Emirates vs. Etihad First Class: Which Is Better?

The “big three” Gulf carriers — Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar — are often considered to be the best airlines in the world. I think that’s a bit of a stretch, as I don’t think they can quite compete with the top Asian airlines. That being said, there’s no doubt that they’re among the best.

I figured I’d do a quick side-by-side comparison of their first class products. While Emirates and Etihad feature first class cabins throughout much of their fleet, Qatar only offers first class on flights to London and Paris, so I won’t include them here, since they seem to think that there’s no need for first class anymore.

Below are my thoughts on the Emirates and Etihad first class experience in very general terms. The experience will vary by flight and aircraft, and I haven’t flown either airline nearly as much as Cathay Pacific or Lufthansa, though I’ll still share my thoughts.

Emirates vs. Etihad: First Class Seat
Winner: Etihad

Etihad offers one of the best first class hard products in the world. And the best thing is that they offer the same hard product throughout their fleet, so there’s no regional first class product (that being said, some planes are in a two class configuration). The suite is not only incredibly comfortable, private, and spacious, but also has oddly modest finishes for a UAE-based airlines.

Etihad first class seat

Etihad first class seat

Meanwhile Emirates’ first class seat has an impressive amount of bling, with an extensive minibar, “Hollywood style” mirror, snack basket, phone which can be used to call another passenger or flight attendant, lamp, etc. The thing is that all of this seems to come at the expense of “seat space,” since I find the seat itself to be fairly tight.

Emirates first class seat

Emirates first class seat

So in terms of seat comfort I do think Etihad has the edge, as the seat itself is more spacious and “soothing” in terms of tones.

Emirates vs. Etihad: Onboard Food
Winner: Tie

Emirates and Etihad’s dining concepts are simultaneously very similar and very different. They’re similar in the sense that they both have “dine on demand” concepts, whereby most flights just have one big menu, and you can order what you want when you want. Assuming they don’t run out of food halfway through the flight, that’s a concept I really like.

I love that Etihad has an onboard chef. It really does make a difference, as they can prepare food for you how you want, and even customize many orders. In many cases it’s even possible to order something that’s not on the menu.

Etihad first class beef tenderloin

Emirates doesn’t have an onboard chef so it’s not possible to customize orders in the same way, though they have:

  • Caviar, which Etihad doesn’t have
  • A superior arabic mezze

And I could live almost exclusively off those two things, which is why I consider it a “tie.”


Emirates vs. Etihad: Entertainment Systems
Winner: Tie

Emirates claims to have over 600 channels of entertainment with their ICE system, while Etihad claims to have over 750 hours of entertainment with their E-BOX system. Seriously, between that and the Wi-Fi, if you’re bored on one of their flights it’s your own problem. Now if only either airline added The Real Housewives to their entertainment selection, I’d give them the edge.

Emirates ICE entertainment system

Etihad E-BOX entertainment system

Emirates vs. Etihad: Onboard Amenities
Winner: Emirates

Emirates has some impressive amenities on their A380 aircraft, while Etihad doesn’t really have any amenities on their aircraft yet… at least until they take delivery of their A380s. Even so, they won’t have nearly as many A380s as Emirates has.

On the A380 Emirates has two shower spas, which are just so damn cool. I don’t think the novelty of showering at 37,000 feet ever wears off.

Shower and sink

And then Emirates also has an impressive A380 onboard bar. Emirates is one of the few airlines that does the onboard bar concept well, in my opinion, as the lounge at the back of the A380 is quite spacious and doesn’t disturb other passengers.

Business class bar & lounge

Emirates vs. Etihad: Wifi
Winner: Tie

Both airlines offer Wi-Fi throughout much of their fleet. The difference is that Etihad charges based on length of use, while Emirates charges based on usage.

Etihad charges:

  • $11.95 for two hours
  • $17.95 for four hours
  • $21.95 for 24 hours

Etihad Wi-Fi pricing

Meanwhile Emirates charges:

  • $10 for 20MB
  • $20 for 100MB

Emirates Wi-Fi pricing

Personally I prefer Etihad’s pricing since I’m constantly connected to Wi-Fi when flying so would easily run through a few sessions on Emirates, though I also realize that everyone has different usage patterns. If you just wanted to use limited data throughout the flight, Emirates’ system might be better for you.

Emirates vs. Etihad: Onboard Service
Winner: Tie

Both airlines have some great cabin crew and some mediocre cabin crew, in my opinion. I haven’t flown either airline enough (I feel like I’d need to fly them at least a dozen times each) before I could fully judge if one has better service than the other. But I’ve had good experiences on both, and less than great experiences on both. On average, service won’t be to the same level as ANA, Cathay Pacific, or Singapore Airlines, though.

Emirates vs. Etihad: First Class Lounges
Winner: Emirates

Here are some reviews I’ve written of both airlines’ flagship first class lounges:

The Emirates First Class Lounge Dubai is truly world class, just about on par with the Air France First Class Lounge Paris, Lufthansa First Class Terminal in Frankfurt, and Thai Airways First Class Lounge & Spa in Bangkok. The lounge literally spans the entire length of the A380 concourse, and you can board your A380 flight directly from the lounge.

