James Hogan, CEO, and Hereb Al Muhairy, Vice President of Corporate Communications, during a press conference on Monday at Etihad Airways’ Abu Dhabi headquarters. Image Credit: Ravindranath/Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: Etihad Airways expects to cater to seven million passengers this year from 6.3 million at the end of 2009, Chief Executive Officer James Hogan told reporters yesterday. The airline will focus on revenue maximisation and growth for the rest of the year, he said,

"As we approached the first quarter of 2010, passenger numbers grew by more than 11 per cent, with growth in our first class and business class. We witnessed success with our Abu Dhabi, London and Frankfurt lounges, and expect profitability in our upcoming lounges that will progressively roll out in Dublin and Manchester," Hogan said. An estimated 22,000 Etihad passengers were impacted by the recent volcanic eruption over Europe, he added.

Despite last year being tough on airlines due to the global financial crisis and the H1N1 pandemic, Etihad passenger numbers rose from 6 to 6.3 million, and revenues exceeded $3 billion in 2009. In response, the airline developed a business plan that is tight on costs, boosts cash reserves, emphasises financial planning and control, and propagates efficiency and structural change, the chief executive said.

Over the next two years to 2012, Etihad will focus on maturing the brand, improving the product and service, expanding network reach and connectivity; maximising revenue; minimising costs; and closely following the overall Abu Dhabi plan to ensure breakeven by 2011, he said.

The airline currently has a fleet of 53 aircraft, close to 1,000 flights per week serving an international network of 61 destinations in 40 countries, with plans to invest in two more lounges this year.

Projects such as the Yas Island Formula One Grand Prix, Ferrari World, and the introduction of new hotels have helped the airline respond to the travel growth through Etihad's destination management company, Hala Abu Dhabi. Hala offers tourists an array of travel products, services and activities across the seven emirates, with a choice of three- to five-star deluxe hotels suitable for all budgets.

Forecasts

Forecasts show that by 2025, the Middle East will add airport capacity for 300 million passengers, build over 200 new hotels comprising 100,000 rooms, grow visitor numbers to 150 million, and increase the size of aircraft fleets by over 150 per cent.

Etihad's business forecast for 2020 shows that the airline will fly to 100 destinations using 155 aircraft and a staff strength of 27,000.

"Abu Dhabi is a maturing destination, with an increasing number of corporate travellers. That helps improve our overall revenues, and allows us to keep up with our bullish business targets. We can't spread everywhere; we're only six years old! However we are keen on exploring other destinations all the time, and plan to introduce flights to North Africa in the next five years," Hogan said.

Hogan admitted that the European travel market remains slow. "We would like to see some of the European carriers move their pricing to a reasonable level. For now, we're just moving within the dynamics of the market, and keeping our ticket prices in line with the industry," he said.

New career centre

Etihad will open a new UAE National Career Centre this year to receive, assess, and recruit potential Emirati candidates. The centre will also offer career counselling and will oversee various recruitment campaigns in universities, colleges and career fairs across the UAE.

More than 150 Emirati trainees are deployed by the airline, including 102 cadet pilots, 30 graduate managers and 30 technical engineers. The percentage of Emiratis working for Etihad is 12 per cent of the workforce and the target for 2010 is 15 per cent.

"With our new recruitment strategy in 2010, we are anticipating a substantial number of top Emirati talent joining Etihad and bringing on board their unique skills and knowledge for the benefit of the airline," said Chief Executive James Hogan.

A new three-month training programme will be offered this year to prepare Emiratis for positions in retail sales outlets across the country. Other programmes include a cadet pilot scheme, a technical engineering development programme and a graduate management development programme.

To increase career opportunities for Emirati women in Al Ain, a new call centre will be launched this year, offering over 80 call operator and managerial positions to UAE nationals.