Etihad's rise from humble start to airline star

From modest beginnings, Etihad Airways has propelled itself to become one of the fastest growing commercial airlines in the world.

February 9, 2012 (Abu Dhabi) Etihad Airways CEO James Hogen and CFO James Rigney hold press conference to announce the airlines performance last year in Abu Dhabi February 9, 2012.  (Sammy Dallal / The National)
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Hareb Al Muhairi remembers well his first day at work for Etihad Airways. He was one of the first Emirati members of staff at the fledgling airline. He and the handful of other staff were crammed into the airline's makeshift office, a dusty, small, concrete cabin in the desert.

"When I joined, it was a very small building on one floor and all the commercial services were on one side, cargo on the other, and marketing in the middle," recalls the 35-year old, now vice president of UAE sales.

It was 2003 and the Abu Dhabi Government was setting up an airline it wanted to help the emirate to achieve its ambitious development goals. It was not long after Mr Al Muhairi joined as a trainee in product and services that the airline launched its first ceremonial flight on November 5 that year for the short distance from Abu Dhabi International Airport to Al Ain.

That flight marked the first chapter in the history of what would soon become one of the world's fastest-growing commercial airlines.

Barely a week later, Etihad was in business, with services to Beirut, and in December 2003, Amman and Damascus.

Fast-forward to this year, and the number of routes has ballooned to 83, operated by 65 aircraft. Etihad's headquarters has also been transformed to a swanky, glass building filled with office staff and smartly-uniformed pilots and cabin crew bound for all corners of the globe.

Yesterday the chatter among those multinational employees was especially excited and the smile of the chief executive, James Hogan, was especially wide. The reason: the airline had closed another important chapter by achieving profitability for the first time.

It made net profits of US$14 million (Dh51.4m) for last year.

"It's great news," said Mr Al Muhairi. "What Etihad has achieved in eight years took other regional airlines 16 years to achieve."

For Mr Hogan, Etihad's development is the realisation of a target set when he took the top job in 2006. "Five years ago we put together a business plan to build an airline that was best in class, a safe airline and one that made money," he said.

"Back in 2006 to 2007 we presented the Government with a 30-year fleet plan and a 20-year network plan." Once the plan was approved, Mr Hogan took it to England's Farnborough International Airshow in July 2008, where he shocked the international aviation industry with what was then one of the biggest-ever commercial aircraft orders.

He committed Etihad to buy up to 205 aircraft, including options worth up to $43 billion.

With the orders freshly signed, Etihad set about building a network to connect Abu Dhabi with other parts of the Middle East, Europe, Australasia, Asia, Africa and the Americas.

Further aircraft purchases, new routes and - from last December - acquisitions of stakes in airlines have since helped to propel the carrier to being a major player in regional and global air travel.

With Etihad now in the black, Mr Hogan is busy planning the next era in the airline's growth.

"As the stories of Abu Dhabi and Etihad come together, I think the future is very exciting," he said.

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