In an exclusive interview for Airline Travel News HH Dr.Sheikh Ahmed bin Saif Al Nahyan, Chairman of Etihad Airways and one of the key architects of the rapid development of the aviation industry in UAE talked to us about his successes and his plans for the future.Etihad is a very new airline - what factors have supported the rapid growth of the business? Have you had any time to enjoy the progress you’ve made?
I think that there are three main factors behind Etihad’s growth and success so far: firstly the passion of our team and our people for a new and dynamic aviation brand which focuses on providing genuine points of difference for the passenger. Secondly, our focus and aggressive business plan which demonstrates both a commitment to succeed and also generates momentum in terms of our development and finally our proposition which puts the customer first with a unique combination of Arabian hospitality, a characteristic of the region, combined with a genuine understanding of the needs and preferences of modern, discerning travellers.
As you can imagine, we are working full-time on achieving our vision of a world-leading airline, so there is little time for reflection. However, I can say that we are pleased with the results so far and this is very motivating for us in terms of the challenges that lie ahead.
What key factors distinguish Etihad from its direct competitors and what do you see as the key elements of your brand?
Quality, genuine understanding, dynamism, creativity, discernment, passion….the list could go on. Functionality, of course, we are an airline and we take people from one location to another - but there the similarity with our competitors ends.
At Etihad we recognize that “passengers” belong to an airline, which not only focuses on functional operation. At Etihad, travel is an experience and for this reason our customers should be treated as guests and not simply “passengers”.
We spend a great deal of time looking at how our hospitality as an airline can improve the travel experience from before the customer gets on board the aircraft to well after they have landed. We are achieving this by making our guests’ desires and preferences an integral part of the way we are developing our offer - co-creating to ensure we provide to our guests with what they need and want from an airline, and not just what they get given.
By being genuinely creative about the way we develop Etihad, we will always be able to ensure our guests are delighted, relaxed and stress-free - and never just satisfied.
What have been your most recent successes & what were the most positive aspects of 2004 for you?
2004 was the first full year of our operation and we managed to launch some 16 routes in that first year, so this would be a very positive aspect for us. Another high point was the award of “The World’s Leading New Airline” at the World Travel Awards in December last year. This came at a particularly well-timed moment as we drew to the end of a demanding, but very rewarding year. We have also enjoyed great response from customers with most of our routes running in excess of 70% capacity throughout the year, which is very encouraging for the future.
How have recent world events affected your business and have you had to adapt your initial vision for the airline? In what ways?
Obviously the Tsunami disaster was a very tragic and impactful event, which has affected many, many lives. We have co-operated closely with Red Crescent Society, providing cargo space to transfer humanitarian aid including food and other supplies to the worst hit areas. We have 18 flights a week to Colombo, Bombay, Bangkok and New Delhi, so it was very natural for us to want to help in the best way we could.
This has not changed or affected the mission of the airline whatsoever. We remain committed to providing an airline experience with a difference that matters to our guests.
How important are international trade shows like ATM 2005 to the success of Etihad?
ATM 2005 is one of the premier travel shows in the world. We will be at this year’s show and it is a great opportunity for us to learn, listen and demonstrate our offer to the travel trade. We will be making use of this opportunity to understand more about our customers and see how we can further differentiate our offer to the discerning traveller. It is also a very important opportunity to meet with partners, suppliers and the members of the travel trade industry with whom we already do business and with whom we will in the future. Etihad is proud to be taking part and we look forward to many more opportunities to be part of this show in the future.
In what ways will your deal for the Airbus A380 assist that development of Etihad?
The Airbus A380 is one of the most advanced, modern aircraft available today. Innovative and pioneering, these aircraft are highly suited to Etihad’s ambitions as an airline. We are proud that we will be one of the first to fly this aircraft.
I think this is a demonstration of not only our ambition, but also of our commitment to growing with our customers.
Which areas of your business are you looking to invest more resources into? How important are developments in Internet technology to the success of Etihad?
Guests, guests and guests. We know that if we understand our guests then we can provide what they need, desire and prefer. Only by doing this will we differentiate ourselves from both the competition and in the mind of the customer. Making Etihad meaningfully memorable, a pleasure to fly with not matter what route, destination or start point is critical and will be where our resources are most focused. Naturally, this extends into our relationship with suppliers and partners, as we will all ultimately be part of a value chain with the customer as main beneficiary.
The internet is an area which is important to Etihad and we recognize its uses in terms of on-line booking, customer information and information management, but Etihad will always be a people business first and foremost, with technology only working as an enabler, not as a substitution for genuine service and hospitality.
What are your specific targets for 2005?
Our targets are sustainable growth, innovation and creation - as well as the continued and rapid expansion of our routes and schedules. We will shortly be announcing even more new routes for 2005 and we have an aggressive plan for the world this year. Moreover, we have launched our freighter service with Etihad Crystal Cargo with a route to Frankfurt, which will initially fly twice a week. There is much more to come, but you will have to wait for the surprise.
What are the key long-term goals for Etihad?
What are the key long-term goals for any business? To fulfil the promise of the UAE. For Etihad this means continued growth, commitment to innovation and creativity, and continually striving to improve our operations, service and offer. We will be judged by our guests in terms of our success.
Etihad is a global airline for true internationalists, and we believe we are the only airline that genuinely delivers a unique combination of hospitality that brings people from around the globe closer together.