Why 787 Dreamliner Cargo Ops Just Made Sense For Etihad

The coronavirus pandemic has forced airlines to take a far more adaptable approach to their operations. Abu Dhabi-based UAE flag carrier Etihad is one such airline, and the onset of the health crisis saw it repurpose its Boeing 787 as freighters. While an unorthodox use for the Dreamliner, Etihad’s CEO has said that to do so actually made perfect sense.

Etihad Boeing 787 Getty
The 787 proved ideal when Etihad had to refocus its operations on cargo. Photo: Getty Images

An ideal temporary freighter

Last year, Etihad made headlines when it elected to ground its entire fleet in response to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. It did so in March 2020, a month characterized worldwide by national lockdowns, such as the one imposed by the UK government on the 23rd of the month. It soon returned to the skies, albeit not in a passenger-carrying capacity.

Indeed, in an exclusive webinar interview with Simple Flying, CEO Tony Douglas revealed that, in the early months of the pandemic, Etihad kept itself busy with several projects. Among these was an increased focus on cargo, for which it repurposed its Boeing 787 Dreamliners. This proved to be a financially astute decision, and Douglas explains that:

We had the benefit of the second [or] third largest fleet of 787s in the world, which of course are immensely fuel-efficient and very versatile. So we very quickly got back to flying cargo [in the] belly hold. The economics of that made sense, and that allowed us to re-establish a network very quickly.”

Why 787 Dreamliner Cargo Ops Just Made Sense For Etihad
The 787’s versatility and efficiency allowed Etihad to establish a cargo network. Photo: Getty Images

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Keeping the airline float

Etihad’s use of 787s as temporary freighters provided key revenue for the airline at a time when conventional streams of income were well below average levels. The sharp drop in passenger demand brought on by the pandemic meant that its cargo flights were necessary to support its finances. Douglas explains that, thanks to the 787’s efficiency:

Cargo rates, from a yield point of view, are at pretty much an all-time high. And what we’ve been able to do is to offset the complete impact of reduced passenger numbers by flying an awful lot more cargo and benefiting from that increase in yield. […] Because of that, it’s allowed us to pretty much maintain almost the full network.”

Etihad Airways B787
Etihad presently has 39 787s in its fleet, with a further 32 on order. Photo: Getty Images.

Special cargo missions

The nature of the last 18 months has meant that Etihad has flown some rather special cargo missions since the pandemic began. While it only carried 30,000 passengers between April and June 2020, it was busier on the humanitarian front. One mission in April last year saw it deliver 14 tons of aid (comprising medical supplies and food) to Pakistan.

Towards the end of the year, Etihad also found itself involved in motorsport. The final race of the 2020 Formula One season took place in Abu Dhabi. As such, the airline was enlisted to transport not only the teams, but also precious cargo including their cars, over from Bahrain. It used both Boeing 787 and Airbus A320 family aircraft to do so.

What did you make of Etihad’s decision to temporarily repurpose its 787s as cargo planes? Have you ever flown one of them as a passenger? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!