Interview: Tony Douglas

How can the industry capitalise on opportunities stemming from an expected increase in passengers in key source markets and emerging economies?

TONY DOUGLAS: The greatest growth in aviation will come from the Asia-Pacific region, which already delivers 37% of global passenger numbers and 45% of all traffic to and from the Middle East. China and India are – and will continue to be – key growth drivers. However, emerging markets such as Indonesia and Vietnam have sizeable potential and are forecast by the International Air Transport Association will be among the top-10 growth markets. These countries will be ahead of more mature sources – particularly Europe – where growth is continuing but at a more moderate rate. Here in our own region, the GCC delivers 20% of the UAE’s current traffic, and that too will grow.

Etihad Airways is reshaping itself to become a strong, medium-sized carrier in a changing global environment, with a focus on supporting Abu Dhabi’s growth by connecting the emirate to high-potential markets with the right aircraft and partnerships. An additional element of our strategy is to partner with fellow UAE airline Air Arabia to launch a new low-cost carrier to meet growing demand for low-fare flights to and from the emirate.

In what ways are sustainability and environmentally friendly practices shaping the aviation sector?

DOUGLAS: Sustainability is a very broad term, extending from the environment to social, financial and economic responsibility. For aviation, which is under the global spotlight, there is an ongoing focus on the impact of climate change, described by the UN as “the defining issue of our time”. Aviation accounts for approximately 2% of global carbon emissions, and the international community is pressing our sector to cut its emissions, but with air passenger journeys set to at least double within 20 years, reduction is a significant challenge.

Various alternative fuels are in trials, and electric and super-aerodynamic aircraft are under discussion. Etihad is targeting zero net carbon emissions by 2050 and a halving of 2019-level net emissions by 2035. However, these are all long-term initiatives, and more immediate measures are needed. We continue to induct next-generation Boeing and Airbus aircraft and test sustainable alternative fuels, including supplies developed in Abu Dhabi. By the end of 2022 we will reduce our reliance on single-use plastics by 80%. We also launched the Etihad Greenliner Programme, which – in collaboration with partners such as Boeing, the engine maker GE Aviation, and other suppliers and research organisations – will become a major driver of the kind of incremental initiatives that deliver immediate outcomes.

To what extent are artificial intelligence (AI) and big data analysis being leveraged to increase business efficiency and optimise passenger experience?

DOUGLAS: A lot has been said and written about the passenger experience, but we are also thinking about the passenger expectation. AI enables us to understand what passengers want and customise offers based on their travel choices, with information safeguarded for privacy and security. Airport authorities are using passenger movement data to determine the number of staff required to streamline travel through terminals, while coordinating services such as immigration, baggage delivery and taxis. Etihad has machine-learning projects to optimise how many check-in counters to open to minimise wait times.

Furthermore, biometric technology is advancing towards the “single token”, whereby an eye scan or fingerprint eventually will enable customers to proceed to the aircraft without a passport, itinerary or boarding pass. We are also undertaking a trial of autonomous wheelchairs to take travellers directly to the gate without assistance. Lastly, AI is assisting pilots in reducing fuel consumption, and operational data shared by airlines is being used to predict, identify and avoid turbulence to minimise risk and optimise journeys.