People Will Be Scared To Travel Till Customer Confidence Is Built: Neerja Bhatia, Etihad Airways

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The aviation sector is curing globally to resume services in a post-COVID environment. Domestic flights in India have already resumed operations. International airlines are also anticipated to start their services soon. But for travelling by air globally, how are things going to change? We spoke to Neerja Bhatia, the India Vice President of one of UAE’s leading airlines, Etihad Airways, on how to inspire confidence in the passengers for travelling, once the travel bans are lifted.

1. You are someone who’s been in the aviation industry for over 30 years. Would you say that the pandemic has been the toughest phase for the Aviation Space till date?

I think the whole world is facing this unprecedented crisis, be in terms of health or finance. I think its the worst that the people could have ever imagined and I really wish that it goes away very fast and doesn’t come back again.

2. Has Etihad Airways started operations and to which countries?

Adaptation and eligibility are the key factors here and on these fronts, we have made have significant progress. There are three areas on which we are focusing right now. Firstly. we’ve ranked up the Cargo operations. Secondly, we are operating in 243 destinations across the globe. We are transporting food and pharmaceutical and PPE stuff from one point to the other. Thirdly, we kept all our passengers’ aircrafts empty and redeployed them. We called the administrators and we have been carrying cargo in the belly of these aircrafts.

Also read: Etihad Announces Special Flights To 10 More Destinations  

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These aircrafts also help repatriate guests from one point to the other. Last but not the least, very recently, around last week, we opened Abu Dhabi for transit. So there are about more 20- 21 destinations from the East to the West and West to the East, across which we are now connecting our guests. So, that’s the latest development.

Also Read: Could The Future Of Airplanes Be Double-Decker Seats?

3. With few flights operating, what has been the consumer sentiment? 

Well, there’s a lot of uncertainty at present and people are still very very scared.  I think it will continue until, of course, there is a solution to the disease or the passengers are hundred percent sure that there’s a right treatment for it. I think these sentiments of anxiety and uncertainty will remain now. I would say, in these times, it is very important to make sure that we build our customers’ confidence. With the domestic starting, we’ve got a big confidence that there is light at the end of the tunnel and we’re already geared up to welcome our guests. We just waiting for India to open the borders.

4. The face of air travel is sure to change and a new normal is gradually emerging. How are things going to change in terms of protocols or safety measures?

Travel is obviously going to have a new normal. Also, it is very important for people to follow the norms that are being laid out by the regulatory bodies. It’s extremely important to maintain health and hygiene and of course social distancing, it is going to be the key when people travel and to ensure that, we really worked hard. We have looked at our guests’ journey from end-to-end to make sure all the health and hygiene checks are carried out. Even the meals that will be serving on board are going to be of the highest standard, in terms of the World Health Organization. We’ve launched a whole new Wellness Campaign, which is being propagated through all our channels, from social media and online channels to travel trade and corporates.

“The health and priority of the guests are of utmost priority for Etihad”

5. Tell us more about Wellness Ambassadors.

We’ve taken a comprehensive approach to health and hygiene. Etihad provides Wellness Ambassadors to discuss anxiety to fly and for guidance. (good hyperlink) The concept of these wellness ambassadors is first-of-its-kind and we are the first ones to introduce it in the aviation industry. These wellness ambassadors will be available 24/7, from the moment one makes booking with us. There’s an email ID. One can contact our wellness ambassador on that email. We are going to extend this facility to a web-chat as well, that can be accessed through a mobile app. Other than that, on all our aircrafts we will have these wellness ambassadors who can guide you throughout your journey. At Abu Dhabi airport, they will be there at every location from immigration, customs, departure and arrival, check-ins to boarding, disembarking etc. They can easily be identified by their PPE gears.

“Etihad provides Wellness Ambassadors to discuss anxiety to fly and for guidance. The concept of these wellness ambassadors is first-of-its-kind and we are the first ones to introduce it in the aviation industry. These wellness ambassadors will be available 24/7.”

5. Well, I’m sure, initiatives like these are sure to comfort the passengers. But let’s also address the elephant in the room, which is the airfare. Any hike expected?

Indeed, it’s an elephant in the room. Again, the pricing depends a lot on demand and supply. At this point in time, I really would not be able to predict whether the flights will go full or vice versa. No airline at the moment can predict that. However, I think that the demand and supply drive the pricing and it will also depend a lot on which countries will open up their borders, how quickly they will resume flight services, the quarantine processes, how comfortable people are to travel, etc. Etihad is known for offering world-class services, which are, at the same time, a lot of value for money. Last but not least is we always tend to be very competitive in the market.

