“Another 18 months of travel chaos is totally unacceptable”

tony douglas

Tony Douglas knew the flight was not going well when the cabin began to fill with smoke shortly after taking off from Tampa Bay, Florida.

As panic gripped passengers aboard British Airways’ MD-11 plane, “the jockey [pilot] made a minor ecological disaster over the Gulf of Mexico by dumping the fuel.”

“We landed back in Tampa with a hysterical group of passengers 40 minutes later at 11:30 p.m., only to find that the airport immigration staff had finished their shift and everyone had left the airport. It was the worst flight of my life. An absolute surprise.”

The incident occurred nearly 20 years ago, when Douglas was an executive at BAA, the operator of the British airport privatized by Margaret Thatcher.

After overseeing the construction of Heathrow Terminal 5, he was appointed chief executive of London Airport before leaving a year after BAA was privatized by the Spanish firm Ferrovial in 2007.

The stints followed leading construction contractor Laing O’Rourke ahead of the London Olympics and ran the ports of Abu Dhabi, before Douglas returned to the UK to be head of Defense Equipment and Support, the branch of the Ministry of Defense. Defense of the United Kingdom in charge of all the military. procurement contracts.

However, for the last five years he has been “back home” in Abu Dhabi as CEO of Etihad Airways.

Douglas is part of the British aviation executive triumvirate in the Gulf states, which also includes Sir Tim Clark, head of Emirates, and Paul Griffiths, chief executive of Dubai Airports. Griffiths was manager of Gatwick airport when Douglas ran Heathrow.

Originally from Ormskirk, a market town 13 miles north of Liverpool, “sadly I haven’t been back for a long time,” says the 59-year-old. “But I am still very proud to be a simple, country lad from Lancashire.”

Although he may live thousands of miles away, the state-owned Etihad has connections not far from Douglas’s hometown. His name has become synonymous with Manchester City’s success in recent years, with members of the Abu Dhabi royal family funding the football club to four Premier League titles in the last five seasons.

City’s ground is known simply as “The Etihad” with the rider’s name emblazoned on the team shirt. As a die-hard Everton fan “through thick and thin”, Douglas says he regularly holds his tongue.

Speaking from Etihad’s head office, the chief executive says that Abu Dhabi has been treated to an unusual downpour in recent days. But while there are plenty of dark clouds and industry headwinds, Etihad’s finances look anything but bleak.

Last week, the airline returned to normal after a painful five-year turnaround. The restructuring of the business has not been without its difficulties.

“We had [to perform] open-heart surgery on the balance sheet,” explains Douglas.

“We had to reduce our employees from 29,000 to 8,500 today. We have reduced the number of different types of aircraft in our fleet from a massive and diverse fleet to what I would describe as a two-horse stable with the 787 Dreamliner and the [Airbus] A350-1000.

“We are a company of 18 years. And we made some pretty fundamental mistakes, you know, early in our teens.

“And that is why, for the last five years, we have had to go through the real challenge of a transformation that is now paying off in a market that is recovering.”

Only the recent travel chaos in Europe is taking the shine off Etihad’s results.

“The service that is on the ground at many of the European airports that our guests, Etihad paying guests, experience is simply unacceptable,” he says.

“Queues that last hours, loss of luggage, etc. It’s not what we want to be associated with. Because at the end of the day, you know, the guest buys the ticket with Etihad. They spend the money with us.

“At our hub in Abu Dhabi, we haven’t had these problems. So we’ve been able to maintain, you know, service performance.

“We have been increasing resources steadily for the last six months as Etihad. We have hired over 1,000 people in the last three months anticipating that the market was recovering along the lines of what we have actually seen.”

Queues at Heathrow Airport amid travel chaos - Rasid Necati Aslim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Queues at Heathrow Airport amid travel chaos – Rasid Necati Aslim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In recent weeks, Douglas’s former employer, Heathrow, has been in the spotlight. Etihad was one of several airlines to ignore the threat of legal action from the airport, refusing to cut its hours despite demands to the contrary. He joined Emirates, which launched a scathing attack on Heathrow and its boss, John Holland-Kaye, for failing to prepare for a summer overbooking.

Whether Heathrow is the worst culprit, as British Airways has suggested, is “an almost impossible question to answer”, says Douglas.

He is not alone: ​​Frankfurt is also having big problems. A couple of weeks ago, Amsterdam was facing chaos. Manchester has had a really bad time, just like the Charles de Gaulle of Paris.

“I remember back in my days, which are now long ago at Heathrow, I learned absolutely the hard way that everything is great when it’s under control,” says Douglas.

“But the moment it gets out of hand at Heathrow, because of the complexity, it takes a lot longer to get it back. I know that in terms of recruiting, it will take time for them, as it will in many other places as well.”

Holland-Kaye warned last week that plans to restrict passenger numbers to 100,000 a day next summer may also need to be imposed. The airport executive under fire has warned it will take 18 months to recover from a chronic staffing shortage.

“I don’t know if 18 months is reasonable. Because it takes a long time to put up with a poor experience, that’s for sure. Maybe he knows something we don’t in terms of security clearance. [But] I wouldn’t be happy accepting that. In terms of what that would mean for our guests, sure,” says Douglas.

“What I’m saying is that I wouldn’t challenge what might be behind John’s comments other than to say: 18 months is totally unacceptable.”

Meanwhile, like many other airlines, Etihad has been left in limbo by the travails of planemaker Boeing. It has orders for 11 787 Dreamliner aircraft from the US company.

Following the fatal crashes of two of Boeing’s short-haul 737 Max planes, scrutiny has intensified across the board, including the Dreamliner, whose production has been halted while regulators conduct their investigations.

But unlike his counterparts, Douglas isn’t ready to take the plunge.

“It’s been a real challenge, you know, my heart goes out to Boeing. This is a complex issue of huge proportions,” he says, adding that it is “easy” to criticize Boeing’s fight to get Max “seamlessly back into production.”

“There is probably no supply chain in the world that is more complicated. And that’s where my heart goes out to them. And many of the people involved in the original problem are gone. The people who are probably taking the beating of all the beatings every day and are doing everything they can to solve the problem.”

Douglas’ approach to Boeing contrasts sharply with Heathrow’s. It’s as if he knows that the Seattle company is doing its best, while the same cannot be said for Heathrow.

While Douglas might call Abu Dhabi “home” these days, this “Lancastrian boy” doesn’t hold a grudge for long.

“I’m a bit old school,” he says. “Once the blame games are over, it’s probably best to get on with life.”

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