x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Etihad passenger numbers to soar

The airline expects annual figures to rise by 20.6 per cent.

Etihad Airways is expecting its annual passenger figures to rise by 20.6 per cent this year as the recovery in global travel continues. The expected surge in bookings will help the Abu Dhabi airline draw closer to its target of profitability next year - initially planned for this year until airlines suffered their worst economic tailspin in more than 50 years. "Cargo is back well above 2008 levels and, quite frankly, if we can get yields back to where they were in 2008 across the business, then we will hit break-even," said James Hogan, the chief executive of Etihad.

Yesterday, the airline reported a strong rebound in traffic in the first quarter, with revenue passenger kilometres, a key industry measure, up by 25.4 per cent. It also said its planes were 75 per cent full, up from 73 per cent one year ago. Mr Hogan called the figures "encouraging" amid the gloomy global outlook, with airlines worldwide expected to lose a collective US$2.8 billion (Dh10.28bn). This year, the airline aims to carry 7.6 million passengers, up from 6.3 million last year as its executes the fastest airline growth in history, averaging more than eight new aircraft a year for the past six years. Last year alone, it took delivery of 11 aeroplanes and added eight destinations. The growth comes as the General Civil Aviation Authority reported a 12 per cent surge in total aircraft movements in the first three months of the year, to 153,000 from 137,000.

Etihad's rise has included high-profile sport sponsorships in its role as the biggest ambassador and consumer brand for Abu Dhabi. Its sponsorships include the English Premier League football teams Manchester City and Chelsea, the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix and a major sports stadium in Melbourne. But as it looks towards next year, the airline is increasingly focused on its investments in new routes and services benefiting the bottom line, Mr Hogan said. "We are now going to achieve payback as we move to the maturity stage," he said.

Services to Chicago, its biggest route launch over the past year, are running an average of 87 per cent full in economy class, well ahead of the break-even occupancy levels of 65 per cent for a typical airline. The airline was seeing strong demand for economy and business tickets in Australia and the Asia-Pacific region, Mr Hogan said, particularly from the Philippines and Indonesia. India was "coming back", he added, while the Middle East and Europe were "two areas of concern".

Last year, regional air travel was hit by the global financial crisis, the H1N1 pandemic and higher competition from foreign carriers in Asia and Europe, which increased their capacity in the Middle East to take advantage of the relatively higher demand. Etihad's business will benefit as new projects and events in Abu Dhabi attract more passengers. Yet its plans have had to be revised due to delays over aircraft deliveries and the improvement of airport infrastructure. The airline expects to begin receiving in 2014 its first Boeing 787 Dreamliners and Airbus A380 superjumbos - both part of a US$21bn order for 100 aircraft placed in 2008.

In addition, Etihad will now be based at terminals 1 and 3 at Abu Dhabi International Airport until the first quarter of 2015, when the new multibillion-dollar Midfield Terminal is opened, a delay of several years. igale@thenational.ae