From compulsory RT-PCR tests to Covid-19 health insurance and PPE kits to air bubbles, the pandemic has drastically altered the way we fly. After the 9/11 attacks in the US, this is another major world event that introduced many new practices and norms in the aviation industry. Many of these practices will become a permanent part of our altered reality of the ‘new normal’.
Tony Douglas, group CEO, Etihad Aviation Group, who took the Covid-19 vaccine shot last month in a programme that administers vaccines to all Etihad employees and their dependents above 18 for free at the Etihad Airways Medical Centre, charts out the future of the global aviation industry for Forbes India.
Q. How has the aviation industry altered after the pandemic and which new practices are here to stay?
Over the last few months, we have seen a new normal in air travel gradually shape up, and through a combination of transformation and innovation, we have adapted to the new reality. Some of these initiatives are here to stay, at least for the near future.
Q. Wellness certification / health visas
While it is impossible at this stage to determine exactly how Covid-19 will play out, it is not unrealistic to assume that we will see some form of wellness certification as the world starts to harmonise on transport standards.
In fact, I think even before it was declared formally as a pandemic, my executive team and I foresaw the need for a “fit-to-fly” style of certification as an almost inevitable outcome of the crisis.
In the same way post-Lockerbie and post-911, aircraft security and passenger safety has become a concern, which led to revised global legislation, adopted internationally over time.
Ultimately, if we want to survive, we need the pandemic to end due to increased vaccination or the introduction of health visas to certify passengers are safe to fly. To that end, we have been working with a variety of different companies, some within the industry, and some outside of it, to develop the technology required for a global health certification system.
More recently, we partnered with the International Air Transport Association to launch the IATA Travel Pass for Etihad guests to help passengers easily and securely manage their travel, in line with government requirements for Covid-19 tests or vaccines. We have trialled some of those systems on a limited basis, and throughout Q1 of 2021, our trials will increase to determine the most efficient and accessible solution possible.
Q. Increased flexibility in bookings
A range of travel waivers, solutions and benefits were introduced to provide maximum flexibility to guests and partners. As the situation remains dynamic, this is here to stay. Our teams will continue working round the clock to assist our guests and trade partners.
Q. Which is the most challenging area of operation for an airline today?
Operationally, we are in a reality where no two days are the same, with travel restrictions changing constantly and borders opening or closing in response to new waves of infections and recoveries.
We remain agile and carefully track market developments (i.e. travel advisories, restrictions), with an objective to have the right aircraft in the right place at the right time. We work closely with other Abu Dhabi stakeholders and as travel restrictions are relaxed in the Emirate, we support that demand for travel. We leverage the strength of our AUH hub to create as many itineraries as possible and provide travel options to a large part of the traveling population.
Cargo has always been an important driver of our decision making in the planning process and it continues to be in 2021. A large portion of our wide-body fleet is deployed to markets with strong cargo demand. This supports worldwide demand for goods and products and helps us de-risk the operation in places where passenger demand is still soft.
Q. Etihad introduced a Covid-19 insurance. Do you think insurance by airlines will become the norm in the future as well?
We introduced our global Covid-19 wellness insurance in September last year as part of the airline’s health and hygiene programme, Etihad Wellness. If any guest is diagnosed with Covid-19 during his/her trip, they won’t have to worry about medical expenses or quarantine costs when they fly with Etihad. The insurance is automatically effective following the first flight outside of the guest’s home country and is valid for 31 days, or upon return to their home country if earlier, until March 31.
Etihad also requires 100 percent of its passengers to show a negative RT-PCR test before departure and on arrival in Abu Dhabi. We are supporting this by offering RT-PCR tests included in all air tickets booked by customers in the UAE for flights departing from Abu Dhabi.
Whether it will become a norm will depend on how the situation pans out. While I cannot speak for all airlines, I can certainly say that Etihad will continue to prioritise the wellness, safety and health of our passengers and the Etihad crew.
Q. You were flying 3.4 million travellers in the first two months of 2020 which became 30,000 in March. What has the recovery process since then been like and how is the airline fast-tracking it?
After our best-ever Q1 performance, none of us could have predicted the challenges that lay ahead in 2020. The one day I will never forget is March 23, 2020 because that was the day we saw a majority of the Etihad fleet return home to be grounded indefinitely. For us, it was heart-breaking but absolutely the right thing to do. Public safety was the ultimate priority and we went into a lockdown. So, an industry that connected people across the world suddenly saw minimal movement with the onset of the pandemic.
We braved the storm, as the old saying goes, “Never let a crisis go to waste”. Etihad used this downtime productively and embarked on the most extensive aircraft maintenance programme in its history to ensure the airline was in the best shape for when it returned to flying. We operated special cargo flights from Abu Dhabi to several destinations on our global route network including Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Kochi and Bangalore. These services gave foreign nationals in the UAE the opportunity to travel home and allowed Etihad to carry essential belly-hold cargo such as perishables, pharmaceuticals, and medical supplies.
Etihad is in the middle of a five-year transformation; we have taken $650 million out of the cost base in 2019 and are already benefiting from the process of going back to basics and challenging all costs. The restructuring over the last three years positioned the business well. It gave us the agility to better manage operations through the Covid-19 crisis and be prepared for when air travel markets reopened. The situation remains dynamic, but we are aiming at a complete turnaround by 2023-2024.
Q. As a leader, what are the most important lessons you learnt in the pandemic-led crisis?
In the last 30 years of my journey in the aviation industry, there have been quite a few crises. I have witnessed the impact of SARS and MERS, 9/11, and the Global Financial Crisis, but Covid-19 has eclipsed all of them because of the massive impact it has had.
The year 2020 is probably a year that will be remembered for the negatives, but I believe you can learn an awful lot from negatives. Human nature tries to establish certainty in times when certainty does not exist. I have learnt to become comfortable with ambiguity. Embracing ambiguity can become not only something that helps you get over anxiety but also allows yourself to say that there is no right or wrong answer; what you have got to do is to stay focused and maintain momentum.
What we have done successfully is to make lots of little victories. These have not only sustained our motivation within the Etihad family but also helped us make remarkable progress in the most difficult of times.
Besides, we had to adapt our standard ways of working and learn different ways to lead a team remotely, keeping them engaged, driven and motivated. The situation has also changed the way we’d usually conduct business meetings. People would travel for hours and fly across the world for a critical three-hour meeting. In many cases, there is nothing better than signing a deal face to face. For now, though, all of this is happening virtually over MS Teams or Zoom. The circumstances have compelled us to embrace the digital medium and be more efficient.
Q. What is next for Etihad?
Sustainability is going to play an even bigger role in a post-Covid-19 world, and for us, this is a priority as we have been committed to being ‘Greener Together’. Etihad has committed to a minimum target of zero net carbon emissions by 2050 and cutting down our 2019 net emission levels by half by 2035. These ambitious environmental targets will be achieved through a mix of optimised fuel management, internal initiatives, collaboration with industry partners and adoption of a comprehensive programme of relevant carbon offsets, to be developed with a specific focus on the requirements of the UAE and markets served by the airline. We also remain committed to the goal and promise of reducing single-use plastic usage by 80 percent as compared to April 2019 not just in-flight, but across the entire organisation by the end of 2022.