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April 21, 2010

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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET?                    Etihad Airways

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Greetings! What a crazy week it has been for air travelers. Who would have ever thought that an unhappy volcano in Iceland would make so many travelers appreciate how lucky we are to have airplanes. I bet most of those who had to jump in cars, trains or boats to get to their final destination, will never take air travel for granted again. I'm sure they also won't be complaining about airfares after the amount of money (and time) they spent on gas, food and lodging to get from point A to point B, which probably took days instead of hours. The ash is affecting my plans, too, and I'm not even sure I'll make it to my next stop tomorrow. For live updates of my travels and pertinent travel information, you can follow me on Twitter. Oh, and since the Icelandic volcano is a serious pain in all of our ashes, I made a helpful resource page to keep us all up to date.

Last week I left off from Brussels, but I didn't tell you that the real reason I was there was to catch an Etihad Airways flight to Abu Dhabi! So if you want to see what it's like to fly the best airline you've never heard of, then come along for the ride. I'm also debuting my first, professionally produced video so please take two minutes to watch and let me know what you think. Be sure to read our newest contributor's piece on the best places to visit to learn about volcanoes and other forces of nature. And if you want to release some more steam, check out David Zuchowski's story on Calgary's High Performance Rodeo.

For those who are new, welcome! I left off last week writing about my March trip. A quick recap: I flew from Los Angeles to Berlin via Zurich on SWISS. Then I traveled to Wolfsburg, Germany, to check out the Autostadt (home of Volkswagen), and last week I was in Brussels to go on a tour of a chocolate factory. Now it's time to travel from Brussels to Abu Dhabi on Etihad.

In 2008 I flew Etihad for the first time when I bought a ticket from London to Bangkok via Abu Dhabi. I was pleasantly surprised by how amazing their product was, even in economy on a packed flight. This time their PR team kindly invited me to try out their business class. I was supposed to travel round-trip from one of their North American gateways (Chicago, New York, or Toronto), but my schedule has been packed. So instead of backtracking I just hopped on a one-way flight from Brussels.

You've probably heard of Dubai-based Emirates Airlines, since they have been around so long (since 1985), but probably not Etihad. Well, this will soon change, since Etihad—which means "united" in Arabic—is making a name for itself. The Abu Dhabi leaders figured they would mirror Emirates, which has been so successful in promoting their destination, and start their own excellent airline. That's why the rulers of the UAE created Etihad, which has been in service since 2003. They now fly to 59 cities on five of the seven continents (no South America or Antarctica) and have over 50 plush aircrafts ranging from A319s to B777s.

I never knew how geographically desirable the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was until I flew Etihad two years ago. The UAE is sort of in the middle of the world, and they are trying to leverage their location by acting as an air bridge between Europe, Asia, Australia, and the U.S. If you are traveling from the U.S. East Coast to Asia you will want to consider flying Etihad or Emirates, since they tend to be cheaper and nicer than nonstop flights on other airlines.

I was traveling with my new buddy Nicholas, who was assigned to be my cameraman for this trip (it's a long back story but I will be sure to tell you all about it in due time). Like most Americans Nicholas had never been to the Middle East, and he had all kinds of preconceived notions. I had them too until I took my first trip to the UAE in 2008 and traveled to Israel last year.

The media really does a good job highlighting the UAE's faults: The front page news in Europe lately has been about a U.K. couple being arrested in Dubai for supposedly kissing each other in public. Reading the story made me want to cancel my plans, but since I had been there before I know that if you obey the laws there won't be any problems. FYI: Westerners should be on their best behavior and know the laws, otherwise they can find themselves facing jail time for cultural differences that we don't think twice about. For example, in the UAE there's no using bad language, making rude gestures, or engaging in public displays of affection.

Check-in at Etihad Airways at the Brussels airport was as smooth as can be. There was no line for either of us (I had a biz-class ticket and Nicholas had a coach ticket). It took 30 seconds or less for us to check our bags and get a boarding card. Security was also a breeze.

With my business-class ticket came lounge access, but since they denied my request to bring in a guest (Nicholas), I just looked around for a few minutes and then joined him at the gate. Etihad uses the Star Alliance lounge, which is one level above the departure gates in Brussels. Inside were hot and cold drinks (including alcohol) and not very appetizing finger sandwiches. I wasn't too impressed, and I'm pretty sure Etihad's Abu Dhabi lounge blows this place away (though I haven't seen it).

