MIAMI – This week, Airways sat down (virtually) with Vincent Frascogna, Vice President of Americas at Etihad Airways (EY), to reflect on how the airline has navigated through COVID-19, and their path moving forward.

This interview marks one year since the airline was forced to ground their entire fleet. Numerous border closures, millions of COVID-19 cases and a shattered travel industry later, airlines can now begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel with the incredible scientific innovation of vaccines leading to an eventual increase in travel.

Etihad has continually made strides to offer consumer-centered solutions to problems invoked by COVID-19. These include increased partnerships with organizations like IATA, creating a Wellness Program, being the first airline to institute a negative PCR requirement for travelers to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), among others.

Although many airlines have adopted similar approaches, Frascogna specified EY’s nature as a young airline and its strong connection to the UAE as reasons for the airline’s adaptability.

Frascogna estimates that Etihad’s period of re-evaluating its business model, fleet, and network that began two years prior to the emergence of COVID-19 allowed the airline to remain flexible during the volatile period.

Photo: Alberto Cucini/Airways

COVID-19 Beginnings

Etihad’s journey through COVID-19 began on March 23, 2020, when the UAE airspace was closed, and the airline’s whole fleet grounded.

In preparation for a heavy rebound in demand, the airline opted to use the grounding as an opportunity to refresh their existing fleet through a heavy maintenance program for the whole fleet.

Due to the nature of strict lockdowns, global e-commerce sales skyrocketed, opening a door for airlines to recoup revenue lost on the struggling travel market with an increase in cargo operations. As with other airlines, EY closely monitored markets to strike a balance between passenger and cargo operations, while looking at gateways that could meet the needs of both.

Etihad has been able to restore service to New York, Chicago, Toronto and Washington, but is yet to re-add Los Angeles service.

Although passenger demand is one-third of what it was pre-pandemic, the airline has seen an uptick in bookings for premium leisure travel, specifically in Seychelles, the Maldives, and new destinations that are not typical for travelers from the US and Canada, like Thailand.

Photo: Johann Heske/Airways

Personal Protection Onboard Etihad

According to Frascogna, one of the main priorities for EY has been providing not only passengers and crew, but also governments with the peace of mind that the airline is taking all precautions necessary to quell the spread of COVID-19 onboard their aircraft.

Etihad anticipates the need for masks and cabin crew wearing personal protective equipment to remain as an industry standard for the foreseeable future. Limiting interactions between cabin crew and passengers while maintaining high service standards will continue to be EY’s goal moving forward.

Additionally, EY has worked with IATA, as have other airlines, to develop and utilize the Digital Travel Passport, a tool that could prove to be instrumental in creating a uniform method of categorizing travel, vaccinations and COVID-19 tests.

Photo: Milan Witham/Airways

Looking Forward to Brighter Times

Through the rapid deployment of COVID-19 vaccines in select countries, the aviation industry can begin to see a glimmer of hope in an anticipated return of travel later this year. Largely vaccinated populations will be a catalyst for the travel industry to recover. 

Vaccines are not only a solution to bring an end to the pandemic, but also represent a significant opportunity for airlines to transport millions of doses of vaccines to cities across the globe. 

Etihad expects the demand for COVID-19 vaccine transport to last for the next 12-24 months, offering a long term source of revenue for the airline, while contributing to the race to vaccinate the global population.

Additionally, Frascogna expects the overcapacity in the market to create significant competition between the airlines, leading to competitive prices for passengers. 

Photo: Miles Aronovitz/Airways

The Interview

AW: What attributes helped Etihad to be agile in responding to COVID?

There are two things; one, in relative terms we’re still quite a young airline, being 15 years old, we’re still relatively young, so we still have that mindset of being able to be innovative and adapt to situations. 

We’ve done that since our inception by looking at new opportunities, not being too beholden by the fact that we are an airline, but looking at things outside of our industry and taking the good aspects of them. 

