Etihad CEO’s Focus on Smaller Aircraft Puts Fleet Plans in Limbo

Etihad Airways plans to rebuild operations around smaller twin-aisle jets once coronavirus lockdowns ease, spelling an uncertain future for the biggest models the Gulf carrier has in its fleet plan.

Etihad hasn’t set a delivery date for Boeing Co.’s coming 777X, and it’s not clear if the Airbus SE A380 superjumbo will ever return, Chief Executive Officer Tony Douglas said in an interview with Bloomberg Television Wednesday. He said the focus will instead be on the smaller Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

“The point really is to concentrate on the backbone, and the backbone for us is the 787 Dreamliner,” Douglas said.

The CEO’s comments underscore how the pandemic stands to change the industry’s global route network, with a focus on shorter, more flexible connections at the expense of the hub model long championed by the three biggest carriers in the Gulf region.

Etihad CEO’s Focus on Smaller Aircraft Puts Fleet Plans in Limbo

Etihad once sought to go toe-to-toe with local rivals Emirates and Qatar Airways Ltd. in linking every corner of the globe. Yet even before the health crisis, Etihad had made some of the deepest fleet cuts in the industry as it tried to rein in losses and refocus the network on the needs of Abu Dhabi, the airline’s owner.

Douglas didn’t go into specifics on longer-term plans around the order book. He said he doesn’t expect air travel to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2023, adding that he didn’t want to create “false certainty” in terms of a rebound.

Alongside about 40 Boeing Dreamliners, Etihad is looking to deploy up to 12 Airbus A350s, Douglas said. The company has currently idled the five A350s it’s already received from an order that now stands at 20 planes, down from 62 originally.

Super Jumbo

Of Etihad’s 10 A380s, the CEO said he’s “not sure we’ll ever bring them back.” The double-decker jets would have a role only on the very busiest routes to cities such as London and New York in the event of a strong rebound, he said.

Etihad has six remaining orders for Boeing’s 777-9, an aircraft now slated to debut in 2023 after numerous delays. Douglas said there’s no fixed date for Etihad to take deliveries.

Etihad has become the first carrier to fully inoculate its crew, Douglas said, adding that he expects potential passengers who have had the jab to have “right of passage.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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