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TD Conversations: Neerja Bhatia, Vice President, Indian Sub-Continent, Etihad Airways

She speaks about Etihad’s role in mitigating the pandemic, managing costs while growing network capacity, and all the measures that the airline is taking to ensure a seamless journey as the aviation sector gradually moves towards normalcy.
Neerja Bhatia, Vice President, Indian Sub-Continent, Etihad Airways
Neerja Bhatia, Vice President, Indian Sub-Continent, Etihad Airways.

With over three decades of aviation industry experience, Neerja Bhatia has a wealth of insights about the airline sector. Rising quickly from the ranks from being sales manager for the airline’s western India division, the dynamic Vice President for the Indian Sub-Continent has been successfully overseeing operations in one of the largest markets for Etihad Airways for several years.

Now that Etihad Airways opened bookings for travel from India to the UAE as well as in transit to Etihad’s global network of destinations since early this month, we discussed the airline’s current priorities and future plans with her. Excerpts from the interview…

Has Etihad detected changes in customer preferences and flying patterns in the aftermath of the pandemic? How is the airline anticipating and addressing these?

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. The way we travel has changed and wellness has emerged as a top priority. As the scenario stabilises, our focus is now on reviving confidence in international travel and this is being supported by initiatives that aim to ease the burden for travellers and ensure they have a peaceful journey, one that prioritises their health and wellness.

We launched ‘Etihad Wellness’ last year, an expanded and comprehensive health and hygiene programme which builds on the stringent measures already put in place by the airline to deal with COVID-19. Via Etihad Wellness, we have launched several key initiatives that have enabled us to revive consumer confidence and ensure their safety.

  • A Wellness Ambassador on every flight

Etihad Wellness is championed by specially trained Wellness Ambassadors, an industry-first initiative. This multi-lingual team, who undergo special training at our training facilities in Abu Dhabi and online, are available round the clock to provide essential travel health information and care so guests can fly with greater peace of mind. They are present on-ground at Abu Dhabi International Airport as well as on every flight to ensure the same levels of care and support are provided at every point of the customer journey

  • 100 per cent of Etihad’s crew onboard has been vaccinated

In February this year, Etihad became the first airline in the world with all its operating pilots and cabin crew vaccinated to help curb the spread of COVID-19 and give passengers added assurance of safety. This has consolidated the airline’s position as an industry leader in its response to the pandemic and in keeping its employees and travellers safe

  • Etihad’s global wellness cover

If any guest is diagnosed with COVID-19 during their trip, they won’t have to worry about medical expenses or quarantine costs when they fly with us. We have introduced a global COVID-19 wellness insurance as part of our health and hygiene programme, Etihad Wellness, which is included with every Etihad ticket up to March 31, 2022. Further, Etihad is constantly innovating to revolutionise travel with pioneering technology. Our initiatives help enable a low touch process and reduce queues as well as queuing time at the airport, reassuring guests of Etihad’s commitment to their safety and wellness.

  • ‘Verified to Fly’ with Etihad

Etihad’s ‘Verified To Fly’ travel document initiative enables travellers across its global network to validate their COVID-19 travel documents before arriving at the airport. With the formalities out of the way, verified travellers can enjoy fast track check-in at the airport by going to the dedicated Verified to Fly desk for a quicker and smoother experience. Available for the vast majority of Etihad flights, to use the Verified to Fly service, passengers can sign-up by visiting the website and following the simple instructions to upload and submit their travel documents. Guests will receive confirmation once their documents have been approved in line with government requirements and can travel to the airport with confidence and peace of mind, knowing they have met all essential requirements before their flight.

  • Tech and digital-first solutions for a seamless journey

There has been an accelerated growth in digitising experiences and ensuring contactless travel for guests, with their safety and wellness in mind. We have been working with a variety of different companies, some within the industry, some outside of it, to develop technology required for a global health certification system. The airline has partnered with the International Air Transport Association to launch the IATA Travel Pass for its guests. Following successful trials, we have expanded this on flights between Abu Dhabi and seven destinations across our network

Etihad Airways
Etihad’s network capacity has grown steadily since the start of the year, with the airline operating almost 3,500 flights a month to 67 passenger and cargo destinations by the end of June 2021. Image: Courtesy Etihad Airways.

So far, Etihad has managed to optimise topline and bottom line despite constraints on air-travel in the wake of the pandemic. Now that the aviation sector is starting to re-open, how do you plan to scale up operations?

