The two major carriers from the United Arab Emirates have world-class flagship First Class products flying on their Airbus A380 superjumbo aircraft.
In October 2019, I had the chance to try both of the products out. I flew Emirates for three hours from Dubai to Amman, Jordan. A week later, I took Etihad from Abu Dhabi to New York JFK, a much longer 15-hour flight.
Both of these products are available on flights from Australia. So, which one would I would recommend more highly?
Emirates has a more open layout, with 14 First Class Suites, whereas Etihad has only 9 First Apartments.
Etihad has the edge here given that each one has higher privacy doors. However, I must note that Emirates’ doors are electronically-controlled whereas Etihad’s are manual and therefore clumsier.
Cabin winner: Etihad
Emirates’ seat looks more narrow in the photo below, but I found it just as spacious as Etihad’s, if not cushier.
I did like that you could put your feet up on the bed in front of you on Etihad.
Seat winner: Etihad
This one may be controversial, but I just can’t get over it. Emirates’ bed is more cramped but has a softer mattress and linens.
Etihad’s, on the other hand, is harder. This means I felt the vibration from every single footstep of the cabin crew walking up and down the aisle.
It was really hard to enjoy a good sleep. I think this is a major design flaw of this product. I mitigated this only partially by switching the pillow from being next to the aisle (pictured above) to the window side.
Bed winner: Emirates
Food & drink
There wasn’t much of a difference here. I found the food onboard to be delicious on both carriers. Here is a picture of the Arabic mezze platters.
The larger carrier wins by far here. I found the Emirates crew to be polished and warm, addressing me by name during every interaction and promptly fulfilling requests. I also found them to be proactive.
Etihad’s crew disappointed me. Not once on my 15-hour flight was I addressed by name, not even upon boarding. The crew also didn’t introduce themselves by name. Food and drinks weren’t delivered very promptly. I imagine that low staff morale at Etihad plays a big part in these shortcomings.
Customer service winner: Emirates
Again, Emirates wins here. That’s not necessarily for the range of movies and TV shows available (they were on-par) but rather the definition of the screen on Emirates is far clearer.
Inflight entertainment winner: Emirates
You get a half-hour window on both carriers to enjoy a shower, which includes five minutes of hot water, which you can pause to extend out.
Emirates again wins as it has two showers (one per seven passengers) against Etihad’s one shower (for nine passengers).
Emirates’ bathrooms are substantially bigger than Etihad’s and include customisable heated floors. I found the water temperature to be better on Emirates.
Plus, Etihad messed up my shower appointment time by 1½ hours, interrupting me during a meal to say I had to shower then. Again, not the greatest customer service.
Onboard shower winner: Emirates
Emirates’ offering has a dedicated bartender (me!) and natural light, whereas Etihad’s is self-service and has no windows.
Onboard bar winner: Emirates
Again, Emirates is the superior airline here. I found their check-in and gate staff to be friendlier. Also, you can board the plane directly from the lounge in Dubai and some other airports.
I found Etihad’s ground staff to be disinterested and cold. The boarding process was haphazard, with a mad rush to the gate when First and Business Class passengers (up to 79 people!) were invited to board at the same time. That made no sense to me.
Note that neither airline now offers a complimentary chauffeur transfer to the airport on award tickets.
Ground experience winner: Emirates
This one is a bit more balanced given they are two very different offerings.
In Dubai, Emirates basically has an entire floor of the terminal for its First and Business Class passengers, including duty-free shops. This means it feels less intimate, even though every single employee greeted me as I walked through.
Etihad, on the other hand, has a much smaller lounge at its hub in Abu Dhabi. That means it can get crowded at times.
Both offer great dining and drinks and a 15-minute complimentary spa treatment.
Whilst The House for Etihad passengers is a perfectly fine place to spend an hour or two before your flight, the Qantas International First Lounge that Emirates passengers get access to is much more luxurious.
Lounge winner: Emirates
The number of A380 aircraft that Emirates has is more than 11 times Etihad’s (112 vs 10). To be fair, however, not all Emirates A380s have a First Class cabin, whereas all of Etihad’s do.
That means that the number of routes that you can fly an A380 on with Emirates is much higher. However, it is also stingier with releasing award seats than Etihad is. Given that…
Award availability winner: tie
Frequently asked questions
Emirates operates a First Class cabin on a large portion of its A380 flights to six continents. It also has First Class on its 777 aircraft. From Australia, First Class is available on flights from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. Adelaide flights do not currently have a First Class cabin. Check the latest routes here.
Etihad operates a First Class cabin on its A380 services to Sydney, London, Paris, New York and Seoul. Check the latest A380 routes here. It also has a different First Class product on selected 787, 777 and A330 aircraft.
The easiest way travellers in Australia can fly Emirates First Class is with Qantas Points or Emirates Skywards miles. The cheapest redemption from Australia is 62,200 Qantas Points from Sydney to Christchurch. Read more on how to use Qantas Points for Emirates flights.
The easiest way travellers in Australia can fly Etihad First Class is with Velocity Points. However, due to high Carrier Charges, using Etihad Guest miles is a good alternative. Buying AAdvantage miles or transferring them over from Marriott Bonvoy is another option.
Emirates has three versions of First Class. Some A380s and most 777s have the standard product, which is a private suite. In addition, A380s also have two showers for First Class passengers plus an onboard bar. The newest product is on a limited number of 777-330ER aircraft, with only six seats but no shower or bar.
Etihad has two versions of First Class. The superior product is the First Apartment, available exclusively on A380 aircraft. There is a different product—also with sliding privacy doors but less space—on selected 787, 777 and A330 planes.
Summing up: is Emirates or Etihad A380 First Class better?
As you can probably tell by now, I think that Emirates has the better product overall.
When you fly First Class, you expect top-notch customer service and comfort, and Emirates delivers on this. Emirates’ onboard shower and bar are both better than its rival’s offerings.
Having said that, Etihad does have a slightly better seat and more privacy. However, you’ll probably get a better sleep on Emirates due to its softer bed.