‘Another 18 months of travel chaos is totally unacceptable’

Tony Douglas

Tony Douglas

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

As panic set in among passengers aboard the British Airways MD-11 aircraft, “the jockey [pilot] carried out a small ecological disaster over the Gulf of Mexico by dumping the fuel”.

“We landed in Tampa with a hysterical complement of passengers 40 minutes later at 11:30pm – only to find that the airport immigration team had finished their shift and everyone had left the airport. It was the worst flight of my life. An absolute shock.”

The incident took place nearly 20 years ago when Douglas was an executive at BAA, the British airport operator privatized under Margaret Thatcher.

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

Stints followed lead contractor Laing O’Rourke ahead of the London Olympics and leading the ports of Abu Dhabi, before Douglas returned to the UK to be Head of Defense Equipment and Support, the branch of the UK Ministry of Defense responsible for all military forces procurement contracts.

Over the past five years, however, he has returned home to Abu Dhabi as chief executive of Etihad Airways.

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

Originally from Ormskirk, a market town 21 kilometers north of Liverpool, “I haven’t been back, sadly, in a very long time,” says the 59-year-old. “But I’m still very proud to be a simple boy from the Lancashire countryside.”

Although he may live thousands of miles away, state-owned Etihad has connections not far from Douglas’ 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 past five seasons.

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

Speaking from Etihad’s headquarters, the chief executive said that Abu Dhabi had been treated to unusual rainfall in recent days. But while there are plenty of dark clouds and headwinds in the industry, Etihad’s finances don’t look bleak at all.

Last week, the airline went back to black after a painful five-year turnaround. The restructuring of the business was not without difficulties.

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

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

“We are an 18-year-old company. And we made some fundamental mistakes, you know, in our early teens.

“And that’s why, over the last five years, we’ve had to face the real challenge of a transformation that has now paid 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, the Etihad airfare, experience is simply unacceptable,” he says.

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

“In our hub in Abu Dhabi, we didn’t have these problems. So we were able to maintain, you know, the performance of the service.

“We have been funding steadily over the last six months as Etihad. We’ve hired over 1,000 people in the last three months, anticipating that the market was bouncing back in line with what we actually saw.”

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’ former employer, Heathrow, has been in the spotlight. Etihad was one of several carriers that dismissed the airport’s threat of legal action as it refuses to cut its schedule despite demands to the contrary. It was joined by Emirates, which launched a scathing attack on Heathrow and its boss John Holland-Kaye for failing to prepare for a summer glut.

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

Not alone: ​​Frankfurt is also having big problems. A few weeks ago, Amsterdam was facing chaos. Manchester had a very difficult time, as did Charles de Gaulle from Paris.

“I remember my days – long gone by at Heathrow – learning the absolute hard way that everything is great when it’s under control,” says Douglas.

“But the minute it gets out of hand at Heathrow, because of the complexity, it takes a lot longer to get it back. I know in terms of recruiting it will take time, 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 may need to be imposed next summer as well. The airport executive, under fire, warned it would take 18 months to recover from a chronic shortage of staff.

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

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

Meanwhile, like many other airlines, Etihad has been left in limbo by the struggles of planemaker Boeing. It has 11 American company 787 Dreamliner aircraft on order.

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

But unlike his peers, Douglas is not prepared to put the boot on.

“It’s been a real challenge, you know, my heart goes out to Boeing. This is a complex problem of large proportions,” he says, adding that it is “easy” to criticize Boeing’s struggle to get the Max “back to smooth 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 no longer there. The people who are probably taking the beating of every beating every day and are trying their best to solve the problem.”

Douglas’ approach to Boeing stands in stark contrast to Heathrow’s approach. It’s as if he knows the Seattle company is doing its best – while the same can’t be said for Heathrow.

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

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

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