My 2020 Podcast: Etihad's Tony Douglas on 'heartbreak' of grounding entire fleet during pandemic

Abu Dhabi airline group's chief executive in conversation with 'The National' for a new series speaking to leaders on how their lives and industries were changed by Covid-19

All industries experienced disruption in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but for the aviation industry it was an unprecedented crisis.

“Heartbreaking” is how the group chief executive of Etihad Airways, Tony Douglas, described the moment the airline’s entire fleet was completey grounded on March 23, in an effort to stop the spread of coronavirus.

However, “it was absolutely the right thing to do”, said Mr Douglas, who has more than three decades of experience in the aviation industry.

Covid-19 has "eclipsed" all other crises faced by the sector because of the impact that it has had, he said.

In the last of the seven-part series of conversations for the My 2020 podcast, with leaders on the impact of Covid-19, Mr Douglas spoke of how the aviation industry has changed – and will have to continue to change.

He said there are so many negatives in 2020 but “you can learn an awful lot from negatives”.

He said that for Etihad, lockdown “gave us an opportunity to do a number of things that would have taken a lot longer and perhaps would have been more difficult”, including “Project Cabin ... surgical cleansing of every one of our aircraft and the biggest maintenance programme in Etihad’s history”.

As Covid-19 developed into a global health crisis, Mr Douglas said it became increasingly clear that leaders had to handle a "certain degree of ambiguity".

He added "the one thing you can't create is what I would describe as false certainty”.

Mr Douglas addressed the “hardest decision” he had to make in this difficult year, and that was “having to make some downsizing decisions within the [Etihad] family”.

He added “There have been announcements almost on a daily basis, from airlines all around the world, in regard to a fight for survival, and the need, therefore, to adjust size and posture. And of course, we're not immune to that [and] we've had to take responsible decisions”.

As Etihad reassessed its overall strategy, it has adjusted to become “a mid-sized carrier”.

Mr Douglas explained that means “we'll concentrate on the high performing new aircraft fleet that we've got, and making sure basically, we play the long game now.

"The byproduct of that is we have had to let many members of the Etihad family leave us ... and these people have been [making] outstanding contributions to our business.

"This was not of their making. And quite frankly, they didn't deserve it. But in order to preserve the business, in order to preserve the position where we can come out of this stronger through the other side, it was a necessary thing to do.”

Mr Douglas made clear the difficulty of this decision “because every one of these people that put their heart and their soul in supporting Etihad. These people all have families and personal tragedies were impacting many people at the same time”.

Looking to 2021, Mr Douglas said airlines had to continue to be agile and able to deal with the inevitable uncertainty facing the world. However, he said that he hoped “2021 will allow us to give a little bit more positive direction of how we're going to recover during next year”.

My 2020 is a seven-part series, hosted by Mina Al-Oraibi, The National's Editor-in-Chief, who speaks to leaders on how their lives and industries have been altered by Covid-19.