This week LATTE spoke exclusively with Etihad Airways’ General Manager for Australia and New Zealand, Sarah Built, to get an understanding of how the UAE’s national airline is responding to the coronavirus pandemic and the actions being taken for the post-COVID-19 recovery.
Sarah discusses with us what happens with Etihad’s aircraft which are currently idle on the ground in Abu Dhabi including rigorous engineering activities, how the airline is poised to return to scheduled operations and where it will relaunch first, and the Abu Dhabi-based carrier’s current stance on global aviation alliances.
Sarah, you’ve been in the airline industry for nearly 30 years. Have you ever experienced anything of the magnitude of the current coronavirus pandemic? Does anything come close?
I was working with Swissair when 9/11 happened, which at the time was an unprecedented event that had an enormous impact on the world. Less than a month later Swissair filed for bankruptcy. While the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic now eclipses that of 9/11, these were very significant events both at a global level but also at a personal level for me at the time. What is clear to me from living through such experiences is that whatever the magnitude of the situation, you always learn from the experience so there is always a positive to be found.
How is Etihad Airways positioned during these unprecedented times?
These certainly are unprecedented times and unprecedented decisions are being made, but we stand with our loyal customers and dedicate all our efforts and resources to ensuring we do all we can to assist them with their travel planning during this challenging period
Our transformation over the last three years has positioned us well so we were nimble and able to quickly respond to meet this crisis.
We have been able to deploy different-sized aircraft as demand on routes reduced. On some routes, this has involved moving from an Airbus A380 to a Boeing 777, to a 787-10 down to the smaller 787-8.
As the crisis deepened, Etihad has – alongside operators across the globe –taken steps to reduce costs. All management and executive-grade staff are taking 50% salary reductions. All other staff have taken a 25% reduction.
We are utilising this time to ensure the airline is in the best shape for when it returns to flying. We’ve embarked on the biggest aircraft maintenance program in our history. We are refreshing the interiors and exteriors of our aircraft, from laundering and replacing seat covers and backrests to replacement of carpets as well as bringing forward scheduled engine changes.
We were also the first airline to trial an innovative airport technology that will help identify medically at-risk travellers, in partnership with Australian company Elenium Automation. These contactless devices will monitor temperature, heart rate, respiratory rate and are currently being tested at Abu Dhabi airport.
We can reassure you that, when this pandemic is over, Etihad will still be standing, our aircraft will still be in the skies and we look forward to continuing to serve our customers.
Where is the airline currently operating to and from, and is there a schedule planned for the near future and beyond as countries begin opening their borders to travellers?
In the last weeks we launched regular scheduled services between Melbourne and Sydney to cities across Europe and Asia via Abu Dhabi.
These services allow those needing to return home to Australia or those requiring essential travel to the United Kingdom, the opportunity to do so with ease via the UAE capital.
Since 25 March, approximately 500 special passengers, freighter and cargo flights have been operated. These include passenger and belly-hold freight flights to Amsterdam, Bogota, Brussels, Dublin, Frankfurt, Jakarta, London Heathrow, Manila, Melbourne, Paris Charles de Gaulle, Seoul Incheon, Singapore, Tokyo Narita, Washington, D.C., and Zurich, with other destinations planned.
Etihad Cargo is now operating up to 100 turnaround flights per week to 32 destinations on five continents. In addition to normal scheduled cargo services, special freighter and humanitarian flights have been flown to Addis Ababa, Amsterdam, Beijing, Bogota, Bucharest, Copenhagen, Chennai, Cochin, Dublin, Frankfurt, Jeddah, Johannesburg, Karachi, Khartoum, Kiev, Milan, Paris, Rome, Shanghai, Tbilisi, Wuhan and Zagreb. More special flights will be introduced in the coming weeks.
What is happening to Etihad’s aircraft fleet during this period, and how long does it take for an aircraft to be put back in service after an extended pause?
While so many aircraft are on the ground we are using the ‘downtime’ as an opportunity to accelerate maintenance activities and enhance preparedness as more for return to services are introduced.
We are refreshing the interiors and exteriors of our aircraft, from the laundering of all seat covers and curtains and shampooing or replacement of carpets to minor repairs, as required, to fittings including seats, inflight entertainment units, fold-down trays, lavatory fittings and galleys. In some cases, we are bringing forward engine changes, scheduled structural maintenance or software upgrades.
