DUBAI: Etihad takes 33% stake in Darwin Airline

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Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways is taking a 33.3% stake in Swiss turboprop operator Darwin Airline to launch regional flights under the Gulf carrier’s branding.

No financial details have been revealed about the investment in the Lugano-based airline, which operates 10 Saab 2000s from its main hub Geneva. However, James Hogan, Etihad’s chief executive, said during the co-operation contract signing at Dubai air show on 17 November that the partnership was “vitally important” for Darwin.

The airline’s turboprop will be rebranded as Etihad Regional with a livery mainly based on the Gulf carrier’s existing colour scheme. However, the lower forward part of the aircraft’s fins will be painted with a Swiss cross to signify the airline’s Alpine heritage. Painting of the first aircraft is to be completed in the first quarter 2014.

Darwin will continue to operate as an standalone airline with a Swiss air operator's certificate.

With the shareholding, Etihad wants to connect secondary and tertiary cities to its network, which are not served by the Gulf carrier, says Hogan. However, Darwin will also be employed to serve Air Berlin and Air Serbia, both of which are part-owned by Etihad.

The move into the regional airline market is a “step change” for Etihad to create a “unique approach to network development for global airlines”, says Hogan. He adds that the Darwin model could be employed for additional regional airlines that might become Etihad’s partners.

The investment comes as Etihad plans to introduce twice-daily services from Abu Dhabi to Zürich from June. The airline will deploy Airbus A330-300s with a three-class cabin layout.

Darwin flies to 21 European destinations today, which are mainly point-to-point services rather than feeder routes, says Maurizio Merlo, the carrier’s chief executive. This is network is to be expanded with 21 additional routes and 18 new destinations between April and June 2014.

Among the new routes from April are flights from Air Berlin hub Düsseldorf to Cambridge, London City and Berlin. From the German capital, Darwin will fly to Poznan and Wroclaw in Poland. Flights from Zürich to Leipzig and from Geneva to Toulouse will be introduced along with services from Rome to Tirana and Zagreb.

In May, Darwin will open flights from Geneva to Belgrade and Zürich and from Zürich to Florence and Turin.

In June, the airline will start flights from Geneva to Bordeaux, Marseille, Nantes and Verona, while Zürich is to be connected with Linz, Graz, Lyon and Verona.