For the first half of 2021, Etihad has shown progressive recovery across its business despite a slower than expected return to global air travel. We will continue our transformation into a mid-sized, full-service carrier concentrating on our fleet of widebody aircraft, with a leaner, flatter and scalable organisational structure that supports organic growth as the world returns to flying. Etihad’s network capacity has grown steadily since the start of the year, with the airline operating almost 3,500 flights a month to 67 passenger and cargo destinations by the end of June 2021. During the same period, our we have retained a singular focus on cost control, decreasing operating costs. We retain a pragmatic approach to network planning, focusing on routes that make financial sense. How we gradually return to a full network of international flights depends on various criteria, including directives by international governments

How have fares behaved during the pandemic? How do you see them playing out over the next 12 months?

No one has a crystal ball to predict what the travel landscape will look like even in the near future, as the scenario continues to be dynamic. As countries are opening their borders at different times, pricing has and will continue to 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. Adaptability remains key as markets reopen.

The cargo business has contributed in a big manner to Etihad’s encouraging H1 2021 results – which is again a factor of the immense need to transport vaccines and medicines. Do you see the cargo business continuing to ride this need over the next 12-18 months?

Etihad has recorded strong results in cargo operations in H1 2021 as it continued to play a critical role in facilitating international trade. Our Cargo revenues have gone up as compared to H1 2020 and cargo tonnage for the same period has also increased.

We do see Etihad Cargo continuing to facilitate the transport of vaccines and medicines in the near future as well. Etihad is a founding member of the HOPE Consortium, an Abu Dhabi coalition formed in November 2020 to distribute COVID-19 vaccines across the world. For the same, the airline has carried tonnes of crucial vaccine shipments in support of global vaccination efforts throughout the first half of 2021. To date, the Hope Consortium has handled more than 65 million vaccines across 40 countries in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Asia, and South America.

Further, the airline’s best-in-class PharmaLife product, which offers a temperature-controlled air cargo solution for pharmaceuticals, has seen a 94 per cent year-on-year increase in shipments compared to H1 2020.

With fuel prices on the rise, to what extent do you see sustainability initiatives saving cost, especially if costs rise in step with volume and capacity expansion?

Sustainability has had an extensive impact on the world we live in and it is going to have a greater significance in a post-Covid world. While commercial aviation still only represents around two per cent of global human-made CO2 emissions, the airlines and infrastructure that support them and can adapt to meet the needs of a sustainable, carbon-neutral operation are those that will survive and lead the future of flying.

Remarkably, long before sustainability became a mainstream term, Etihad’s first flight using plant-based fuel was back in 2012: from Abu Dhabi to Washington DC. Fast forward to 2019, and Etihad operated the first commercial flight from Abu Dhabi to Amsterdam on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner using clean, sustainable aviation fuel that had been refined in Abu Dhabi. Sustainable fuel to reduce carbon emissions for the flight was derived from the oil in Salicornia plants, which were grown on the two-hectare farm in Masdar City, Abu Dhabi and refined as part of the Seawater Energy and Agriculture System (SEAS) – the world’s first desert ecosystem designed to produce fuel and food in saltwater.

What is that travellers to and from India can expect from Etihad if the airline sector continues its steady recovery – in terms of new destinations, fare options, facilities, ease of flying?

As borders re-open, we are looking at supporting demand by gradually resuming services and expanding our global network, in line with entry and health regulations set by UAE authorities and those at the end destination. Etihad is currently flying to over 60 destinations worldwide, across the Indian subcontinent, Asia, Australia, Europe, Middle East, Africa, and North America. We are operating services for eligible passengers from eight Indian cities including Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kochi, Mumbai, New Delhi, and Trivandrum. Due to Abu Dhabi’s proximity to the country, we see it continuing to remain a preferred destination and an ideal getaway from India once the situation improves and travel restrictions are further relaxed.

We are prepared for when international travel from the country gradually resumes, and our top priority remains the safety and wellness of our guests and employees. To that end, we have introduced several measures for guests to travel with greater peace of mind with Etihad. As I highlighted earlier, we have introduced specially trained Wellness Ambassadors. Present on every flight, they provide essential travel health information and care. To simplify the process of authenticating travel documents, Etihad established Verified to Fly in May 2021, a service where travellers can validate their documents before arriving at the airport with the confidence that they have met all essential government and airline travel requirements.

What has been the status of staffing in terms of ground staff and air crew? Have there been new recruitments and training in this time? Any upskilling carried out during the lull period?

Etihad has been committed to fostering a culture of inclusion and establishing a workplace where every employee from over 150 countries is valued and supported. With most of our fleet grounded for a large part of last year, we took our time on ground to leverage the power of technology to upskill for and adapt to the current times. Etihad invested in various development platforms over the past year, encouraging employees to learn new skills by making Coursera available to them. We also implemented various training programmes for our staff, to increase awareness about ensuring a safe workplace.

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