Despite some scepticism at launch, Abu Dhabi's new flag carrier, Etihad, has become one of the region's top three airlines
When the government of Abu Dhabi set up Etihad in 2003, many saw it as a hopelessly ambitious attempt to emulate the success of Dubai's 18-year-old flag-carrier Emirates, which had grown into one of the world's most important airlines and put the Arabian port firmly on the map.
Until then, Abu Dhabi had shared ownership of Gulf Air with Bahrain and Oman, but had visions of transforming itself from a colourless city of government offices, embassies and oil company headquarters into a cultural and tourism centre, and saw a high-profile airline as the ideal vehicle to promote Abu Dhabi's brand throughout the world.
Since then, Etihad has proved the sceptics wrong and has become the region's third biggest carrier behind Emirates and Qatar Airways, and ahead of Gulf Air, with a fleet of Airbus 340-300s and -600s, A330s and A320s, and Boeing 777s. A total of 19 aircraft are on order, including 10 A330s (three freighters) and four A380s. Like Emirates, it recruits staff from all over the world - its 2,800 employees hold 108 different passports. They include 580 pilots, with this figure set to rise to 670 by the end of the year.
With few local pilots to choose from, Etihad has had to recruit fast from established airlines. Around 200, with a minimum of 5,500 flying hours (7,000 for widebodies), have joined directly as captains. Ideally, says Richard Hill, executive vice president operations, Eithad prefers to take on more junior pilots and train them in the airline's methods and culture. "You get a known quantity in the right hand seat, but with captains it is sometimes difficult to train their last company out of them. Standardisation becomes a problem, but as a new airline we had to do it," he says.
Minimum requirements for first officers are 2,500h (1,500 for A320 first officers), but the biggest attraction is a fast track to the left hand seat, says Hill. "We've had co-pilots who have been here for two years getting commands, although it is now slowing to 2-3 years." Etihad, he says, is now "almost able to sustain all our commands from within".
Finding pilots, however, is still a challenge and Etihad is launching an international cadet programme for youngsters without flying experience, training them from scratch in Abu Dhabi to be first officers. The scheme will sit alongside a cadet programme for UAE nationals, which began last year and from which 48 new pilots will graduate in the first 12 months. The first course for expatriates will begin around June - details are still being finalised - with 12 students training for 18 months at Horizon Flight Academy in the oasis city of Al Ain, followed by several months of simulator and multi-crew training. There will be three intakes in the first year.
Hill says the scheme is aimed at young people with a "passion to be airline pilots, not at those looking to make a fast buck. They need to be committed to a career." Etihad will fund the training, but students - who will graduate to become second officers, flying under supervision - will pay it back over an eight year "bonded" period. He expects competition for places to be extremely tight. "We will be taking from the very top percentile," he says.
Another fertile recruiting ground has been South-East Asia, where many Western pilots have moved as the airline sector there undergoes massive growth. Etihad has held recruitment roadshows in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. "We are aiming at ex-pats working in that part of the world who didn't want to be so far from home," says Hill.
As with other major operators in the Gulf, Etihad claims its package for pilots and other employees is "extremely competitive". Although many of its staff prefer to commute the 120km from more bustling Dubai, Eithad likes to sell the benefits of Abu Dhabi, with its "very pleasant lifestyle" and good schools based on the US and UK systems. "It's an incredibly safe place to bring up a family," says Hill. Although Etihad leases properties for its staff, including entire apartment blocks, housing can be an issue, admits Peter Carrie-Wilson, executive vice-president human resources. "We put a lot of effort into helping our staff find accommodation, rather than just saying 'Here is your allowance'," he says.
Many pilots have joined Etihad to "get away from the stagnation of the industry", says Hill. "They want to do something different and get a buzz out of being part of an airline and route network that is expanding hugely. There are opportunities here for first officers that they wouldn't have with a legacy carrier, including flying long haul," he adds. "There aren't many opportunities to join an airline with new aircraft that is expanding around the world."