‘Fuel prices remain a challenge’: Neerja Bhatia, vice-president, Indian subcontinent, Etihad Airways

The airline is committed to outperforming pre-pandemic expectations with the introduction of its fuel-efficient fleets A350-1000s in India.

‘Fuel prices remain a challenge’: Neerja Bhatia, vice-president, Indian subcontinent, Etihad Airways
India is one of the largest and busiest markets for us. We see India as a key market since the country holds a strong, historic relationship with the UAE. In fact, there is a huge Indian diaspora living in the UAE. India is a key market for Etihad also due to its proximity to Abu Dhabi. We see it continuing to remain a preferred destination and an ideal getaway from India.

Etihad Airways announced its financial results for the first half of 2022 with an operating profit of $296 million. The airline is committed to outperforming pre-pandemic expectations with the introduction of its fuel-efficient fleets A350-1000s in India. Neerja Bhatia, vice-president of the Indian subcontinent, Etihad Airways, speaks with Vaishali Dar on global demand, new fleet and trends in the industry. Edited excerpts

Q. How have you catered to the demand and supply issues globally?

We recently announced the financial and operating results for the first half of 2022 with an operating profit of $296 million (H1 2021: $392 million loss). This was achieved despite fuel costs that increased almost 60% in comparison to the same period last year. We carried 4.02 million passengers in H1 2022, over 3 million more than last year (H1 2021: 980,000), with an average seat load factor of 75%. Passenger loads increased consistently over the first six months, rising by 21.9 percentage points as travel demand recovered.We saw a strong boost in passenger volumes in February as Abu Dhabi further relaxed pandemic-related restrictions, thus passenger revenues tripled in the first six months of the year, climbing to $1.25 billion (H1 2021: $320 million) as more business and leisure travellers returned to the air.With the past two years of global uncertainty, we have strengthened our cargo booking portal on etihadcargo.com which was revamped in 2021 to streamline the booking process to less than 45 seconds, increasing web bookings by 36% within three months of its launch. Currently, our network serves more than 70 destinations worldwide, including our newly-introduced seasonal routes, connecting Abu Dhabi to popular hotspots across Europe and the Indian Ocean. We are committed to outperforming pre-pandemic expectations with the introduction of the A350-1000s, one of the youngest and most sustainable fleets in India. The Airbus A350 named ‘Sustainable50’ will operate as a flying test-bed, just like our Greenliner programme for the Boeing 787.

Q. What sort of demand do you see coming from India in terms of traffic and from which sectors?

Prospects for demand from India are strong on the back of its growing economy, increasing middle-class income, student and corporate traffic, as well as people travelling to visit friends and relatives or just for leisure. We have recorded a strong surge in passenger volumes since the resumption of international travel. Toronto and the US are hot favourites currently. Europe is quite a popular route.

Q. Will Airbus A350-1000 aircraft drive demand from India?

The Airbus A350-1000 is setting new standards of air travel, offering unrivalled levels of operational efficiency, with a 25% reduction in fuel burn and emissions. It’s a travel proposition for flyers and the planet. We recently introduced A350 services to New York and Chicago O’Hare International Airport, joining Mumbai and Delhi routes. By introducing this, we have almost doubled premium capacity on our New York and Chicago routes to 44 seats in the business cabin, which provides a luxurious experience comparable to First Class on other international airlines. Our passengers travelling to the US have access to Etihad’s US pre-clearance, the only United States Customs and Border Protection facility in the Middle East which allows passengers bound for the US to process all immigration, customs and agriculture inspections in Abu Dhabi before they board their flight, avoiding immigration and queues on arrival in the US.

Q. How important is the Indian market?

India is one of the largest and busiest markets for us. We see India as a key market since the country holds a strong, historic relationship with the UAE. In fact, there is a huge Indian diaspora living in the UAE. India is a key market for Etihad also due to its proximity to Abu Dhabi. We see it continuing to remain a preferred destination and an ideal getaway from India.

Q. What is the biggest challenge in the aviation industry?

While travel demand has picked up, one of the current challenges for the aviation sector worldwide is the rising fuel prices. Etihad is operating a young and highly fuel-efficient fleet, specifically the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and our newest Airbus A350s, which are 20% more fuel-efficient than previous generation aircraft. With jet fuel prices at a high, it is clear that a highly fuel-efficient fleet will be critical for any airline.

Q. What sustainable initiatives have been introduced by the airline?

We were recently awarded the Environmental Airline of the Year 2022 by Airline Ratings for our extensive and industry-leading work on reducing carbon emissions. Our new sustainability-driven economy experience will be launched on board in the fourth quarter of the year. This will enable our goals to reduce single-use plastic by 80%, and deliver an unmatched flight experience.

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