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6. Have you heard anything from the government regarding when international flights can resume?

I wish I knew it. But I can assure you that India has by far one of the biggest markets outside the home market. India is a very important market for Etihad. It’s the number one market, I should mention. We are absolutely ready. In fact, a month ago, we had actually undertaken one of the biggest maintenance drives.

 “We spent time money and effort to clean our entire fleet, shampoo them and change the upholstery in every nook and corner of the aircraft.”

We’re absolutely ready to welcome our guests. So, if they announce it today, we can fly tomorrow.

7. What do you think about the future of the aviation market in India as well as globally and how is Etihad gearing up to remain in business?

You asked a very important question. I think aviation all around the globe contributes significantly to the GDP of any country. So, we are here to stay and people love travelling whether it’s for leisure, business, study or other purposes. Some people travel for visiting friends, relatives and family members. For example, I live in Mumbai and my kids are in Australia. So the moment the flights open, I’ll be on the first flight to Melbourne. We have flights, by the way, from Abu Dhabi to Melbourne.

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Also Read: Qatar Airways Flight Attendants To Wear Head-To-Toe PPE Suits

So, I think travel is definitely going to happen. It’s just going to take some time. And of course, as I have mentioned it depends on many factors. I think a lot of work and effort has gone in the maintenance drive, in the cargo operations. We’re doing a lot of repatriation by the way. We have done a lot of repatriation to India as well, some to Mumbai and also some others to Delhi. We also sent repatriation flights to Bhubaneswar and Lucknow. These are the two destinations where we do not have traffic flights. But we did repatriate some guests and we’re also sending a flight to Trivandrum next week. There is a lot that we are doing around the world, in almost 33 or 34 destinations.

“We’ve flown to destinations where we don’t usually fly. For example, we flew to Cuba recently, and we’ve also flown to San Jose. Also, for the first time, we actually flew to the Palestinian territories to carry some pharmaceutical and PPE stock.”

Also Read: Airlines, Hotels And Restaurants To Now Get ‘Global Safety Stamps’ To Ensure Tourists’ Safety

8. Yeah, in fact, that’s very heart-warming to know that Etihad offered humanitarian flight services to cities beyond its network in the light of pandemic.

Yes, indeed, absolutely. I am proud of our catering team. A lot of efforts have been taken up, especially during COVID situation to make sure that every meal is prepared to its precision, following the norms of the World Health Organization. These were distributed to all the people who were under isolation when they were self-quarantined at home.

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In India also, my team has been doing a small social work. One of my colleagues in Bandra got food trucks for a society with a lot of elderly people. My team in Nepal has provided food to some underprivileged children. These are the times when everybody should come forward and help in whatever best that one can.

“We also tied up with Zomato to deliver food packets to the medical staff and the frontliners. Our engineering department along with our medical centre, produced a lot of masks and PPE kits to be again distributed to the health workers”

About 3,000 Etihad employees actually volunteered to help the government agencies in the UAE.

9. Are there any changes in terms of routes or any cancellation of any regular routes for Etihad in the near future?

It’s a very pragmatic approach as you may know already, in terms of network and planning. I think the focus is to drive maximum. We pick up routes that are obviously financially viable. We’ve already published our skeleton schedule for July and I can assure you that India is and will continue to be our top market. In Abu Dhabi, there are so many Indians. In fact, there are so many NRIs in the whole UAE, not just Abu Dhabi. So it’s home close to home for many Indians and I can absolutely assure you that we are ready.

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Also Read: Domestic Airlines Are Now Letting You Book Private Planes

10. Okay, and finally as India VP of Etihad, what do you recommend to people in terms of a desire to travel, and at the same time fear to travel?

First and foremost, I would request all the viewers to stay healthy and safe. That’s the number one priority for everybody right now. Also, please follow the norms of the government regulatory bodies. Also follow the norms laid down by the airports and the airlines, when travelling. Thirdly as I said Etihad is in my blood I can’t help but ask you to sell Etihad. Yeah, please fly Etihad.

To read more about what’s going in the travel and hospitality industry, and know what experts have to say, click on #CTCares

Suchismita Pal
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