The second aspect is around partnerships, and not trying to do everything ourselves, but looking at strategic partnerships outside, whether it’s with IATA, or with other carriers to ensure that we’re able to provide a good network for our consumer. 

At the same time, we’re very fortunate to have a home market of the UAE and Abu Dhabi that also thinks like us. It’s innovative, adapts well, looks at new opportunities and wants to try new things. 

Even during this pandemic, being able to put on large events for the UFC, which traditionally would have taken place in the United States, with the UAE and Abu Dhabi being able to quarantine areas and provide confirmation of safety and security within those areas. They have been able to put on global events, even during a pandemic, which have been confirmed as safe and secure. 

AW: Now that you mention partnerships, are there any ongoing negotiations or discussions with other airlines and alliances going on? 

We’re always looking at opportunities to drive improved network accessibility through our own gateways. We don’t need to operate to every single city around the world. We do that by focusing on core gateways with those key partnerships.

“We don’t need to operate to every single city around the world. We do that by focusing on core gateways with those key partnerships.”

In the US, we have a good interline partnership with American Airlines right now, and we have a strong codeshare partnership with JetBlue. The intent there is to look at those other opportunities to see how we can grow organically in a market like the US to still be accessible to some of those secondary and tertiary cities over our gateways as well. 

We recently announced expanded partnerships with Saudia, Gulf Air, but as I said, discussions are ongoing to see how we can expand our partnerships, complementing the network that we operate in our own right. 

AW: Moving onto Etihad’s fleet, one thing that our readers are interested in is the Airbus A380. Can you offer any insights on what might be happening to the aircraft moving forward?

The A380 has been a fantastic aircraft for us historically. We were able to develop some market changing products that were implemented as part of the A380 rollout. As it stands, the ten Airbus A380s that we have in our fleet will remain on the ground for the foreseeable future. 

“As it stands, the ten Airbus A380s that we have in our fleet will remain on the ground for the foreseeable future.”

There is not enough demand in some of our core markets where they were operating for it to be back in the sky at this stage. Our core focus at this stage is our smaller, more fuel-efficient aircraft based on current passenger and cargo demands. For North America, it’s the 787-9s that are our focus at least for the foreseeable future. 

AW: How have you been able to bring some of the premium elements of the A380, especially The Residence, a groundbreaking product, into the smaller aircraft like the 787?

It’s an interesting question because with the A380, we’ve almost been competing with ourselves based on the other products that we have on the 777s or the 787s. 

The 787 is still a luxury-defining aircraft when we look at not just up at the front with First and Business Class, but also in economy with the quality of the furnishings, seat pitches, our catering offering and the overall service. 

Photo: Luca Flores/Airways

Going up to the front in our premium cabins, offering the first curved aisle in premium classes enables every passenger to have an aisle-access seat via virtue of the curved aisle that we designed with Boeing at the start.

Of course, the 787s and 777s don’t have The Residence but still have an amazing offering from First, Business and Economy. Behind the scenes, there are still developments being worked on to continually push the envelope when it comes to the offering at the front, but also in Economy as well.

AW: Going back to COVID-19, what was your first reaction and instinct when you heard that UAE airspace would be closed, and that the entire fleet would be grounded?

For different reasons, immediately it brought my mind back to 9/11. It was the only time that I had been involved (with British Airways at that point) to see a whole fleet grounded. 

The difference being, for various reasons, one being security, another being pandemic related, that very quickly, aircraft were able to get back into the skies with some new processes from a security perspective at airports.

This has taken a lot longer to get aircraft back into the skies because the demand just isn’t there right now. Either because people are unable to travel because they don’t want to travel, or because they’re not allowed to travel. 

My initial reaction was that we will get this sorted quicker than it’s actually taken place. As time progressed, it was more of an effort of us as an airline to say ‘how do we work with this situation, rather than work against it?’ 

That’s why, even with the aircraft on the ground, you look at that as an opportunity. ‘How do you do all the heavy maintenance that you may have done in a few months’ time, how do you bring that forward and make full use of having the aircraft on the ground?’ 

