Etihad Airways 'well-staffed' for summer travel peak despite global labour crunch

'The National' takes exclusive tour of airline's crew training facilities as it expands its workforce to meet rebound in travel demand

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Etihad Airways is adequately staffed to meet the surge in travel demand during the peak summer season, despite a global shortage in aviation workers that has led to chaos at airports and capacity cuts at airlines.

The Abu Dhabi-based airline began its campaign to recruit 1,000 staff by year's end, mostly cabin crew and pilots, back in October 2021 when it predicted the demand rebound, and it has tapped into the pool of its former pilots, Capt Jihad Matta, head of crew recruitment, performance and support at Etihad Airways, told The National.

“Based on the current plan that we have, we are meeting the targets. We haven't had to amend our schedule due to lack of manpower,” he told The National, pointing to some airlines that were forced to cancel hundreds of flights.

“The good thing is we started a little bit earlier, it gave us a little bit of a buffer to be able not just to fly scheduled flights, but even to do charters.”

The hiring process is made more difficult by a global crunch in aviation workers but the airline has been able to source new recruits to operate flights at a pace that matches the rise in demand, he said before a tour of the airline's crew training facilities.

Related: How Etihad Airways recruits and trains cabin crew amid a hiring spree

“It's not been easy, it's been challenging, but because of what we've built over the years in terms of [work] culture and the current package, we still have the opportunity to attract people,” he said.

“As we've got the recruitment wheels rolling, we are ready … if they [management] tell us tomorrow we need 100 more pilots, we can do it. We continuously modify our plans and we have different scenarios for the summer.”

The airline also stands ready for the winter schedule, should there be an increase in flights, with plans to tap into the wider market if it exhausts the pool of its former pilots, he added.

Senior officer Aisha Hassan Salim Ahmed Al Mansoori during training at Etihad Airways' state-of-the-art facilities. Victor Besa / The National

Increase in airline jobs in 2022

The global aviation industry is facing a shortage of employees as many who were laid off during the Covid-19 pandemic have moved into other occupations and flexible work options.

Direct employment at airlines is expected to reach 2.7 million people this year, up 4.3 per cent from 2021, as the industry rebuilds from the significant decline in activity in 2020, the International Air Transport Association (Iata) reported.

The time required to recruit, train, complete security checks and perform other necessary processes before staff are “job-ready” is becoming a challenge for the industry. In some cases, employment delays are hurting airlines' ability to keep up with passenger demand.

A resurgence in demand as pandemic restrictions ease worldwide means passenger numbers are forecast to reach 83 per cent of pre-Covid levels in 2022, Iata said.

Etihad Airways expects to carry 2.7 million passengers between June and August amid a rise in bookings over recent weeks for the summer holidays, it said in a statement this week.

In this scenario, the competition between global airlines is heating up for a limited supply of workers as they race to staff their aircraft.

“We're all after the same people because all the airlines are now hiring and the hospitality industry is hiring as well, so we're all looking for that same kind of person: someone who can speak well, who is presentable, mature,” Capt Matta said.

“Sometimes you go to a place and your success rate is pretty good, and some days it's not because … another airline has shown up a week before and taken some of the people you wanted to hire.”

Etihad will hold crew recruitment drives in countries including Lebanon, Jordan, Thailand, Germany, UK and Italy in the coming weeks. An open day it held in Dubai earlier this month attracted more than 5,000 candidates.

“The response has been amazing,” Capt Matta said.

“We would not go to any country unless we had at least 100 applicants meeting our criteria. Then it's economically viable for us to send a recruitment team.”

Senior officers and alumni pilots at Etihad Airways' training centre. Victor Besa / The National

Rising labour costs

Labour costs, the second-highest operational cost item for airlines, are back to pre-pandemic levels.

Unit labour costs are expected to be 12.2 cents per available tonne kilometre (ATK) in 2022, which is nearly at 2019 levels of 12.3 cents per ATK, Iata said.

In countries where economic recovery from the pandemic has been fast and the unemployment rate is low, tight labour markets and skill shortages will push up wages, it said.

The industry’s wage bill is expected to reach $173 billion in 2022, up 7.9 per cent on 2021, and disproportionate to the 4.3 per cent increase in total jobs.

“At the moment, we still have a competitive enough salary scale and benefits to attract people but that doesn't mean the company won't keep looking at it on a continuous basis,” Capt Matta said.

“Labour costs have gone up because we've had to hire a lot more people, more than we expected, so definitely the total cost has gone up, but individual salaries continue to be monitored and we will look at what needs to be done.”

Has the industry retained its charm?

Etihad has rehired some 200 Airbus-trained pilots and 200 Boeing-trained pilots that formerly worked for the airline but were furloughed or laid off during the pandemic.

Flavia Lucilio, who first joined the airline in 2016 as an A320 first officer before leaving in 2020 due to the crisis, was rehired and started work on June 27.

“It's a pleasure and an extremely happy day for me as [someone passionate about an aviation] to see the world going back to normal, especially returning to Etihad because it's not only returning to fly but also returning to the company I choose,” she said in an interview.

She will resume operating A320-family jets bound for India, Europe and Africa.

“Nobody thought the aviation industry would recover that quickly, I feel it's a privilege somehow that I'm here and I'm back in less than three years, I thought it would take more time,” she said.

“The world needs to travel after so many years facing stress, uncertainty, lockdowns and fear. Now everybody is feeling this need to relax, travel and enjoy the good things in life.”

First officer Flavia Lucilio has rejoined Etihad Airways following the Covid-19 pandemic. Victor Besa / The National

New cabin crew recruit Sushmitha Kotian is about to graduate from Etihad's six-week training programme that covers everything from flight safety to meal service.

“Everyday is a surprise, you know? It's been full of excitement,” she said.

Ms Kotian moved from a job in customer service to the flight attendant role to pursue her dream to join the aviation industry, a step that was delayed for three years by the pandemic.

“I used that time to study and took some aviation courses,” she said. “I was just waiting for the open day.”

Her first operating flight will be to Paris, her dream destination, she said.

“I want to see the Eiffel tower,” she said, laughing.

She sees herself working in the industry for the long-haul.

“I've waited for this since a long time, so now that I got it, I'm not going to give up on this, I see my future in aviation.”

Sushmitha Kotian completes her training at Etihad Airways as a new cabin crew recruit. Victor Besa / The National

Demand for aviation workers in the UAE is on the rise following a boost from Expo 2020 Dubai and the recovery of the travel industry quickening as international borders reopen, said Antony Marke, chief operating officer of people solutions at Dubai-based recruitment company Dulsco.

“We are seeing more and more recruitment requests, from the usual markets like India, Nepal and Pakistan, but also in Egypt, Africa — especially Malawi,” he said.

Airports and airlines are currently offering competitive salaries, benefits and career opportunities to attract a new wave of talent to fill the staff shortage, he added.

Dulsco is receiving applications from candidates for positions from ground staff, baggage handlers to cabin crew and customer services.

“Interestingly, the vast majority of applicants have previously been employed in sectors such as transport and logistics and wish to transfer their highly valuable skills to develop a career within the aviation industry,” Mr Marke said.

Updated: July 01, 2022, 4:34 AM