy, explaining why the seats are all coral-colored. Or is it the other way around? I had no detailed information so I really had no idea what to expect. But let me tell you … when I stepped on-board the A340 aircraft, I was pleasantly surprised. The plane was brand new, the flight attendants were all young, pretty and from all over the world though the majority were Asian. The coach configuration was 2-4-2 and as a bonus, the flight wasn't sold out so I had an empty seat beside me. There wasn't a crazy amount of legroom but the seats did have a 32" pitch and they were ergonomically designed with lumbar support, headrests and a footrest so it was better than the American carriers. But without a doubt, the best part about the seats was the 10.4-inch personal LCD screens, loaded with enough entertainment (350 hours worth) to keep anyone busy. To top it off, they even had noise-canceling headsets and power outlets. You don't even see all of this in many business class cabins.

Flight time was just six hours and 10 minutes but we sat on the runway in London for almost two hours because the British Airways plane that had crash-landed the previous day was still causing all kinds of traffic jams. Before takeoff, the flight attendants passed out little plastic containers of water that were neatly piled on a shiny silver tray. Thirty-five minutes after takeoff, they came around with the drink cart and a food menu. Dinner was served an hour later and I had the tomato and Parmesan cheese risotto and the Arabic date cheesecake for dessert. The food was better than average (though not the bread) and then I tried to get some shuteye. Everyone had an individually packaged blanket and amenity kit including socks, earplugs and an eye mask, so folks were comfortable.

I didn't sleep much; I was too excited about going to the Middle East for my first time and my head was spinning from all the entertainment choices. Heck, they even had live cameras mounted on the front and bottom of the plane so that passengers could view them at any time. We finally arrived at 8:35am, 50 minutes late and for the many passengers who had connections, their planes were held. Customs was quick but the bags took 50 minutes to come out. That was really irritating since I didn't need to check one in the first place and there was a ton of space in the overhead compartments.

Once I entered the main terminal, I felt like I was in the bar from Star Wars. There were people from every different walk of life, all different shapes and sizes. Some were wearing full-on white or black Arab garb while others were dressed in colorful African wardrobes with headdresses. The terminal was old but still flashy with tile pillars. It felt like Vegas' old Terminal 1. I made my way through the crowd and smoke, looking for the exit.

I was staying at the Shangri-La and the people from the hotel offered to pick me up, but it was more than three times the cost of a regular taxi so I got one on my own. Getting a taxi was easy but trying to get some Dirhams so I could pay for my ride, was not. The closest ATM machine was a good 200 yards, downstairs and outside in the parking lot. It's a good thing they are in the process of building a new airport. FYI: 1 USD = 3.6 United Arab Emirates Dirhams (AED).

To call the numbers in this story from the U.S., dial the international dialing code (011), the country code for United Arab Emirates (971), the code for Abu Dhabi (2) and then the local number.

I take it most Americans don't know much, if anything, about Abu Dhabi. In fact, the majority of my friends and family kept asking, "where are you going?!" Some people I spoke to had never even heard of the United Arab Emirates, which is quite sad. I know, I know ... maybe I need to start surrounding myself with some more worldly people. Well, at least I'm not dating Kellie Pickler or Miss South Carolina.

A quick introduction to Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates (UAE): Abu Dhabi in Arabic means "Father of Gazelle" and it's about the same size of West Virginia. It's the capital and the second largest city of the UAE. The largest of the seven emirates in the UAE is Dubai, which is about the same size as Rhode Island. Dubai is 75 miles north and both emirates, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, operate like a family business as the two heads are cousins. The Maktoum family runs Dubai and the Nahyan family runs Abu Dhabi.

The UAE borders Saudi Arabia, Oman and just across the Persian Gulf is Iran (Here’s a map). One would think that most people here would be Arab but that's not the case. In fact, only 20% of the country is Arab. The other 80% of the population come from over 180 countries to make or spend their fortunes in this land without taxes. According to CNN, Abu Dhabi is the richest city in the world. "The emirate's 420,000 citizens, who sit on one-tenth of the planet's oil and have almost $1 trillion invested abroad, are worth about $17 million apiece. (A million foreign workers don't share in the wealth)".

But Abu Dhabi didn't start out that way. Not long ago did Bedouin tribesmen roam the desert and pearl divers have huts where the city is today. The first paved road wasn't completed until 1961 but Abu Dhabi has taken a different approach than Dubai. They are learning from Dubai's infrastructural mistakes and have always kept their moral values. But I did hear they are a bit jealous that they are not as internationally recognized as Dubai. But these guys don't have to worry ... from what I saw, it won't be long before they take the lead.

Things changed for Abu Dhabi in 1958 when British explorers discovered the world's fifth-largest crude oil reserve here. Then in 1968, the UK withdrew from the Gulf and in 1971, the Emirates gained independence. Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan was the emirate's beloved ruler from 1971 to 2004. He was respected by the US and Europe because of his religious tolerance and pro-Western stance. His eldest son Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan took over as President of the UAE. Both of their visions are what put Abu Dhabi on the map.

The official language is Arabic but English is widely spoken; I met just one person who didn't speak English. Even the street signs and menus are in both Arabic and English. The official religion is Islam but those of other faiths are free to attend temples and churches; they just can't try to convert others. In most Muslim countries, weekends are Thursday and Friday. That's because Friday is the Islamic holy day. However, the UAE feels they can't afford to take two days off from the Western workweek so weekends here are Friday and Saturday.

The best months to visit Abu Dhabi are October, November, December and March, April and May. May to September daytime temperatures range from approximately 104°F to 113°F (on average, about 40°Celsius).

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Copyright 2008 JohnnyJet, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Pictures From

The Trip


Etihad Gate


Etihad Plane


Inside Etihad Plane


10.4-Inch Personal LCD Screens


Individually Packaged Blanket


Amenity Kit and Menu


Map Choices


Remote Control


Dinner is Served!


Window in the Loo


Etihad Flight Attendants


Back In Coach


Cameras Mounted on the Plane


Abu Dhabi Airport


Inside AUH Airport


ATM Machine


UAE Dirhams


People From All Over


Beloved Ruler


Not Long Ago


Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan


Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan


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