‘How do you work with your airport partners to establish the right processes in place? How do you, instead of being a passive entity within a situation, be progressive and push organizations to introduce new procedures?’

“How do you, instead of being a passive entity within a situation, be progressive and push organizations to introduce new procedures?”

We were the only airline, back in August of last year, to require a negative PCR test to fly on our airline. We were the only airline out of hundreds of airlines, which really sets us apart from the rest. 

Some people saw it as a positive, others saw it as a negative, but what happened was that as time went on, a lot of countries implemented the same requirement. We were already set up and ready because we already had this policy and process implemented. 

In some ways, that’s created increased and improved loyalty from certain customers because they’ve seen how attentive we have been to ensure the full safety of people on board. Now, 100% of our flight crew have been vaccinated, so you can now fly on an Etihad aircraft with the knowledge that all passengers have a negative PCR test and all crew are fully vaccinated. 

That’s really been a catalyst to improved market share, but also stimulating demand for people who have been able to see this and say ‘Maybe I don’t want to travel now, but I feel more comfortable to book something in September or October’, especially when you add into the mix that we have free COVID insurance with every booking, and full flexibility for flight changes if required as well. 

AW: What is the forecast looking like, and how has the rollout of vaccines in the US changed those forecasts? 

I’m quietly confident that come Q4 this year, we’re going to start to see demand improve. Initially, it’s going to be very much leisure travel based; VFR (visiting friends and relatives) going from the US to the Middle East, the Gulf region and also the Indian subcontinent. 

We’re going to really see that increase, but also the pent up demand for leisure travel. From September onwards, we’re seeing a lot of passenger demand and interest for destinations like the Maldives, the Seychelles, the UAE, and Thailand.

A lot more of these leisure destinations that historically wouldn’t have been the choice for the US consumer.

Photo: Andrew Henderson/Airways

From a business traveler perspective, I think the rebound curve is going to be slightly more elongated, since we’re not going to see as much business travel take place as we would hope. However, moving into next year, more governments around the world are going to help to try to stimulate business travel.

They recognize that business travel is a stimulant of their own economies, not just in terms of how much people are spending when they are traveling, but the fact that business travel encourages trade, investment, and country-to-country business. 

We’re at a defining moment where it’s important for Etihad and other airlines to work together as an industry, to work with associations such as IATA, but also hand in hand with governments. What may seem like a fad now, or something which is a new process like a digital passport, will actually just become a normal process going forward. 

After 9/11, we had what was called the ‘theatre of security’. We’ve gone through the whole ‘theatre of cleanliness, sanitization and health’ and what seems not normal now will actually become a normal process for the consumer and passengers going forward. 

AW: Lastly, you mentioned Etihad’s role in working with other countries and other airlines; what do you think is Etihad’s role as a flag carrier in the region and being a representative of the UAE? 

In my mind, when you talk about Etihad, you talk about the UAE in the same breath and vice versa; we are one in the same. We come at things strategically focused on the same goals. 

The whole Israel piece is a prime example; today marks our first flight to Tel Aviv from Abu Dhabi, a part of the bigger, more monumental piece that the UAE has been working on to establish peace and security in the region. 

“Today marks our first flight to Tel Aviv from Abu Dhabi, a part of the bigger, more monumental piece that the UAE has been working on to establish peace and security in the region.”

The UAE, as part of the Abraham Accords, has been the first country within the region, hand in hand with Bahrain, to look at how to establish peaceful agreements between Israel and Middle Eastern countries. 

Etihad goes hand in hand with that, and we will work very closely with our US partners, whether it’s the UAE embassy in the US, or our Israeli counterparts in the US to not just stimulate demand from North America into Israel for tourism purposes, but also business, trade, and investment that takes place between the US and Israel, while bringing the UAE in as the Middle Eastern partner. 

AW: Thanks for having us today, Vincent!

Featured Image: Misael Ocasio Hernandez/Airways