Etihad Airways CEO On How The Airline Adapted To COVID-19

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has been, and continues to be, a significant challenge for the airline industry. The unprecedented nature of the global crisis has caused difficulties even for large and established flag carrier airlines, such as the UAE’s Etihad. However, the Abu-Dhabi-based carrier has been able to adapt and attempt to weather the storm. Its CEO, Tony Douglas, knows that the crisis “will end, we just don’t know when.”

Etihad Airways Boeing 777-3FX(ER) A6-ETR
Tony Douglas has been Etihad’s CEO since January 2018. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Already adapting when the crisis hit

While the COVID-19 pandemic can’t be said to have come at a good time for any airline, Etihad was perhaps better prepared than most other carriers. Speaking today at the APEX FTE Virtual Expo, the airline’s CEO, Tony Douglas, explained that the timing of the crisis coincided with a period of fundamental restructuring at the company.

Indeed, Douglas states that, when the pandemic struck, Etihad was “well into a well-documented transformation program.” The need for this came about due to mistakes that Etihad, which was founded in 2003, made in its teenage years. He explains that:

We did [make mistakes] as an organization, and it required quite a fundamental transformation and organizational restructuring, [which] started at the back end of 2017. And we were well into it. I think that proved to be a gift, because, when the pandemic hit, we were already adapting to a whole new business operating model, which was leaner [and] more agile.”

Etihad Boeing 787 Getty
The Boeing 787 has become the backbone of Etihad’s long-haul fleet. Photo: Getty Images

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A four-step recovery plan

Douglas went on to explain that, after temporarily grounding its fleet last March, Etihad drew up a four-step plan to support its recovery in the uncertain climate. This consisted of:

  • ‘Project Restart’ – “It’s an awful lot more difficult getting an airline back up and running than it is to stop it in the first place, so we put a huge amount of thought into that.”
  • ‘Operation Cargo’ – “The dynamics within the freight industry have changed quite fundamentally as a result of COVID. (…) We wanted to introduce a mini freighter network in the absence of passengers.”
  • ‘Project Cabin’ – Etihad used the fleet’s temporary grounding to “detail out every scratch and every blemish, even the slightest of marks” in its cabins.
  • ‘Project Vision’ – This aspect of the recovery plan resulted in Etihad’s wellness program, which Douglas hopes may set the airline apart from its competitors.
Etihad A321
Etihad formulated a four-step recovery plan to aid its crisis management. Photo: Getty Images.

The increasing importance of wellness

With its wellness program, Etihad wants its passengers to feel as safe and healthy as possible onboard despite the challenging circumstances. One aspect of this is at the staff level, with Douglas explaining that “we introduced dedicated Etihad wellness ambassadors, so we’ve retrained the whole of our cabin crew in that regard.”

Etihad is taking this aspect of its operations seriously. Douglas believes that it may prove as big a factor for some passengers as ticket prices. He concluded:

I would assert that, for the foreseeable future, the secondary differentiator, and in some parts of the market, even the outright primary differentiator, will be the manner in which your wellness can be assured and that of your loved ones.”

What do you make of Etihad’s approach to the challenges of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic? Have you flown with the airline since the global health crisis began? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.