Etihad Airways uses down time to get ahead on maintenance

A jet takes off into a sunset sky.

Etihad Airways on Thursday outlined its strategy for gradually restarting passenger flights, but said it is being opportunistic during the pandemic downturn to ramp up passenger and cargo charters, as well as work on a massive maintenance program.

The airline, based in the United Arab Emirates, said in a statement that it has embarked on the biggest aircraft maintenance program in its history, with Etihad’s maintenance, repair and overhaul group working on 96 passenger aircraft including 10 Airbus A380s. The program ranges from minor tasks, such as seat repairs and updates to Inflight Entertainment Systems, to bringing forward scheduled engine changes and modifications on several aircraft. Taking care of these items now will eliminate the need to withdraw them from service when flights begin operating again, Etihad said.

As the UAE slowly eases travel restrictions following a two-week total lockdown, Etihad will operate a reduced passenger schedule between May 1 and June 30. Further flight expansion depends on when the coronavirus spread is contained.

The airline previously grounded 80% of its fleet.

Without its normal network to serve, Etihad has plenty of spare passenger aircraft and, like many fellow carriers, quickly pivoted to offer special flights to repatriate vacationers and other travelers to their home countries and cargo-only flights for shippers facing transport scarcity.

Etihad, the second-largest airline in the UAE after Emirates, said it is currently using 22 Boeing 787 Dreamliners and 777-300ER passenger aircraft, with five more ready for service, to complement its operational fleet of five 777-200 freighters. These aircraft are providing scheduled and special passenger and belly-hold cargo services to 16 destinations worldwide, with more being planned.

Since March 25, the carrier has operated about 500 special passenger, freighter and dedicated cargo-only flights. The passenger rescue flights also offer belly capacity for freight. 

Etihad Cargo is operating up to 100 flight rotations per week to 32 destinations on five continents. In addition to normal scheduled cargo services, special freighter and humanitarian flights have been flown to cities such as Dublin, Rome, Johannesburg and Karachi, Pakistan.

The company is also conducting an extensive brand study, trying out new service concepts for passengers, and scoping out greater use of automation and technology to improve efficiency. 

“While the intention is to assume a ‘business as usual’ approach to the restart of our operations, the aviation landscape has changed, and how it will look month by month is difficult to predict,” Etihad Aviation Group CEO Tony Douglas said in a statement. “This has necessitated a fundamental shift in focus for us. However, the cumulative gains achieved by our ongoing transformation, and the unwavering support of our shareholder [the government of Abu Dhabi], has left us in a relatively strong position to withstand any instability. We will pivot on this and act with agility to seize opportunities we may not have previously considered.”