The lounge has all the amenities you’d expect, from a restaurant to a spa to relaxation rooms.

Emirates First Class Lounge

Meanwhile the Etihad Airways First Class Lounge is also nice, though small. It’s literally maybe a tenth the size of the Emirates First Class Lounge. It’s still very nice, with a restaurant area and spa, but it’s just not quite as over-the-top as the Emirates lounge, in my opinion.

Etihad First Class Lounge

Bottom line

Even though flying the two airlines “feels” very different, I’ve realized that they’re much more similar than I was expecting. Emirates comes out ahead in terms of the lounges and onboard amenities, while Etihad comes out ahead in terms of the seat. The rest are more or less tied, even if the experiences are quite different. I suppose they’re “equal but different” in many ways.

What do you think? If you’ve flown Emirates and Etihad, which did you prefer?

Filed Under: Emirates, Etihad
  1. @ Hong Kong Airline News — For what it’s worth, Etihad has a fantastic business class product throughout their longhaul fleet, while Emirates actually has angled seats on everything except their A380s.

  2. No mention of the Etihad first class lounge in CDG….A bit of paradise in the worst airport in Europe.

  3. @ lucky – Didn’t point that out, and totally forgot about that, sorry. But 40-50% of major EK routes are A380 anyway.

  4. @ Manikandan — Whoops, good point. Though for what it’s worth I find them to more or less be equal as well.

  5. @ Michael — The Jet Airways first class hard product is more spacious than the Emirates seat, though also feels a bit tired. Not my favorite nowadays…

  6. Lucky, isn’t a picture of the EK First Class Lounge, not the EK A380 Terminal? Does EK keep their old first class lounge open?

    Can a person dine with you on EY via the ottoman? That would be another advantage for it.

    Also, issues of caviar and mezze aside (gotta love non-gourmet Arabic food as first class dining!), which airline had better tasting overall food? Or is it pretty much the same?

  7. @ wwk5d — That picture is of the Emirates A380 Terminal First Class Lounge. The other lounge continues to remain open as well, though. On Etihad I believe someone can dine on the ottoman, though to be honest with both Emirates and Etihad the center seats are great when traveling with someone, so don’t see much value in that (unlike Cathay Pacific, for example).

    I find the food quality on Etihad to be slightly better aside from the caviar and arabic mezze, but then again those are my two favorite things to eat on the Gulf carriers, which is why it balances out.

  8. I would count it as a strike against Etihad that they show the censored versions of movies — I don’t know if Emirates does the same?

    I believe Emirates also has a better selection in some IFE categories — I like how they will have multiple episodes of a given TV show, which if I remember correctly Etihad does not.

  9. I really don’t like Emirates. I find the crew extremely distracted all wishing they were somewhere else. I have had wine spilled on me twice. On my last F flight from DXB to SFO I fell asleep almost immediately and when I woke up and asked them for my meal selection the FA told me in a stentorian tone “you do realize this will take 25 minutes to get ready don’t you?” I hastily ordered a plate of cheese (“much better” said the FA) wondering if I could sneak into economy for a meal on this 16 hour flight. I did complain to Emirates with my FF#, seat number and flight numbers for all these flights as these were all revenue tickets. They replied they would look into it! Classic United response……no more F in Emirates for me…(Happy to share correspondence with Lucky if he wants)

  10. I am no expert in First Class products, as I’ve never had the opportunity (or luck ;-)) to fly it.

    But I must point out that for the most part, the “best airline” awards goes to an airline that has a great economy and a near-excellent business product. After all, the majority of us fly economy and a lesser number fly business, and an even fewer fly first. So when it comes to voting, no surprise that economy passengers get the most number of votes, followed by business, followed by first. One interesting observation on Skytrax, for instance, is that there is a disproportionate number of passengers voting on a business product – and for obvious reasons – they have the time, and probably are ones who care about the product, but aren’t as rich as too go “who cares, I’m too good to vote” (compared to First Class pax).

    So while I have no input in the first class products part, I really do think that a comparison of their business and economy products would be much more useful and revealing. That is where most people travel, where the most votes are gained, most complaints received, and what fuels growth – (no successful airline so far has launched an all-first product).

    As far as economy goes, my personal opinion is that QR has the better seat, EK the better snack, main meal same; either is better than the ‘excellent’ Asian carriers (SQ, CX, BR, OZ).

    For the business product, QR wins the title, won the title, and deservedly so. Clean airy cabins, less bling and tackiness (EK take note!), reasonable privacy without being claustrophobic esp with the 787 cabin/new A320 (EY take note!). Service is excellent. Missing would be chauffeur service, but then again, one could easily arrange a ground transfer, but once you’re in the air, you’re stuck with them and their seat. Of course, I do expect many to disagree. šŸ˜›

    And as I said once, and I will say again, the use of A380s on so many EK flights just brings down the quality of each flight. The seats aren’t much better, the bar (though present) may not be used, or even if used, won’t be used that long a period of time compared to the time in seat, but the absolute number of passengers increases, and hence dilutes the service, and, for J passengers, the exclusiveness and ambiance of the cabin.

