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Case Study: Building Resilience in the Airline Industry – The Etihad Airways Experience

December 23, 2019 Leave a comment DRI Admin

By Trevor Murphy, CBCP
Head of Operational Resilience, Etihad Aviation Group

The worst-case scenario for any airline is a fatal plane crash.

Thankfully and paradoxically it is also one of the least-likely scenarios in an industry which is set to double its global activity within 20 years.

The International Air Transport Association, the peak representative body of the airline industry, says there was one major accident for every 5.4 million flights operated in 2018.

Fatal accidents involving commercial airliners declined by 59 per cent between 2008 and 2018, while global passenger journeys during the same period rose by 73 per cent, from just under 2.5 billion in 2008 to more than 4.3 billion in 2018.

The principal reason for such a vast positive trend is the industry’s continued collective commitment to make air safety the number one priority, through a mix of constant vigilance, proactive improvement and shared learnings about known risks, all of which transcend commercial differences.

The key phrase here is known risks.

What is more difficult to manage – and yet more common – is the plethora of unknown and unanticipated situations which are not related to aircraft, or even uniquely to aviation, but which can still wrong-foot even the most fastidious of carriers.

For these events, which range from airport closures to global health pandemics, the key to recovery is a robust and ready business recovery plan – a constant and scalable Plan B which enables rapid recovery, even in the most extraordinary circumstances.

Etihad Airways, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates, is one of the world’s youngest international airlines, barely 16 years old in an industry where the most senior players are approaching their first century in the air.

But in a fast-growing country heavily reliant on efficient and extensive air transport services, Etihad has had to develop significant resilience and ingenuity, not only to ensure its own business continuity but also to serve the national interest. It has done so, based on a mix of textbook scenarios and actual events which it has experienced, or which others have experienced and from which it has learned.

Early in 2015, severe and unexpected fog descended on Abu Dhabi at the start of the midnight – 2.00am flight bank, one of the airline’s and the airport’s busiest periods, preventing aircraft from departing the hub, diverting inbound flights to alternate airports, stranding passengers in Abu Dhabi or around the network, and exhausting the strictly-regulated duty hours of aircrew who were signed on but unable to fly.

The resulting disruption was extensive. But it also led to the development of a robust new contingency plan, which has since served it well in dealing with such events, substantially mitigating the impact on operations and accelerating recovery through the use of a mix of alternate airports and ground transport solutions.

Beyond events which directly impact flight operations, Etihad dealt quickly with a building fire which disrupted a critical function of the business, requiring rapid transfer of more than 300 staff to another location, and re-establishment of IT links in temporary facilities. It did so within hours.

The airline has endured and addressed issues impacting critical infrastructure such as external IT systems, the consequences of which range from disruption of the booking website to disconnection of the check-in process at the hub airport.

And it is ready for a catalogue of other events; Cyber-related incidents. The collapse of a key supplier. A power failure. An industrial dispute. An accident or incident preventing aircrew from reaching the airport. A technical issue with an aircraft. A mandated grounding of aircraft by regulators. The failure of equipment in the flight catering centre. And much more.

The airline’s depth of expertise, and its experience, is now being tapped by other organisations across the UAE, as they, too, focus on resilience and recovery, and ready their own teams for action.

Etihad has not only developed its own program. It has fully integrated its business recovery operations into the mandated Emiratisation strategy and has trained a team of UAE nationals to take key roles in the resilience training and delivery strategy. Etihad partners on its business continuity training delivery program with Disaster Recovery Institute International (DRII), one of only two international certification organisations, and the airline’s business recovery experience is increasingly leveraged as part of the UAE’s national certification program for resilience and continuity.

The marketing slogan for Etihad Airways is ‘Choose Well.’ But perhaps the most important choice of any business is to plan well. By leveraging and sharing its own experience and expertise, Etihad is contributing strongly not just to its own resilience, but to that of the UAE.