Abu Dhabi's Etihad is the youngster on the Gulf airline scene, but with a fleet that will pass the 60 aircraft mark this year and a huge redevelopment of the city's Abu Dhabi International hub under way, the airline, which this year celebrates its eighth birthday, has established itself as one of the Middle East's big three intercontinental connectors.
Eyebrows were raised when Abu Dhabi - which had been a partner in the four-nation Gulf Air - launched Etihad as the "flag-carrier" of the United Arab Emirates from a hub just over an hour's drive from Emirates' base at Dubai International. But the ambitions of the oil-rich emirate to diversify its economy into high-end tourism and develop sectors such as aerospace showed that the airline was much more than a mere flag-waving project for Abu Dhabi.
Etihad's predominantly Airbus fleet stands at 55 aircraft: two Airbus A319s, 13 A320s, 16 A330-200s and three -300s, four A340-500s, seven A340-600s, six Boeing 777-300ERs, two A300-600Fs and two A330-200Fs.
At the 2008 Farnborough air show, the airline made clear its intent to become a major global player with the biggest aircraft commitment in history, comprising orders for 55 Airbuses and 45 Boeings, together with a further 105 options and purchase rights. The next eight years will see a flurry of arrivals. It expects to take delivery of 10 777s by 2013 and 20 A320s by 2015, with the first of 10 A380s arriving in 2014. It will become a significant 787 operator from 2014 with 35 aircraft earmarked for delivery, and an additional 25 A350 XWBs due between 2017 and 2020.
For flightcrew, Capt Richard Hill says Etihad always prefers to "upgrade from within"
Although last year saw the pace of deliveries slow to just four new aircraft, with a consequent ramp back in the rate of recruitment, Etihad is now fully back in hiring mode, taking on pilots at the rate of 25 to 30 a month. Total flightcrew numbers are due to reach 1,200 by the end of the year and 1,700 by the middle of the decade.
Virtually all its recruits are taken on as first officers regardless of experience, although the airline does have vacancies for some type-rating examiners and will occasionally hire for the left-hand seat. "We always prefer to upgrade from within, but when the business is growing fast, we sometimes have to recruit captains directly," says chief operations officer Capt Richard Hill.
Requirements for A320 first officers are a minimum of 1,500h flying time, rising to 2,500h for the A330. At least 1,000h must have been on multi-crew jets. Direct entry captains have to have flown 7,000h, with 4,000 on jets heavier than 60t and 2,500h in command.
In its early years, a rapid route to captaincy as the airline rushed to fill the flightdecks of its new aircraft was a major attraction for pilots to come and work for Etihad, says Hill. However, even though that step-up now tends to take three years "and will stabilise at three to five years", the airline's continuing expansion will ensure first officers do not get frustrated waiting for promotion, he adds.
While Etihad continues to recruit the vast majority of its pilots and other professionals from abroad and is proud of its multicultural workforce, Emiratisation remains a central plank of its strategy. UAE nationals represent 13% of its total workforce of about 8,000, and the target is to take that to 25%. The airline runs a busy cadet programme, mainly for UAE citizens, with Al Ain-based Horizon Flight Academy. So far, 15 pilots have graduated from the training programme, with a further 40 to 50 in the pipeline.
Like its two main Gulf counterparts, Etihad sets great store by its cabin and on-ground passenger experience and has made a habit of winning travel awards. Although it lacks the cosmopolitan buzz and celebrity lure of Dubai, Abu Dhabi also offers many attractions for those moving to the emirate, with top-end hotels, new Louvre and Guggenheim museums and the Abu Dhabi Formula 1 Grand Prix helping to turn the UAE capital from sober oil town to a sporting and cultural destination in its own right. With more expatriate-oriented schools opening and hundreds of new villa developments coming onto the market, many believe Abu Dhabi is a better option than its brasher neighbour as a place to bring up a family.