Tony Douglas, chief executive officer of Etihad Airways
Tony Douglas, CEO of Etihad Airways Image Credit: Bloomberg

Dubai: Tony Douglas has reasons to be pleased – more so as he’s been proved right.

“I had said when the (COVID-19) restrictions ease, (demand) will go off like a fire hydrant – (and) we have seen that,” said Douglas, CEO of Etihad Airways during a media interaction on the sidelines of the Dubai Air Show.

In September, Abu Dhabi removed the quarantine requirement for fully vaccinated passengers, resulting in travel numbers shooting up on all major routes. As soon as the decision went into effect, “our booking curve went vertical,” said Douglas.

December was looking “strong” on the back of “revenge tourism” - a phenomenon wherein people wish to break free from the mundane routine after an extended period of lockdown.

Etihad Airways’ load factor - a measure of how well an airline is filling available seats – is at 70 per cent across its fleet.

Fourth wave concerns

Global airline heads have taken note of a fourth COVID -19 wave in the UK and parts of Europe, which has sparked concerns about a return to tighter restrictions. “It really is a source of concern – globally, we're in a better place now than we were this time last year, largely as a result of vaccine rollouts and adoption,” said Douglas. “We are ever-watchful of that, but we remain optimistic that we are seeing improving trends and things like the Air Show and ADIPEC are testimony to that.”

Turnaround plans

Etihad has been looking to re-position itself as a mid-sized airline and as part of that move has exited its equity positions in several foreign carriers. After retiring its A380s during the pandemic, Etihad has a fleet largely made up of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350-1000 aircraft, which will be introduced in 2022.

Etihad's passenger load factor is already back at 70%, and there is more to come.

“We've pushed hard, (and) we've continued with our fleet reductions - we now have a strategy which presents us with a two horse stable,” said Douglas. Etihad’s original turnaround plan, which was designed in 2017, is expected to come to an end in 2023.

Douglas pointed out that right before the pandemic, Etihad had its “best year ever” in 2019, followed by a strong first quarter last year. “And I'm sitting here thinking what could possibly go wrong and then, sadly, just about everything as a consequence of the pandemic.”

Rising oil

The rebound in global fuel demand is causing oil prices to go up. Brent crude, the international benchmark for oil, has more than doubled in the last 12 months to over $80 a barrel. “It goes without saying that every time the price goes up, most executives within aviation get very anxious,” said Douglas.

“The biggest countermeasure we've got is modern, efficient aircraft - we are bothered by the pricing at the moment, but there's not an awful lot we as an airline or any other airline can do about that.”

Focused on sustainability

Etihad has signed multiple partnership and collaboration agreements with the aviation industry’s top manufactures, suppliers and stakeholders at the 2021 Dubai Air Show, bringing several organisations together under its strategic sustainability programme.

“The introduction of the Rolls-Royce XWB engine powering the A350 fleet is yet another credential in Etihad’s drive for sustainable operations, given the renowned fuel efficiency of this modern engine,” said Etihad in a statement.

Etihad said its work with partners - including Boeing, GE, Airbus and Rolls Royce - supported the airline’s strategic objectives to achieve a 20 per cent reduction in emissions intensity in its passenger fleet by 2025, cut 2019 net emissions by 50 per cent by 2035, and reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Etihad launched its Greenliner programme in 2019 using a Boeing 787 aircraft. The initiative is used to explore and assess environmental sustainability initiatives while the aircraft operates scheduled services across the airline’s network.