On my last day, the trip from Noida to the airport was (much to my surprise) over in barely an hour, leaving me with a rather too-generous four hours to kill at DEL. The Departures floor is under such heavy construction that I could barely recognize it, one of the check-in desk rows (Row 1) already reworked into the 21st century, the others still falling apart. I’d arrived so early that Etihad hadn’t even started checking in, but after I’d completed one circuit of the terminal looking for them, I spotted a bunch of unlabeled checkin desks with their monitors turned off… and a stack of Etihad luggage tags. Bingo. They’d just opened, and I got sequence number 002 for DEL-AUH, with sequence number 270 for AUH-RUH. How does that work?
Construction prevailed at the immigration desks (over in a jiffy) and the airside had been transformed to such an extent that I could only gape. Gone were the plastic bucket chairs, gone was the Flamingo duty free shop where I used to buy my Indian wines (better than you’d think), gone was the ITC lounge downstairs, even the security queue had transmogrified into something new. In their place were lots of construction hoardings and drilling noises, and I shuddered at the thought of having to spend four hours here. But there was a sign pointing to the Clipper lounge upstairs, and having done my research on FlyerTalk’s India forum I headed up with my Mastercard in hand. Now, in America gold Mastercards are included in boxes of cereal, and even in Singapore the income requirements for one aren’t too lofty, but in India they’re apparently still beyond the means of the hoi polloi — which is why Mastercard graciously offers free use of the Clipper Lounge for every holder of a Gold, Platinum, Titanium or World mastercard. It was still before the evening rush, and aside from a few JAL pax I had the blessedly peaceful lounge (and its fridge full of Kingfisher beer) to myself.
An hour before departure I headed out, and back in the less rarified realms of the terminal the security lines were as bad as ever, with powertripping jawans doing their best to harass the poor bunch of workers heading to the Gulf, barking at them for not waiting at the yellow line (as if they could read the signs) and emptying out every last slip of paper from their pockets. Once they were finally done with them, white sahibs like me were promptly passed through and I headed to Gate 3 to board my first Etihad plane.
The good news was that it was, indeed, the promised Airbus 340-600; why they’re operating a smallish long-haul plane on a low-yield short-haul route like DEL-AUH, though, is beyond me. The plane looked nice, all muted tones of desert tan (shades of Emirates), but the seat pitch was surprisingly cramped, with sharp bits of the seatback poking into my knees no matter how I moved my legs. Fine for this three hour flight, but I’d definitely steer clear of this plane for a real long-haul. The IFE screen was big and the headphones were unusually high-quality, but the interface was kinda slow and clunky, although there was a largeish (if dull) movie selection and an immense library of music — minus, alas, any ghazals. And no sign of the rumored in-seat power plug.
The bad news was that the plane was packed to hilt and 95% of the passengers in economy were workers headed to the Gulf, who aren’t exactly a frequent-flying bunch. Sitting as I was in the back, there was a constant jingle of “bong! bong! bong!” tones as people fiddling with remote controls unwittingly punched at the stewardess call buttons and little lights blinked on and off above the seats. Etihad also certainly didn’t bend over to serve this constituency of its passengers: all announcements and printed matter were in Arabic and English alone, with not a word of Hindi, and only one harried flight attendant appeared to speak the language. At least remarkably creepy safety video, which turned those 70s-style safety card cartoons into 3D computer animations of corpselike ghostly figures stoically enduring oxygen loss, crashes and evacuations, was probably equally incomprehensible in any language…
Meal service started soon after takeoff, and at least this was Indian style: Goan fish curry, curried peas and carrot, pulao, parantha and two balls of rasgulla. Reasonably tasty if unremarkable, and the carrots were red, so you could tell it was made in India. Drink service was a little odd: we received cups of water before takeoff, nothing immediately with the meal, a juice run after it was served, and then tea, coffee and hard liquors on demand while clearing the trays. Alas, the carbonation in the beer I’d drunk earlier has started disagreeing with the reduced air pressure and my stomach by this point, and while eating dinner helped — oddly, it usually does — I wasn’t quite in a position to appreciate the meal, or the flight, to its fullest. The workers, on the other hand, were enjoying the novel experience, with the jolly fellow in the row in front happily popping powdered coffee creamer into his mouth, like a Western version of paan masala, and chomping away.
The lights stayed on, but I pulled on my shades and attempted to rest a bit. Three hours into the flight we crossed over the coast at Oman and started coasting down to a descent in Abu Dhabi.