Things were going swimmingly well in Etihad's turnaround plans... before COVID-19 came calling. Pictured here is Tony Douglas, CEO of Etihad. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

Abu Dhabi: Etihad Airways was just a quarter away from completing a decisive turnaround - but that was when COVID-19 struck and upended all the progress made up to that point.

“We've been involved in a transformation programme in excess of two-and-a-half years," said Tony Douglas, CEO, during a virtual event on Monday. "By the end of last year, we were about 10 months ahead of schedule of what we committed to our board and our shareholders.

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However, since then “it's been a non-stop pressurized litany of things that have gone wrong.” It was not just the pandemic either. The airline was faced with riots in Hong Kong, Australian bushfires and volcanic ash cloud in Indonesia - and then came the pandemic.

It posted operating losses of $758 million in the first six months of 2020, with revenues hit due to the closure of international borders and the suspension of flights to halt the spread of the virus. “In terms of our first quarter performance this year, January was the best in our history and February was our best February in 17 years.

“Even though COVID was taking effect then, we still ended the quarter 34 per cent better than the previous year.”

Things got worse in the second quarter when the number of fliers came crashing down to 33,000, compared to 3.4 million in the first quarter. On March 23, all UAE airlines had to ground their fleets in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

“From that point in time, our plans had to change very quickly," the CEO added. "So, literally the day we parked up the fleet, we straight away got into planning for how we bring that fleet back to life.”

Get behind sustainability

The pandemic seems to have accelerated Etihad's sustainability initiatives. It has partnered Singapore-based food technology startup Lumitics to trial the use of machine learning in order to reduce food wastage on flights.

There is also the participation in Boeing’s ecodemonstrator flight programme that seeks to lower noise pollution from airplanes. "COVID-19 will come to an end, but none of us know when. We can't afford to allow ourselves to be distracted by COVID-19 such that sustainability gets pushed to one side."