Airbus A380 | Credit: Etihad

Etihad resumes Toronto flights ahead of Abu Dhabi’s reopening

TORONTO — Though Abu Dhabi remains closed to international tourists, new government protocols and the resumption of North America flights indicate that its reopening could happen any day now.

The United Arab Emirates government recently announced that all passengers travelling into the UAE or via the UAE while in transit now require a negative COVID-19 PCR test result within 96 hours prior to arrival in Abu Dhabi. Children under 12 and people with mild and severe disabilities are exempt from testing. The rule came into effect on Aug. 1.

The news comes at the same time Etihad, Abu Dhabi’s flagship carrier, resumed flights from North America, including Toronto, for UAE citizens and residents. Toronto service runs five days a week to Abu Dhabi, along with New York City (5x/week), Washington D.C. (3x/week), and Chicago (5x/week). Though frequencies have certainly been reduced due to lower demand, just getting its aircraft off the ground is a good sign, says Vincent Frascogna, Etihad Vice President, Americas.


Vincent Frascogna

“Like most airlines we stopped operating the majority of our routes towards the end of March,” he tells Travelweek. “We’re probably operating at around 50% of our normal capacity right now. For example, with JFK we would normally be operating a daily A380; instead we’ll be operating five days a week with a 787. I think the schedule in terms of the number of flights will gradually start to increase; we’ve already filed to go six days a week in Toronto come September.”

Though Abu Dhabi appears poised to reopen to Canadians and other tourists soon, Etihad still faces the challenge of Canada’s ongoing advisory against non-essential travel, which could impact its Toronto flights. But as one air consolidator tells Travelweek, they’re already seeing demand for travel to the UAE.

“Etihad’s resumption of flights will mean that we have another quality carrier to add to our valuable lineup of premium products that we market to our agency partners, and it will mean more choice for Canadian travellers,” says Justin Gosling, Director for Canada of Sky Bird Travel. “Canada’s directive to avoid non-essential travel is an important and responsible message but I expect to see a surge in Etihad passenger numbers as soon as international travel to these countries can safely resume without the need to quarantine, including also on return to Canada. We do see evidence of pent-up demand and I’m cautiously optimistic that flights will start to fill up quickly once travel restrictions are lifted.”

Of course, as Gosling also notes, Etihad’s network provides excellent connecting opportunities for Canadians to the Indian sub-continent, “and these routes normally make up a large portion of the airline’s customer base, with historically strong and consistent demand.” And with a large Indian expat community in Canada, the airline is anticipating significant demand for families wanting to visit one another at long last.

“When we look at what segments will rebound quicker, we believe family and leisure traffic will be the quickest to return,” says Frascogna. “We are seeing a lot of requests coming through for leisure traffic; our forward bookings towards the end of the year are steady. We’re probably a third of where we would be pre-pandemic, and that makes complete sense based on the situation we’re currently in.”

When asked how business travel will fare in comparison, Frascogna thinks there are two factors at play that may impede its rebound: the ability and propensity for businesses to video conference over great distances, as well as the cutting of expenditures in order for businesses to survive at this time, which more often than not includes travel.

But one unexpected outcome out of this pandemic, says Frascogna, has been more requests for premium upgrades.

“We have actually had some of our bigger corporations that were traditionally only focused on economy travel coming to us and saying, ‘What can you do to support us with deals in your premium cabin?’. For them, upgrading into business class gives them a natural social distancing environment.”


Lobby Lounge Airbus A380 | Credit: Etihad

Health and safety, of course, is of the utmost importance for both passengers and airlines at this time. For Etihad, this has resulted in the recent launch of its ‘Etihad Wellness’ program featuring a host of stringent safety measures that spans every step of the journey. This includes culinary hygiene at catering facilities and food testing laboratories, cabin deep-cleaning, cabin air filtration, thermal screening at airports, crew interaction, check-in and boarding, and ground transportation. In addition, quarantine measures have been put in place on aircraft should a passenger falls ill mid-flight, and a Wellness Ambassador, a first in the industry, will be assigned onboard to provide passengers with essential travel health information.

Etihad’s competitor, Emirates, also recently launched an industry-first initiative: free travel insurance that would cover COVID-19-related medical expenses and quarantine costs. When asked whether Etihad would follow suit, Frascogna says the airline is considering it.

“We are looking at options that would include that, we’re looking at all different options right now to add the peace of mind for passengers,” he says. “The one core thing right now is it’s not about encouraging passengers to travel for the wrong or right reasons, it’s that we want passengers to travel when they’re ready to travel. I think first and foremost, the PCR testing will provide a level of confidence for the consumer, knowing that they are at least travelling with an airline that’s safe onboard and where everybody has presented a negative PCR test.”

All this will be welcome news to Canadians for when they’re finally able to visit the UAE. As Frascogna notes, Canada has long been an important market for Etihad, and if it was up to him the airline would be operating even more services to more gateways, including Vancouver. But ultimately, Etihad’s operations are restricted by bilateral agreements made between Canada and the UAE.

“The bottom line is if we could operate more into Canada, we would, but I’ll leave it to the two governments to get us to a point where we can make that happen,” he adds. “What we do see right now, however, is improved relationships from a codeshare perspective with WestJet and Air Canada, by which we are able to expand our footprint in Canada.”

Expansion is always the goal for airlines, but how does one plan for future growth during this unprecedented time? It’s no secret that airlines have been among the hardest hit in the travel sector throughout this pandemic, with global travel restrictions making it virtually impossible to fly these past few months. But according to Frascogna, Etihad was already well positioned to weather the storm, thanks in large part to careful planning.


Etihad Airways A380 Business Studio | Credit: Etihad

“The good thing is is that Etihad had already been on a journey to restructure and realign our business for the past two years. So coming into this pandemic, we were already pretty fit when it came to our business in terms of how we adjust to certain issues, in terms of not operating loss-making routes, adjusting our network to have the right fleet operating the right routes, and also bringing our cost base down to a more manageable level as an organization,” he says. “A lot of airlines haven’t been in the gym, as we like to call it, getting fit. We’ve been planning to be a fitter airline for the last two years.”

And when Etihad does come out of this stronger and fitter, it’ll have travel agents to thank for their steadfast support.

“They’ve been fantastic throughout all of this in terms of providing us intel with what they’re seeing around demand and keeping that two-way communication open,” says Frascogna. “My key message to agents is we will all come out of this together. This is not just an airline program or a travel agency issue. This is a global hospitality issue and we have to continue to work together.”

To read more about Etihad Wellness, click here. For Etihad’s current travel guidelines and regulations, click here.


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