‘The marketplace will judge our success’

Dr Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saif Al Nahyan, chairman of Etihad Airways, talks to SHAFQUAT ALI about the national airline of the UAE as it spreads its wings
Etihad Airways crew … ‘our focus on quality and value is serving us well’

How well has Etihad Airways been able to position itself as ‘the airline of the 21st century’?

In six months, Etihad Airways has established itself as a major presence in the Middle East market and is rapidly becoming more well known in London and Asia. Our focus has always been the creation of a new airline guest experience that builds on quality, comfort, style and value for money. This concept has proved successful with our guests.
Were there any gaps in the market that Etihad has managed to fill?
From a geographical view, the major cities of Abu Dhabi and Al Ain now have an airline that is based in the UAE’s largest emirate and is dedicated to improving international airline connections. Etihad is building a reputation as a local company that operates on a national and world stage. 

How has the airline been received in the market, both locally and internationally?
Guest response has been extremely supportive and positive. For a new airline making its debut on the world stage our welcome at London Heathrow,   Bangkok, Munich and Geneva has been out of proportion to our small size and has been immensely gratifying.

How does Etihad score over other airlines in the Middle East?
We are only six months old but so far our feedback from guests has told us that we are scoring points with our emphasis on setting high standards of quality products and services. In fact, our guest comment forms have been overwhelmingly positive, particularly about the enthusiasm, friendliness and courtesy exhibited by our crew members. Flying should be an individual experience where guests feel that their welfare is of primary concern to the airline. We are doing this.

What, would you say, are Etihad’s strengths?
We are a new airline with new ideas and a highly-experienced management team who can shape these ideas into quality products and services. We also have the energy and resources to implement the kind of innovative improvements to the airline experience that the travelling public needs and wants. Our focus on quality and value is serving us well.

What passenger facilities are there in the pipeline?
The first of our two new aircraft with interiors that are being designed especially for Etihad by Airbus will be delivered in May of 2005, with the second scheduled for December 2005. New dedicated executive lounges for families as well as for our Diamond and Pearl Zone guests are under construction at the Abu Dhabi International Airport. We will pursue top quality ground facilities in all of the destinations we serve.

What plans do you have for the acquisition of fleet?
We have recently acquired three more aircraft to double the size of our widebody fleet.
Two more Airbus 330-200 aircraft -- with the exclusively-designed interiors -- arrrive in 2005. We anticipate a fleet of up to 50 aircraft serving as many destinations as are commercially viable by 2010. 

Looking back, were there any initial hurdles and how did you overcome them?
There were two major hurdles that we had to overcome during a short time period. The first was the availability and acquisition of quality aircraft to begin our initial operations. The second was the necessity for bilateral negotiation of air service agreements. We have been fortunate to have had excellent cooperation and assistance from the national government on the latter point. These negotiations are ongoing as Etihad pursues expansion of commercial routes.

What will be Etihad’s thrust area for growth as the airline rapidly expands?
India will be a major focus for us as we open the Mumbai route in August and New Delhi in December. We are pursuing landing rights in Egypt, Pakistan and several destinations in Africa and the Far East including Malaysia and the Philippines. We will look at all routes that have the potential for commercial success providing that the safety and security of our guests, crews and aircraft can be maintained to the highest level.

Does the fact that Etihad enjoys the distinction of being designated the national airline of the UAE give it an edge over other airlines in the region?
We are very proud to have been designated the national airline of the UAE. There is a certain prestige conferred on the airline through this royal decree. However, I am not sure to what extent this designation gives Etihad Airways a competitive advantage in the marketplace. We have a business plan as a new carrier that calls for Etihad to be operated on a commercial basis. The marketplace will judge our success.

Since Etihad is growing rapidly, are you happy with the facilities being offered at the Abu Dhabi Airport?
Abu Dhabi Airport must have the type of facilities that reflect its status as the airport of the capital of the UAE and also as the operating hub of the national air carrier. We are in close communication with the Airport Authority and appreciate the measures that are being taken to improve facilities in Abu Dhabi.

As Etihad is committed to ongoing market research what is the airline doing in this direction?
Etihad proactively requests comments about the quality of our service from its guests. Our guests provide a huge amount of feedback from every flight. Every letter or comment form is answered individually by the appropriate manager.

To deliver on what the customer really wants, you’ve said that the airline is willing to run with higher operating costs and lower profit margins in the short-term. So when does Etihad hope to break even?
The airline was formed with the intent of being commercially viable. Our focus is now on producing a quality, world-class product and services. Once this is achieved to our satisfaction we will be in a better position to answer this question.

As a former commercial captain, what is your personal contribution to Etihad as the airline sets the standards in the region?
Actually, I am still qualified to fly all of our aircraft.
I think my experience in the cockpit gives me added insight into the operational side of the airline. Airlines are now big businesses that operate with one eye on the financial statement. But sometimes they forget that an airline’s singular emphasis on meeting financial targets has a negative impact on both staff and guests.
Yes, airlines must be commercially viable but we, in the industry, can never forget that flying should be enjoyable. At the same time my own background in the industry tells me that there is no substitute for quality aircraft, products, services and people. Safety and security will always be of primary importance in all Etihad operations in the air and on the ground.

Etihad is offering a product that appeals to travellers that want a premium service. But what are your comments about budget airlines like Air Arabia?
The more access that low-income travellers have to air travel is good for everyone, including the broad industry sector. Eventually, some of those travellers will be Etihad guests and experience the value we offer. Once that happens, we are confident of seeing that guest again. 

Where do you intend to take Etihad from here?
Asia, Africa, North America and beyond. As we grow, we will continue to implement the best practices of the industry. We will ensure that all the changes we intend to make are properly researched and carefully evaluated for quality and value. We will not settle for a passable mark as an airline.