The airline has five A350-1000 in its fleet currently. Image Credit: Etihad Airways

Dubai: When Etihad’s inaugural A350-1000 aircraft lands at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris on Friday, it will open a new chapter in the airline’s fight to tackle carbon emissions even as cargo demand soars and passenger numbers return to pre-COVID-19 levels.

Launched at last year’s Dubai Airshow as the ‘Sustainability50’, the A350 carries a unique UAE50 livery marking the 50th anniversary of the country’s federation and the airline’s commitment to a 2050 target of net-zero carbon emissions. The aircraft, which burns “25 per cent less fuel than its nearest competitor”, is an ideal fit for an airline that’s working with partners such as Boeing, GE, Airbus and Rolls-Royce to achieve a 20 per cent reduction in emission intensity for its passenger fleet by 2025, cut net emissions 50 per cent by 2035, and reach net zero emissions by 2050.

“There’s no silver bullet for this one, no obvious single act that will provide a solution,” Tony Douglas, Group CEO, Etihad Aviation Group, had said earlier. “It’s going to require the combination and the sum of many different organisations and governments working together for small, incremental improvements,”

The airline has five A350-1000 in its fleet currently.

What is the A350-1000?

The aircraft can accommodate 350-410 passengers in a standard three-class configuration. Its fuselage is seven metres longer than its sibling, the A350-900. Rolls-Royce Trent XWB-97 engines give the plane a range of 16,100 kilometres, making it ideal for both short- as well as ultra-long-range routes.

The A350-1000 at the Dubai Airshow. Image Credit: Dubai Airshow

Not just for passengers

While passengers will benefit from the aircraft’s Airspace cabin concept that offers the ‘quietest twin-aisle cabin in the skies, wider seats and elegant LED ambient lighting’, it’s the cargo operations that had Etihad more interested. The airline signed a letter of intent to order seven Airbus A350 freighter aircraft at the Singapore Airshow earlier this year. (The carrier had been considering the Airbus freighter and the competing 777X cargo jet developed by Boeing.)

Douglas said the Airbus jets would play a key role in the airline’s cargo strategy. “As our cargo operations continue to overperform and we work towards a more sustainable future built upon the world’s youngest and most fuel-efficient fleet, the addition of the A350F will play a key role in driving our long-term cargo strategy and achieving our 2035 target to reduce CO2 emissions by 50 per cent.”

He has previously said that the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 Dreamliner widebody passenger jets would become the backbone of its fleet.

Martin Drew, Etihad’s Senior Vice President of Sales & Cargo, said the A350 freighter will be a strong candidate for cargo operations as the airline expands its fleet to add capacity. “There’s been limited options in terms of freighters. Boeing dominated that space - it’s good that Airbus does have the A330 freighter, but the 350 freighter is going to be a very good aircraft as well,” Drew had said earlier on the sidelines of the Dubai Airshow.

With a 109-tonne payload capability, the A350F can serve all cargo markets. More than 70 per cent of the airframe of the A350F is made of advanced materials, resulting in a 30-tonne lighter take-off weight and generating at least 20 per cent lower fuel consumption and emissions over its current closest competitor.

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Demand push

Etihad recorded a sharp drop in losses in 2021 at $476 million compared to a loss of $1.70 billion in the year-ago period. It carried 3.5 million passengers in 2021, with an average seat load factor of 39.6 per cent. Passenger loads doubled in the second half of the year, reaching 70.1 per cent in December as travel demand peaked during the winter holiday period.

Revenue from cargo operations hit new records with a 49 per cent jump at $1.73 billion, the highest figure in the history of the airline. The airline registered a 27 per cent year-on-year increase in freight carried in 2021 (729,200 tonnes).

“We are confident that the spring and summer season will continue to see a resurgence in travel as more people return to the skies,” Douglas said.

Lower costs

While operations ramped up throughout 2021, the airline kept a sharp focus on cost control, decreasing operating costs by a further $110 million, despite a $197 million increase in fuel costs driven by rallying oil prices. With oil prices once again rising above $100 a barrel because of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, a fuel-efficient aircraft will lighten the burden on the airline’s coffers as well as passengers’ pockets.