x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Washington welcome for Etihad Airways

Etihad's first flight to Washington DC this week was marked by a grand welcome and series of special events

Etihad Airways' new daily service to Washington's Dulles Airport will offer 3,300 seats per week between the American and UAE capitals. J David Buerk / Etihad
Etihad Airways' new daily service to Washington's Dulles Airport will offer 3,300 seats per week between the American and UAE capitals. J David Buerk / Etihad

The fire trucks' water cannons shot a welcome arch over Flight EY131 as the plane taxied to the gate on time on a sunny spring evening. Etihad Airways had come to town.

The arrival, on Monday, was to be the beginning of a week of gala dinners, ambassadors' receptions and relationship-building. And the occasion?

James Hogan, the president and chief executive of Etihad, summed it up the following night in the columned hall of the Andrew Mellon Auditorium in the heart of the capital of the United States.

"It's just over a year since I had the pleasure of announcing that Etihad Airways, the national carrier of the United Arab Emirates, would introduce daily non-stop flights between Washington Dulles International Airport and Abu Dhabi, capital of the UAE," he told the 500 invited guests. "And now here we are, as promised."

The aircraft had been welcomed by Etihad's Washington Dulles airport manager, Shaeb Al Najjar, an Emirati, and by Haitham Al Subaihi, another UAE national and Etihad's vice president for sales for the central US, based in the airline's new Washington office. Flight EY 131's captain for the first Abu-Dhabi-Dulles trip was also an Emirati. Facts James Hogan stressed in each of his speeches in the US capital.

Washington Dulles is now Etihad's fourth destination in North America after New York, Chicago and Toronto, and the first of five destinations the airline will add this year to its growing global network.

However, with the growing relations and trade between the UAE and the US, the launch of the service is weighted with far more significance than just another new Etihad route, and Mr Hogan and his team used the past week to convince America that they are in town to do business.

"We know that services already exist between your national capital and the UAE - but until now there have been no direct flights to Abu Dhabi, a city which I guarantee you'll hear much more about," Mr Hogan said during an earlier press conference at the Newseum, a seven-level complex celebrating the history of the media that sits in the shadows of the US Capitol.

He spelt out the facts: The US is a major business partner of the UAE and its largest single export market in the Middle East and North Africa, accounting for sales of more than US$22 billion (Dh80.81bn) last year. As a trading partner, Abu Dhabi's GDP is forecast to grow at an annual average of 5.6 per cent between this year and 2016. Of that, non-oil GDP is forecast to grow at 6.5 per cent during the same period.

That, explained Mr Hogan, was why Etihad had arrived in Washington.

"Washington, DC, is a natural addition to our growing network, not only because of inter-government business but also the surging level of commerce between the USA and UAE and the extraordinary economic growth of the emirate of Abu Dhabi," he said.

"The market has now grown sufficiently to warrant not only non-stop service but a daily frequency, and already we're seeing very encouraging forward bookings for travel in both directions.

"We are providing over 3,300 seats per week on this route with three-class Airbus A340-500 aircraft.

"And as a further demonstration of our confidence in this market, we have invested $6.8 million in a Premium Lounge, which we'll officially open in Terminal A at Dulles Airport."

Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the US, and Michael Corbin, the US ambassador to the UAE, had joined Mr Hogan at the press conference, and, in their welcoming addresses, both agreed that for them, this was personal.

"I believe I speak for ambassador Corbin when I say we are likely to become the airline's most frequent flyers on this route," said Mr Al Otaiba.

At the Andrew W Mellon Auditorium, Mr Hogan and ambassador Al Otaiba co-hosted the gala for US industrialists, representatives from the US government, the Emirati embassy in Washington and the US airline, travel and tourism industry.

Ambassador Al Otaiba said he was pleased the links between the two countries were being strengthened with the new service.

"I want to congratulate Etihad Airways on the launch of this new flight connecting our two capitals. This flight is a reflection of the strong ties between the UAE and the US, and it will help expand trade, enhance diplomacy, broaden cultural understanding, and deepen the friendship that binds our countries and our communities closer together," he said.

Mr Hogan pushed his own message.

"Our aim is to become and remain the best airline in the world, and our investments in US technology will assist us in achieving that goal," he told the gathering.

And then came the food. Led by Etihad's executive chef, Thomas Ulherr, 11 of the airline's 100 classically trained first-class in-flight chefs paraded the meal they had been flown in to create.

As the assembled dignitaries digested both Mr Hogan's words and their food, they were entertained by the Grammy award-winning jazz musician Harry Connick Jr. But the bandwagon did not stop there.

The next day Mr Hogan and his entourage were off to the International Aviation Club luncheon at the City Club of Washington.

To a packed room that included officials from the US federal aviation administration, Boeing, the US state department and the department of transportation, as well as some from Mr Hogan's airline competition, he said the traditional airline way of working no longer works.

"When we started, they [the established airlines] said, 'you're from the Middle East. We don't want to talk to you', so we had to develop our own way of doing things," said Mr Hogan.

"We work through partnerships and networks that are mutually beneficial … and we can connect you to markets where you will not see an American carrier. If you fly to Abu Dhabi, we can connect you to 10 Indian cities alone, to destinations across the Middle East and Africa, and Asia from China to Australia … a market of over 1 billion people.

"We welcome Washington, DC to the Etihad Airways network."