x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Etihad Airways: how the best is getting bigger

Named the World's Leading Airline this week, the national air carrier is determined to continue its rapid expansion.

In Etihad's network operations centre, located at the company's Abu Dhabi headquarters, employees monitor aircraft movement, crews, engineering and customers.
In Etihad's network operations centre, located at the company's Abu Dhabi headquarters, employees monitor aircraft movement, crews, engineering and customers.

ABU DHABI // The Abu Dhabi of 2020 will look dramatically different from the way it is today: Saadiyat Island will be an established cultural centre, there will be improved roads and bridges, and new universities and hotels will dot the capital. Changes predicted for the sky are dramatic, as well.

Etihad Airways, named the World's Leading Airline at the World Travel Awards this week in London, plans to continue the rapid expansion that saw it carry six million passengers last year, in only its fifth full year of operation. The UAE's national airline aims to fly 25 million passengers to 100 destinations by 2020, and increase its staff from 7,000 to 27,000.

Such expansion the airline bills itself as the fastest-growing in the world requires a measured approach, said Ray Gammell, the company's chief people and performance officer. The key to success, he said, is to expand without becoming inefficient: what he called "managed growth". "We're constantly looking at efficiency levels and productivity levels to ensure we are the most efficient airline, benchmarked against the best in the world," he said.

"If they want to add headcount, what's the benchmark? We change things like shift patterns and rosters, and only then do we add headcount." Adding so many staff necessitates a massive training operation. The cabin crew roll call increases by dozens every month. But before they begin flying, recruits must go through a seven-week programme at Etihad's training centre, located beside the company's headquarters near Abu Dhabi International Airport.

The programme for air stewards and stewardesses includes sessions on customer service and safety training that goes beyond just knowing how to point to the emergency exits. Neeta Mansharamani, the cabin crew development manager, said: "Most of them come from a customer service background, so it's easier for them." Recruits must show they can grab an extinguisher and put out fires in a mock aircraft cabin that can produce flames in the galley, in the seat, behind the seat, in the toilet or in the luggage rack.

Another cabin simulator, known as the emergency evacuation trainer, moves up and down, mimicking take-offs, landings and emergency situations. Cabin crew practise bracing for impact and must show they can disembark using an inflatable slide on to land or a life raft. When they reach the safety of the raft, which is in a pool, they must jump into the water and then climb back on to it. Hadi Hattar, the manager of safety training, said: "We explain sea survival training and we have the life jackets exactly as on the aircraft." Experienced cabin crew are brought back once a year for refresher courses.

Currently, for instance, the airline is training all its crew members for the upgraded service in economy class, which will adopt the "inspired service" ethos applied in first class and business class. Training pilots is an even more involved and expensive process. Etihad has four flight simulators: one for the Boeing 777, one for the Airbus A320 and two that are equivalent to both the Airbus A330 and the A340. Each cost more than US$10 million (Dh37m).

After the cadet pilots have completed 18 months at flight school, it takes another year and a half for them to become fully fledged first officers. Established captains and first officers are required regularly to brush up their skills, too. Tamer Mokbel, the manager of pilot ground training, said: "Every six months they go through this, and every year they go through more extensive training that includes safety and emergency training."

Aircraft may have fly-by-wire systems and automatic pilots, but there is no substitute for human input, especially during bad weather. "The aeroplanes these days are so technologically advanced," said Capt Peter Mitchell, vice president for training and standards. "They can do very, very good automatic landings, very smooth. But if it's very foggy and low visibility, it will be the captain landing."