Monday, 16 March, 2015 – 00:00
Imagine that you need to book a flight at short notice from London to Kuala Lumpur and back. There aren’t many options but you find one with a transit in Abu Dhabi and, even better, it only takes about an hour longer than a direct flight. So you book it on-line through a reputable on-line service but, because the flight is at short notice, it’s necessary to do some of the paperwork by phone.
The transit time sounds short so you double-check before booking and are assured that this is the airline’s standard timetable.
You check again at check-in and are once more assured that the airline does this every day without any problem, even though a change of planes is required.
And you notice, happily, the bags are marked “HOT TRANSIT.”
You are aware of the airline’s reputation and that it often wins awards.
Yes, going home after a difficult, for personal reasons, trip it’s reassuring to think that Etihad is going to look after you. It doesn’t even disturb you that, while you are waiting at the gate, there is an announcement that the aircraft was late arriving and so your departure will be delayed by 20 minutes.
That’s nothing, you think… Airlines include buffers for short delays and if we are being given a time, then we can assume that LHR Air Traffic Control has allocated a new slot. And a few minutes after the announcement, certainly less than 20, we are asked to board.
So you settle down in your seat, knowing that in 15 hours you will have rested on the flight, made it home, showered and changed and already be on the way to a meeting.
You look around and are happy to see that it’s a light load so it’s going to be easy to sleep. Boarding goes unusually smoothly, people are in their seats quickly, the doors close and we push back.
The fun bit, the rush as the aircraft races down the runway and leaves stomachs behind as it rotates. It’s all looking good. You relax and have a nice flight where there are only two disappointments: one is that the catering supervisor didn’t order enough of the most popular dish so your food wasn’t what you would have chosen but, hey, it happens.
And the crew are attentive and courteous, but the second disappointment is that there is a decision to turn off the video so long before landing seems to be high-handed and so the carefully timed plan to watch a film until approach comes to an abrupt halt and even now I don’t know what happens in the last 20 minutes or so, despite having my own headset so there was nothing to collect (actually, there’s nothing to collect anyway because, sensibly, Etihad encourages you to take their headsets away and re-use them).
Instead, I am force-fed adverts with the sound over the speakers so even my noise cancelling headphones don’t protect me.
I feel like I’m being told “You vill not vatch the end of the wideo.” At least they were not playing Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries at stomach churning volumes. Although, little did I know it, my day was about to turn into something akin to sitting through the whole cycle of The Ring, while hating every moment of it.
And so, gently at first, I am introduced to what will shortly be revealed as Etihad’s real attitude to customers: ” Ve vill do as ve like. You vill do as you are told. And you vill not ask questions.”
Now imagine that you are about to land at Abu Dhabi and, on approach, the airline’s information system puts, on screen, the gate number for your connection. You get off, past the lovely, smiling crew for whom it seemed nothing had been too much trouble (I guess they have their limits but I’m never tempted to test them: air crew have a pretty hard life despite the image). You tell one of them that you have to rush and she says “it’s no problem: there are about a dozen people making the same connection.”
But it’s not that simple.