x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Etihad will need at least 24 hours after go-ahead

Etihad Airways predicts that its flight schedules will return to normal "within 24 to 36 hours" after aircraft are allowed to fly over Europe.

ABU DHABI // Etihad Airways predicts that its flight schedules will return to normal "within 24 to 36 hours" after aircraft are allowed to fly over Europe. Chris Youlten, the vice president of airport and network operations for Etihad, said contingency plans are in place to ensure that the carrier's planes are back up in the air as soon as possible, once the ash cloud from the volcanic eruption in Iceland lifts and flights can resume.

"We're not like other airlines who have aircraft grounded around the world that have to be put back into schedule," Mr Youlten said. He said the first six hours during an airline disruption of this magnitude are the worst because of a lack of information. After that, he said, the technical side of the situation could be addressed. "The situation in Europe broke the cycle, so the first thing we have to do is to make sure we have enough aircraft and the right type of aircraft to cover our worldwide destinations, which is what we do every day anyway, but just on a larger scale in this case," he said.

Flights to Europe make up almost one third of Etihad's operations. "We are isolating that third while the rest of our business continues normally and we are dealing with this third on an ongoing basis," Mr Youlten said. Etihad aircraft currently stranded in Europe will simply resume operations as soon as airlines receive the go-ahead. The problem is not in rescheduling flights, which is already part of the Etihad's network operations centre's risk management plans; the problem is in understanding the magnitude of the passenger backlog.

"Nobody's left Europe," said Mr Youlten, "and for those passengers, what we're hoping and communicating is that they should be contacting us and moving their travel dates to three or four days from now. "Once they have, we don't have to worry about them." Afterwards, they will be registered as part of the backlog. However, he said, there will be passengers who have not yet rebooked or changed their travel plans, and are waiting for the airline to handle their logistics.

"These passengers will essentially present themselves to us and ask us how we plan to get them back home. "For those passengers, we will be providing extra flights." He estimated that an extra flight or two will have to be scheduled per day, for approximately "one or two or three days", to meet the backlog. "It won't all happen in one day because although we can provide extra capacity and schedule more flights should we need it, there is not that much spare capacity.

"But we can provide an extra flight per day to a needy area." The smaller the airline, the more difficult it will be to bounce back after a lull such as this because of a lack of resources, Mr Youlten said. "We monitor the situation literally by the hour and prepare a schedule with the assumption that we will be operating in 24 hours," and then just push that back as needed, he said. Catering should not prove to be an issue, he added. If planes are not scheduled to fly, caterers are not preparing food.

"Aviation scheduling is set up to support airlines, so if they have a disruption, all will know about it and plan accordingly," said Mr Youlten. He said that caterers need only three to four hours to fully supply a flight. The availability of ground handlers and aircraft crew is not an issue either, he said; crews are stranded along with passengers in Europe and will be ready to work when needed. "We have things covered, like ensuring that we have crew available, and that aircraft are ready to go, from a maintenance perspective, and that we have passengers to fill those flights as well.

"The network centre is analysing those situations with the thought that we may have to operate any time in the next 24 hours." hkhalaf@thenational.ae