The Abu Dhabi airline set up a last-minute flight to China for the Premier League champions, which will let them arrive with time to spare before they face off against their English rivals in a high-profile tournament in one of the world's most lucrative commercial markets for football.
City, including a 27-man traveling squad of Premier League stars featuring Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne, Kyle Walker and Bernardo Silva as well as manager Pep Guardiola, had experienced two-days of frustrating delays, having originally been scheduled to depart Manchester airport for Shanghai on Saturday evening.
However, Thomas Cook Sport said an “administrative error with a third party” had delayed the flight. The travel company arranged for a flight to depart to Abu Dhabi on Monday morning. City’s aircraft from the UK is operated by Aeronexus, which reportedly had not obtained the necessary permissions to fly in Chinese airspace. In any case, Etihad stepped in to help City complete their journey via Abu Dhabi by organising the charter of a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner.
Etihad said it "worked around the clock to gain necessary approvals and permissions to charter a flight from Abu Dhabi to Shanghai to ensure the players would arrive in time for their first Premier League Asia Trophy match".
"In just over 24 hours, Etihad mobilised its operational team on Sunday morning to obtain the necessary foreign regulatory approvals" for the charter. “In record time, Etihad secured an aircraft, allocated available crew and loaded specially requested catering requirement”. The 787 is configured with 299 seats, including 28 in business class - enough for each squad member plus Guardiola. Assistant manager Mikel Arteta and the rest of the group will probably have to make do with one of the 271 economy seats. The passengers arrived from Manchester at about 10.30pm, with the team then departing for China at about midnight, Etihad said, giving it a tight window within which to enable the connection for the team.
The business class studios in the aircraft have fully lie-flat beds 204.47 centimetres in length. City’s French centre back Aymeric Laporte, one of the tallest players in the team, has a height of 1.91 metres. The aircraft's air pressure levels are set "to ensure a smoother flight, allowing guests to arrive feeling fresher" which will be helpful considering first opponents West Ham are already at their destination. There is Wi-Fi on board the plane and the latest movies on Etihad's in-flight entertainment system include Dumbo and Hellboy. The City players should also be able to catch highlights from the Wimbledon tennis championships which ended on Sunday. Etihad also said it surprised Danilo with "a birthday treat" after the Brazilian defender turned 28 years old on Monday.
Etihad is a major sponsor of City, and its brand appears on the front of its kit.
Thomas Cook Sport describes itself as Europe’s leading sports travel company and provides packages for fans of football, cricket, Rugby and Formula 1. In 2017, it became City’s official supplier of supporter travel services.
City are due to take part in the pre-season competition, with the first match against West Ham on Wednesday at the Nanjing Olympic Sports Centre. The London side arrived in Shanghai on Sunday and took a bullet train on to Nanjing. The journey time by rail is typically an hour and a half to two hours.
Founded almost twenty years ago, Aeronexus, which was originally booked to fly the team out to China, describes itself on twitter as “a boutique airline operating exclusive worldwide aircraft charter with [Boeing] 767 VIP aircraft with 96 first class lie flat seats”. The South African firm flew both Liverpool and Chelsea to their respective destinations in Madrid and Baku for the end of season European finals.
Alongside City and West Ham, Newcastle United and Wolverhampton Wanderers are also competing in the biennial Premier League Asia Trophy tournament. After China, City have matches planned in Hong Kong and Japan.
City Football Group, the owner of Manchester City, has invested in third-tier club Sichuan Jiuniu FC, as it looks to tap into the huge potential for the game in the globe's most populous country.
Etihad said it typically charters about 20 flights a year for different groups including those travelling for Hajj and Umrah, VIPs, royalty and heads of state.