  11. “the bar (though present) may not be used, or even if used, wonā€™t be used that long a period of time compared to the time in seat”

    You’d be surprised.

    Also, does anybody take Skytrax seriously? That thing is more rigged than FIFA.

  12. Agree with @Charlie. First class is eh and no one flies it. Moreover these gulf airlines are gaudy and tasteless. Far from first class, it’s revolting class. Somehow these states have marketed their cheap, fake, shiny-metal-obsessed countries into a destination. The only interesting thing to do in the gulf is eat Iranian food. And that’s only because it’s non-trivial to go to iran. Otherwise literally the most boring destinations on earth.

  13. For not posting the UA F Fare. Unlike a certain competitor, who killed it quick.

  14. Can you talk for a moment about award availability? Who has better availability for family travel this summer?

  15. Great summary. The big three middle eastern airlines have a significant advantage over their major Asian and European rivals in terms of average fleet age.

    British Airways 13.1 years
    Lufthansa 11.8 years
    KLM 10.5 years
    Cathay Pacific 8.7 years
    Singapore Airlines 6.9 years

    Emirates 6 years
    Etihad 5.5 years
    Qatar 5.4 years

  16. interesting opinion on skytrax, wwk5d. i, for one, think their reviews skew to the negative unfairly for most airlines. it’s a bit like the yelp of air travel.

  17. @wwk5d – I know some people do use the bar, but let’s say there were like 10-15 ‘regulars’… the other 60 odd passengers in J are obviously in their seat.

    I also find negative reviews are often more useful than positive reviews. True, there are some uselessly negative ones that are just “horrible service, they didn’t recognise me as a platinum member, DYKWIA, NEVER FLYING WITH THEM AGAIN”; but most of the useful negative ones actually do have tips on what to avoid, and how to make the best of the situation. Far more useful than a review just singing of praises. Much better to fly with an airline with no negative reviews and only a few positive ones than an airline with tons of positive ones but equally tons of negative ones. There must have been a reason people started complaining.

  18. @ John — Great question. Well Etihad generally has better space, though their link with American is down at the moment, and there’s no ETA on it being fixed. But generally they do have better availability.

  19. i find most negative reviews amongst online ratings-aggregate sites like tripadvisor, yelp, skytrax et al tend to clearly delineate between the regulars and the inexperienced. complaints will often be trivial: “worn carpeting under the desk area!”, Y pax complaining about not enough water refills (just hit the galley, ok!?) etc.

    but in a weird way i feel for the airlines when it comes to skytrax because i think civilians like myself have a hard time realizing how hard it is to serve people in the sky. you face a customer base that is inherently stressed, pressed for time, finicky, in an unfamiliar environment. it truly is an uphill battle.

  20. I’ve flown both in F quite a bit. For me, the IFE isn’t close to equal – it’s EK by a very comfortable margin. It could be that’s just what I like to watch and listen to, but I do believe there is a vastly superior selection (quantity) overall with ICE Digital Widescreen.

    I find EY generally to be slightly more consistent in terms of service onboard. There are some really good onboard chefs as well.

    On award tickets, I prefer EK to EY (on A380 it’s hands-down EK as I love the onboard lounge and shower).

    For revenue tickets though, I go EY mainly due to being an AAdvantage addict.

  21. “Moreover these gulf airlines are gaudy and tasteless”

    Well, as from the pictures Lucky has posted here and others have posted elsewhere, I think that can only be applied to Emirates. As we can see above, Etihad had a refined classy cabin, and Qatar isn’t that over the top either (you either like the purple/burgundy or you don’t). Oman’s new cabins also look classy without being over the top. Saudia’s cabins are blander than bland. Gulf Air I haven’t seen, so can’t comment. Kuwait Airways is ancient but was never gaudy or over the top. So I guess this is just typical knee-jerk bigotry regarding GCC airlines?

    “The only interesting thing to do in the gulf is eat Iranian food.”

    Spoken like someone who hasn’t really explored any of these countries. They aren’t the most exciting places in the world, sure, but they’re not that boring or lacking in things to do. Only lazy ignorant people make comments like that.

    “I know some people do use the bar, but letā€™s say there were like 10-15 ā€˜regularsā€™ā€¦ the other 60 odd passengers in J are obviously in their seat.”

    And you are basing this on what, exactly? The bar gets some people who set up shop there for the duration of the flight, others come for a quick drink or snack, others go there just to stretch their legs. Most reports find the bar to be a positive addition to the plane, whether an area to socialize or, as I said, grab a snack/drink or just chill.

  22. Great comparison! I agree overall Etihad has a classier and sleeker look on the first class product. Emirates one is too fancy and ends up looking cheaper than what it really is. Price wise I think Etihad (on All classes vs Emirates fares) makes it more worth the value too.

  23. @ Charlie – for what it’s worth, this is strictly a comparison of F per the title of the post. Usually, posts like this one are prompted by questions from readers (via comments or email). Although, generally, you are correct šŸ™‚

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