Departure was scheduled for 9:30 p.m. and Etihad boards coach class first, about 45 minutes prior. Then first-class passengers, followed by business class. Random observation: There were a lot of Thai nationals flying in coach since transferring in UAE is usually cheaper than a nonstop flight to Bangkok.

The first thing I noticed when I boarded the A300-200 plane, besides the well-dressed and good-looking young flight attendants, was their unique business-class configuration. It's set up like no other airline I've ever seen, and it seems to have the most space and privacy of any cabins I've been in. The seats are staggered and placed in 1-2-1 configuration, so each one has direct aisle access. The best seats if traveling alone would be the windows, and the middle seats if you are traveling with a partner. Here's a diagram.

Each business-class seat has a privacy shell, so there's no being encroached on by your forward neighbor. The best part about the seat is that it turns into a 6-foot, 1-inch full flat bed with a 49-inch seat pitch, which makes for some good sleeping. I normally can't get into a deep snooze on a plane, but I slept for at least half the flight. After dinner the mood lighting system turned to a starry ceiling. Zzzz

I knew the moment I took my seat that the six-hour flight was going to be too short, and that's even before I read that each business seat has over 600 hours of on-demand entertainment on 16-inch personal LCD TVs and comes with noise-canceling headsets. They obviously had a wide selection of movies, TV shows, music, and interactive games for everyone's taste. SIDE NOTE: I finally watched Up In the Air (all my friends had said that George Clooney's character reminded them of me—minus the looks). There are definitely some similarities, especially the line "To know me is to fly with me."

Although each seat had in-seat power sockets compatible with most major plug types (including USB), I didn't even bother taking my laptop out of its bag.

Etihad's award-winning service began before we were airborne. I was immediately offered a pre-flight drink: champagne, water, orange juice, or strawberry juice. I chose the latter, and boy was it good. Once we took off out came hot towels, the menu, fast-track passes (to cruise through customs), drinks, and amenity kits. The only thing I could find wrong with their service—and I'm really nitpicking—was that they didn't pick up glasses that quickly, and they didn't address passengers by their names.

The food being offered was ridiculous. First of all, I passed on having one of the main à la carte entrées, which were: poached lean chicken breast, grilled Arabic spiced fish, roasted baby lamb, or wild mushroom risotto. Instead I had one of their many "kitchen anytime" choices: a steak sandwich with roasted cherry tomatoes and red onion jam. To give you all the details, including descriptions and appetizer choices, I've scanned the menus. One thing that's not on there is the fresh bread, which was three different kinds baked in the same loaf. It also came with my favorite French butter (Beurre d'Isigny), along with a host of dipping sauces.

Most of my pictures aren't that great because I didn't want to disturb others with the flash; I'd also been told by the PR team that pictures aren't allowed on the plane, but the airport and cabin crew said it was no problem. Once I got the OK, which was at the tail end of the flight, I whipped out my big camera. I snapped a shot of the breakfast tray even though I didn't eat it—it was just too much food for such a short flight.

The bathroom was always sparking clean—even in coach. (Why can't U.S. carriers do the same?) Hot towels came around before and after each meal. They serve swanky Voss bottled water. The entertainment systems included a bunch of different flight maps to chose from and two live video cameras that were mounted on the front and bottom of the plane. The awful blue color scheme in business class is being replaced with a much more appealing pattern and colors. Currently they only have it on the London-Abu Dhabi flight.

FYI: Nicholas said his flight experience was a 9 out 10 (the same rating I would give for mine). He was so impressed by how friendly the flight crew were—he's never seen flight attendants move carts out of the way so passengers could go to the bathroom, or offer water so frequently. He also boasted he had plenty of room, entertainment, and food, and that coach passengers also received amenity kits. FYI: Each economy seat has a 10.4-inch personal LCD screen, loaded with enough entertainment (350 hours' worth) to keep anyone busy. They too come with noise-canceling headsets and power outlets.

We were descending just as the sun was coming up. We were scheduled to land at 7 a.m. but arrived 30 minutes early. When I saw the plane stairs being pulled up to the door, which meant we would have to be bussed over instead of walking into the terminal, I thought it was going to be a pain, but it turned out to be pleasurable. First of all they had three buses waiting. The first bus was only for business and first-class passengers and had plush seats (only a few had to stand) so we still got a few minutes' head start to customs.

On the bus ride I couldn't help noticing Abu Dhabi's control tower, which has to be the coolest designed tower of any airport. 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's old Terminal 1.

