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You've probably heard of Emirates Airlines, since it has been around since 1985, but you're likely unfamiliar with its regional competitor 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 country, and start their own excellent airline. The rulers of the UAE created Etihad in 2003 and now they 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. Its North American gateways are Chicago, New York, and Toronto.

The UAE

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 some nonstop flights on other airlines.

UAE Laws

The media really does a good job highlighting the UAE's faults: recent front-page news in Europe was about a U.K. couple being arrested in Dubai for supposedly kissing each other in public. Reading the story almost made me want to cancel my plans, but since I had been there before I knew that if you obey the laws there won't be any problems. Westerners should be on their best behavior and know the laws even when just transferring, 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.

Brussels Airport

I recently flew Etihad to Abu Dhabi (AUH) from Brussels (BRU) and was pleasantly surprised for the second time. It began at check-in which was smooth as can be. There was no line and it took 30 seconds or less to check bags (no charge) and get a boarding card. Security was also a breeze. Departure was scheduled for 9:30pm 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.

Etihad's Business Class

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 from SeatGuru.

Flat Bed

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. After dinner the mood lighting system turns to a starry ceiling. Zzzzzzz.

Economy Class Etihad's economy class is called Coral Economy, which helps explain why the seats are all coral-colored. Or is it the other way around? The planes are not very old and are immaculately clean. The coach configuration is 2-4-2 with not a crazy amount of legroom but the seats do have a 32" pitch. They are also ergonomically designed with lumbar support, headrests and a footrest so it's way better than American carriers. To prove my case even more they serve free food and drinks (including alcohol) and get this ... still give coach passengers amenity kits with ear plugs, eye mask, and socks.

Entertainment

I knew the moment I took my seat that the six-hour flight was going to be too short because each seat has its own individual entertainment system. In business class they are on 16-inch personal LCD TVs and there's over 600 hours of on-demand. In economy there are 10.4-inch personal LCD screens, loaded with 350 hours of entertainment and all classes come with noise-canceling headsets.

They obviously have a wide selection of movies, TV shows, music, and interactive games for everyone's taste. I finally watched Up In the Air (all my friends had said that George Clooney's character reminded them of me -- minus the looks of course). There are definitely some similarities, especially the line "To know me is to fly with me."

The entertainment systems also 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. All the seats have in-seat power sockets compatible with most major plug types (including USB) but I didn't even bother taking my laptop out of its bag.

Service

I was impressed by the friendliness of the flight crew, which often did the unthinkable and moved carts out of the way so passengers could go to the bathroom. They also went up and down the aisles frequently offering water. The bathroom was cleaned on a regular basis (why won't U.S. carriers do the same?).

Arrival

We were descending just as the sun was coming up and although we were scheduled to land at 7am, we 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 which had plush seats and gave the premium passengers a few minutes' head start to customs.

Passport Control

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. The male agent was dressed in a dishdasha (traditional attire) 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. Our bags came out within 5-10 minutes and we were off.

John E. DiScala (a.k.a. Johnny Jet) travels around 150,000 miles and visits over 20 countries each year. He and his website JohnnyJet.com have been featured in USA Today, Time, Fortune and The New York Times, and he has appeared on ABC, CBS, CNBC, CNN, MSNBC, NBC, FOX News Channel and PBS. JohnnyJet.com has been named "one of the top best money-saving web sites for travel" by Budget Travel Magazine, while the L.A. Times calls it "one of the top 10 essential travel resources on the internet." Sign up today for Johnny Jet's free weekly travel newsletter at JohnnyJet.com.