Against a backdrop of unprecedented economic turmoil in the global aviation industry, Neerja Bhatia, Vice President, Indian Sub-continent, Etihad Airways discusses how Etihad is assessing the situation and its strategy to move forward.
Bhatia spearheads the airline’s commercial activities in the country as well as in Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Seychelles.
TT Bureau: The aviation industry is in deep trouble due to the COVID 19 pandemic. IATA recently reported that Middle East airlines are facing a liquidity crisis and thousands of jobs across the region are at risk. What is Etihad's strategy in keeping afloat and how is it preparing to survive the Corona crisis?
Neerja Bhatia: These surely are unprecedented times and unprecedented decisions are being taken. Etihad Airways’ transformation over the last three years has positioned the business well; we are nimble and able to quickly respond to meet this crisis. The on-going restructuring programme has also given the business the agility to better manage its operation through the coronavirus crisis and to be prepared for when air travel markets reopen.
We have been adaptive and have responded quickly, redeploying the fleet and right-sizing as the market changed. A few weeks ago, before the suspension of passenger flights in the UAE, we began deploying different-sized aircrafts as demand on routes reduced. On some routes this involved moving from an Airbus A380 to a Boeing 777, to a 787-10 down to the smaller 787-8.
Etihad Airways has deployed some of its 787-10 aircraft on cargo routes to supplement Etihad Cargo’s fleet of Boeing 777 freighters. Etihad has been operating special cargo flights from Abu Dhabi to several destinations on its global route network including Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Kochi and Bangalore. These services give foreign nationals in the UAE the opportunity to travel out of the country, and allow Etihad to carry essential belly-hold cargo such as perishables, pharmaceuticals, and medical supplies.
TT Bureau: Will the cost-cutting efforts and restructuring measures to save the airline, affect its India operations?
Neerja Bhatia: Etihad Airways remains committed to its largest market outside of its home market, India. Our unwavering commitment to the country over the last fifteen years has resulted in Etihad becoming one of the most preferred airlines for travellers from India and we are dedicating all our efforts to support and assist guests during this challenging period.
While these are difficult times that we are facing, we want to reassure our guests and partners in India that we are well prepared to weather the commercial and operational impact of this ongoing crisis. Adaptability will be key when markets reopen. At this point, we cannot confirm how, when or where the market will present itself back but we are prepared for the situation.
TT Bureau: How has Etihad as well as its catering arm, EAS Catering contributed its services to help in the fight against the pandemic?
Neerja Bhatia: In addition to the special flights that Etihad Airways is operating, Etihad Airport Services Catering (EAS Catering) has prepared and delivered over 15,000 meals a day to people self-isolating or under quarantine, frontline medical staff, humanitarian drives and for various businesses across the capital.
Due to its stringent food handling procedures, it has been selected to support initiatives like preparing and providing meals to individuals impacted by the global spread of COVID-19. It ensures meals are prepared to the highest culinary hygiene standards through the laboratory testing of food, water, hands and surfaces.
Etihad Airways, partnering with Zomato, has launched the Etihad Ramadan Box initiative to bring Iftar meals to homes across the UAE, including hospitals, essential workers, volunteers and communities in need. Those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, through sickness or financial impact, can request one of the Etihad Ramadan Boxes through the Zomato app, and a freshly prepared meal will be delivered directly from Etihad’s Catering facility in Abu Dhabi. Along with the pre-prepared meal, selected volunteers, healthcare and key workers will also receive a box filled with fresh ingredients and an easy to follow recipe. These Etihad Ramadan Boxes have been designed by Etihad Airways’ inflight chefs.
TT Bureau: What are the dedicated efforts taken by Etihad to ensure assistance to guests with their travel planning during this challenging period?
Neerja Bhatia: Our teams have been working around the clock to assist our guests and trade partners, and to make sure they are the first to know about our new policies, procedures and travel news. We understand how hard the past few weeks have been and we have been touched by the support received from our customers and partners.
Our priority will remain providing continued support to guests and we have introduced a range of travel waivers, solutions and benefits to help ease the burden. Customers who have booked directly with the airline before 31 July 2020 have greater flexibility to change their bookings or to utilise generous value-added Etihad Credit where possible. For instance, customers can change the date of their trip for free or pick a different destination within the same region.
We are utilising this time to ensure that the airline is in its best shape for when it returns to flying. Etihad has embarked on the biggest aircraft maintenance programme in its 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.
Etihad Airways is also the first airline to trial an innovative airport technology that will help identify medically at-risk travellers. These contactless devices will monitor the temperature, heart rate and respiratory rate of any person using an airport touchpoint such as a check-in or information kiosk, a bag drop facility, a security point or immigration gate. The system would screen every individual, including multiple people on the same booking. This innovative technology is currently being tested at the Abu Dhabi airport.
We want to reassure our guests and trade partners that when this pandemic is over, Etihad will still be standing, our aircraft will still be in the skies and we look forward to, once again, bringing the world closer together.