I made my way through the crowd and smoke to passport control, which was in the airport's new terminal (3). There was no line at any of the kiosks and so there was no need to use the fast track. The male agent was dressed in a dishdasha (traditional attire). He had no expression, so he wasn't friendly nor mean. He didn't say a word, but he was quick. I must admit, I wondered if he was going to deny me entry for having an Israeli stamp, but he didn't. I later was told that they don't care if you have an Israeli stamp, they just care if you have an Israeli passport. Why can't we just all get along? But that's another story. FYI: Our bags came out within 5-10 minutes and we were off.

One of the world's newest premier resorts.

*PLEASE tell us what you think of this week's newsletter!

Note: This trip was sponsored in part by Etihad Airways.

Copyright 2010 JohnnyJet, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Pictures From

The Trip






Etihad Business Class Seat


TV Screen/Leg Rest


Seat Positions


Pre-Flight Drink


Menu (Page 1)


Menu (Page 2)


Menu (Page 3)


Amenity Kit


Voss Bottled Water


After Take-Off Drink






So Many Maps


Lots of Movies


Up In The Air


Biz Class Bathroom


Starry Ceiling


Flight Path




Hot Towel


Plane Camera


Coach Seats




Over Abu Dhabi


AUH Airport


Control Tower


Sunrise Over Abu Dhabi






Headed To Passport Control




  • Thank you for the newsletter and all the information and travel inspirations! My daughter (21) wants to attend a Spanish language institute in Oaxaca, Mexico this summer. She'd be traveling alone, by air, to her destination and staying there for about a month. I'm told Oaxaca is a safe place, but, with all the news about violence and safety threats in Mexico, I'm really nervous about her plans. I'd love to hear your opinions. Thanks in advance, Janis W REPLY: Thanks for the email. Since I’m not a Mexico expert I asked my good buddy Tim Leffel, a travel book author who runs the Cheapest Destinations blog, who owns a vacation beach house in the Yucatan of Mexico and is moving to the country for a year with his family starting in July. Tim says: "Mexico is a vast, country with a large population, much like its neighbor to the north. So while there is indeed serious violence going on in the northern border areas of Mexico due to the drug trade and gang turf battles, none of that really matters in Oaxaca. To put it in perspective, the murder rate in our nation's capital of Washington D.C. is far higher than Mexico's national rate, but that doesn't mean Austin, Texas is dangerous by association---or even Alexandria, Virginia nearby. Crime is localized. Oaxaca had its own problems once with some protests against the government. For the past few years though, it has been a calm place and it's filled with tourists and expatriates who have nothing but positive things to say. If your daughter wanted to go to Tijuana or Cuidad Juarez I'd say you should talk her out of it, but Oaxaca no. My family is moving to the city of Guanajuato for a year-long sabbatical beginning in July. I honestly feel safer there than I do in my own city of Nashville (a pretty average American city in terms of crime stats) and have fewer worries about any harm coming to my little one if she's walking around the streets with friends. Most people who have retired to Mexico will agree. Your own daughter will have the experience of a lifetime and I doubt she will ever feel any more threatened than she does at home."

  • So great to see all of your notoriety - you deserve it. Pamela J – N.J.

  • Just wanted to thank you again for coming to speak to us at UF. Glad you enjoyed your stay and Southern food. And, good news: Although Sonny's is a chain, it began in Gainesville, so there was a little authenticity after all. Next, time, you'll have to explore some of the many great local spots I told you about! Here's our small blog post on your visit. Maghan

  • It looks like you are getting famous by the number of media outlets that have been interviewing you lately. And it seems that you have been going on a ton of cool trips. Ohhh to be Johnny Jet. Sean W – San Diego, CA

  • Have an 8 hour layover in Brussels, will I have time to do both the Grand Palace and the Godiva tour? Also, is language an issue as I was going to do cabs for the entire day. Stacey G-San Diego, CA REPLY: Johnny says 8 hours is plenty of time. The train from the airport to the city is 15-20 min and is the cheapest way to go. Taxi’s you might have a little bit of problems with English but he doubts it. The best is to have everything written down but they all know Grand-Place and the airport.

  • Looking at your pics makes me wish i could travel the world. wonderful pics,. Virginia V -

    Awesome job!!! You made it sound so special! I definitely want go with my family! We love that area! It will be so fun to try a new place that has something unique to offer everyone in my family! Keri R -

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