Bringing back confidence in air travel is a difficult endeavor with COVID-19 striking fear into passengers globally. The industry as a whole need to ensure it has all the necessary health and safety measures and staff in place to protect travelers.
Abu Dhabi based Etihad Airways has left no stone unturned when it comes to ensuring especially that. In an exclusive interview with Robin Kamark, Chief Commercial Officer of Etihad Aviation Group, we look at how the entire organization behind Etihad Airways has been mobilized to tackle these challenges head-on.
What is the general financial impact of COVID-19 on the travel industry in the region?
The aviation industry is witnessing unprecedented challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the travel industry worldwide to a halt as countries impose lockdowns and restrictions to contain the outbreak. In late March 2020, we grounded our fleet but kept our mini-freighters and cargo aircraft flying. Shortly thereafter we commenced repatriation flights and most recently, we have been given permission to facilitate transfer traffic. The overall effect on the industry will be determined by how quickly the market rebounds.
As the crisis has deepened, Etihad has – in line with other operators across the globe – taken steps to reduce our costs. We’ve taken a wide-reaching series of measures ranging from salary reductions, for all staff including executives, to discussions with all supply and procurement partners – we are leaving no stone unturned.
The World Travel and Tourism Council has warned the COVID-19 pandemic could cut 197 million jobs worldwide in the travel and tourism industry if movement restrictions continue past summer. It has stated that tourism is one of the most affected sectors from COVID-19, and estimates that in 2020, global international tourist arrivals could decline by 73%. However, if borders open sooner, it could save 99.3 million jobs within the industry.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates airlines globally will lose approximately $84.3 billion in revenue this year – financially, the worst year in aviation history. Passenger demand in the Middle East is expected to drop by over 51% and net profit by approximately $4.8b.
We have already seen airlines go belly up. Depending on how long COVID-19 lasts for, it’s fair to assume quite a few airlines will run out of financial resources and it’s highly likely these cases will lead to consolidation within the industry.
Are travelers confident enough or ready to fly again? What concerns do they have and how will Etihad allay any fears, misconceptions and discomforts they may have with flying to bring back that confidence?
The safety, health, and wellbeing of our guests and employees will always be Etihad’s paramount concern and top priority. Across the global industry, processes and regulations are still being defined but, at Etihad, we are doing everything we can to protect our guests and help them feel safe, well and have peace of mind.
Etihad has recently launched the Etihad Wellness campaign focusing on all elements of the operation and customer journey. We have put together an easy-to-use online guide available at www.etihad.com/wellness highlighting the high standards of cleanliness, health and hygiene being applied at every stage of the journey. As part of this we have introduced Wellness Ambassadors, a first in the industry, who will provide essential travel health information and care so guests can fly with greater peace of mind.
For those needing more specific and personalised information, skilled Wellness Ambassadors can be contacted directly 24/7 by emailing [email protected]. This dedicated multi-lingual 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.
In partnership with Abu Dhabi Airports, Etihad’s Wellness Ambassadors will also be at Abu Dhabi International Airport to provide travellers with support at every stage of their journey until they board their flight; from check-in to security, immigration, the retail areas, lounges and boarding, so that guests can fly with added comfort, security and confidence. At the airport, measures in place include floor markings and thermal screening, while on the aircraft, teams are implementing cabin deep cleaning, distancing measures, removal of reading material and a modified meal service on board.
Do you expect business travel to rebound? Will virtual conferencing, video meetings and digital business dealings partially replace the need to travel for business?
Technology has been paramount in keeping people connected during this crisis however, for many businesses, once the dust settles, we can expect a continued need for face to face meetings. Personal relationship building still plays a significant role in global business but we’ve seen that technology does work for certain types of interactions and this will have some influence on future corporate demand. We foresee a gradual resumption to normal business operations, starting off with countries within the gulf region followed by key international cities across the globe. We are confident business travel will return but the question is when and to what extent.
What capacity seating will Etihad adopt on its planes to abide by safety and safe distancing measures in the current period?
Social distancing of course affects the economics of air travel.However, the safety and wellbeing of our guests is our number one priority. There is much talk in the industry that suggests the risk of transmission on aircraft is very low, particularly with the sophisticated HEPA air filtration and circulation systems our aircraft have. It is highly likely that the need for social distancing on aircraft will change over time. However, and until official regulations change, we will continue to apply distancing measures on our flights.
What are the main business destinations that will return in the immediate future? How many destinations overall will be operated this summer? Until 2020 end?
The reality is that the repercussions of COVID-19 will likely be felt in our industry for a long time, at a minimum, travel demand may not return to what it was before this pandemic until the back end of 2022.
We are already flying and have been operating a number of special passenger, transfer and cargo flights over the last few months. Throughout May, we increased frequencies on special passenger flights. These include flights from Abu Dhabi to Amsterdam, Barcelona, Brussels, Frankfurt, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, London Heathrow, Manila, Melbourne, Seoul Incheon, Singapore, Tokyo Narita, Zurich, and soon, also Dublin and New York JFK.
Since 25 March, approximately 2,800 special passenger, freighter and cargo flights have been operated. The majority of passengers on repatriation flights have been outbound from the UAE, but as a result of working closely with our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, last month, we started bringing UAE residents stuck overseas in 12 countries back home. Currently, 18 destinations are being served.
We recently launched links from Melbourne and Sydney to London Heathrow, allowing direct transfer connections to and from the UK capital via Abu Dhabi. We plan to maintain this link until we fully resume our previous double daily connection between the two cities.
Last week, Etihad Airways received permissions from the authorities to connect a number of major cities. On 10 June,we linked 21 cities in Europe, Asia and Australia via Abu Dhabi. These cities are: Jakarta, Karachi, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Melbourne, Seoul, Singapore, Sydney, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Brussels, Dublin, Frankfurt, Geneva, London Heathrow, Madrid, Milan, Paris Charles de Gaulle, and Zurich. These new transfer services will make it possible for those travelling on the airline’s current network of special flights to connect easily through the UAE capital onwards to key global destinations.
In July and August, the number of cities we connect to will be increased, to over 40. Adaptability will be key for when markets reopen. None of us have a crystal ball to know how, when or where the market will present itself back. We should embrace the ambiguity of the situation and as markets and demand pick up, Etihad is already actively reopening destinations on its network.
What will be the safety measures implemented at airport ticketing, lounges, in cabin, cargo and freight and other areas where Etihad operates or has personnel in?
We have implemented an extensive sanitisation and customer safety programme, to boost our already stringent procedures, and to ensure the highest standards of hygiene at every touch point of the guest journey. The programme is currently being implemented on a schedule of special passenger flights from Abu Dhabi which are flying foreign nationals out of the UAE and returning UAE residents home. These flights are being operated with reduced passenger capacity following health authority advice to ensure distancing measures are in place in-flight.
These procedures are also implemented on transfer flights which commenced on June 10, linking 21 cities in Europe, Asia and Australia via Abu Dhabi. We will continue to assess and adapt our procedures as the situation develops just as we have done through various outbreaks in the past such as H1N1, Mers and Ebola.
This pandemic will come to an end – that’s a fact – and aviation will return to growth – that’s also a fact.
When will Air Arabia Abu Dhabi have its chance to take to the skies?
As with all airlines in the world, Air Arabia Abu Dhabi has also been affected by COVID-19, with the delay of its launch plan. Air Arabia Abu Dhabi recently received its Air Operating Certificate and we are working closely with the General Civil Aviation Authority to finalise the launch date when the skies are open again. We are looking forward to this new entity taking off in the near future.