Extensive and varied engineering activities are required by both Airbus and Boeing when aircraft are parked for extended periods. These are carried out to protect and preserve the aircraft and their systems. Once aircraft are parked:
- Covers are placed on the front and rear of the engines, and the Auxiliary Power Units (APUs)
- Static port and pitot probes and other inlets are covered to protect from airborne debris or wind
- Windows and flight decks are covered
- Wheels and brakes are covered and the wheels are rotated at regular intervals
- Items such as batteries are removed and checked regularly
- Power is connected at regular intervals to test aircraft systems
- Exteriors are checked regularly
- Minimum fuel is also required to be maintained during parking
What health and safety precautions is Etihad taking as it looks to return to meaningful passenger flying?
We have just introduced ‘Etihad Wellness’, an expanded health and hygiene program that builds on the stringent measures already put in place to deal with COVID-19. Specially trained Wellness Ambassadors, a first in the industry, will provide essential travel health information and care so guests can fly with greater peace of mind.
Etihad Wellness initiatives will be communicated through an online guide highlighting the high standards of cleanliness, health and hygiene being applied at every stage of the customer journey. This covers culinary hygiene at catering facilities and food testing laboratory, aircraft cabin deep-cleaning, check-in, health screening, boarding, inflight experience and product, crew interaction, arrival and ground transportation.
For those needing more specific and personalised information, skilled Wellness Ambassadors can be contacted directly 24/7 by email. The team will offer reassurance to customers by sharing advice on travel wellbeing and details of the health and sanitisation measures being implemented throughout their journey. This service will also soon be available through a web-chat option.
Etihad Aviation Group CEO Tony Douglas has recently remarked that the aviation landscape “has necessitated a fundamental shift in focus for us.” Can you explain what he means?
Very broadly we’ve had to completely shift our focus from “business as usual” operations to adapt to the crisis.
This has seen a shift to cargo utilising belly hold capacity of our 787 and 777 aircraft to carry essential cargo such as perishables, pharmaceuticals and medical supplies as part of the global response to the pandemic.
We have shifted from a full schedule to a growing schedule of special charter and repatriation flights. We have had to rethink our network, rethink service. We’ve shifted to undertake the most extensive maintenance program in our history, performing maintenance work on 96 passenger aircraft.
Has the current climate and conditions made Etihad reconsider its position towards joining a global aviation alliance, such as Star Alliance or SkyTeam?
Etihad was established on the basis of partnerships – we wouldn’t be where we are today by going it alone.
Partnerships were important to us 15 years ago, and they’re even more important now because in the digital world, the competitive advantage often comes from collaboration.
We have partnerships running across the entire business, from products and services to strategic sales and distribution partnerships and far-reaching codeshare agreements that have given us the most comprehensive network of any carrier in the Middle East. Today, this also includes all the innovative companies we are working with to develop our digital architecture.
I think the world of alliancing has actually moved on in recent years. The heyday of the big three alliances was probably a decade ago. Some of their mechanisms are far too complex to manage to give a real benefit. However, there is a lot to be said to being part of these alliances.
The post-COVID recovery may see us choose to join an alliance, be it one of today’s established groupings or whatever evolves tomorrow as the next generation of alliances or Joint Ventures.
When Australia does open its borders to international commercial services again, how quickly will it take for Etihad to relaunch regular operations?
Adaptability will be key when markets reopen. We don’t know how, when or where the market will present itself back but we need to be prepared for the situation.
Can we expect some super competitive international airfares to be launched by Etihad Airways, such as early bird airfares of around $1,000 to Europe, or will pricing be more conservative to recoup lost revenue?
No one has a crystal ball to predict what the travel landscape will look like when some semblance of normality returns and as countries are likely to open their borders at different times, pricing will as always be dictated by demand and supply. What I would say is that Etihad will continue to offer great value for money and a product that we remain extremely proud of.
Where is high on your list of overseas destinations to visit for a holiday once this period of uncertainty and travel restrictions has elapsed?
I have always wanted to visit the Maldives and as this experience has reminded us of how precious life is, I need to ensure I get there as soon as possible!
Final question, and it’s LATTE‘s signature question, what is your favourite coffee shop/house and your go-to order of choice?
I am ashamed to say for this interview that I am not a coffee drinker. I am a die-hard English Breakfast tea fan, ingrained in me from my British background. On the odd occasion I do drink coffee, my choice really is an affront to coffee aficionados as I have a very weak skinny latte, at least it’s a latte though!!