Tony Douglas knew the flight was not going well when the cabin began to fill with smoke shortly after takeoff from Tampa Bay, Florida.
When panic set in among passengers on board the British Airways MD-11 plane, the “jockey” [pilot] performed a minor ecological disaster over the Gulf of Mexico by dumping the fuel”.
“We landed back at Tampa with a hysterical number of passengers 40 minutes later at 11:30 at night – only to find that the airport’s immigration staff had finished their shift and everyone had left the airport. It was the worst flight of my life. An absolute shock.”
The incident happened almost 20 years ago, when Douglas was a manager at BAA, the British airport operator privatized under Margaret Thatcher.
After overseeing the construction of Heathrow’s Terminal 5, he was appointed chief executive of the London airport before leaving a year later after BAA was taken private by Spanish firm Ferrovial in 2007.
Stints followed leading construction contractor Laing O’Rourke ahead of the London Olympics and on his way up the Abu Dhabi ports, before Douglas returned to the UK to head Defense Equipment & Support, the branch of the UK Ministry of Defense responsible for all things military. procurement contracts.
For the past five years, however, he has been “at home” in Abu Dhabi as CEO of Etihad Airways.
Douglas is part of a British triumvirate of executive aviation in the Gulf states, which also includes Sir Tim Clark, chief executive of Emirates, and Paul Griffiths, chief executive of Dubai Airports. Griffiths was head of Gatwick Airport when Douglas ran Heathrow.
Originally from Ormskirk, a market town 13 miles north of Liverpool, “Unfortunately I haven’t been back for a long time,” says the 59-year-old. “But I’m still very proud to be a simple, country, Lancashire boy.”
Although he may live thousands of kilometers away, state-owned Etihad has links not too far from Douglas’ hometown. The name has become synonymous with the success of Manchester City in recent years, with members of the Abu Dhabi royal family bankrolling the football club to four Premier League titles in the last five seasons.
City’s ground is simply known as “The Etihad” with the carrier’s name emblazoned across the team’s shirt. As a die-hard Everton fan “through thick and thin”, Douglas says he regularly bites his tongue.
From Etihad’s head office, the chief executive says Abu Dhabi has been treated to an unusual downpour in recent days. But while there are plenty of dark clouds and industry headwinds overhead, Etihad’s finances look anything but bleak.
Last week the airline returned to the black after a painful five-year turnaround. Restructuring the business has not been without difficulties.
“We’ve had [to perform] open heart surgery on the balance sheet, explains Douglas.
“We have had to reduce our employees from 29,000 down to 8,500 today. We have reduced the number of aircraft types in our fleet from a massive, diverse fleet down to what I would describe as a two-horse stable of 787 Dreamliners and [Airbus] A350-1000.
“We are an 18-year-old company. And we’ve made some pretty basic mistakes, you know, earlier in our teenage years.
“And that is why in the last five years we have had to go through the real challenge of a transformation that has now produced the results in a market that is recovering.”
Only the latest travel chaos in Europe takes the shine off Etihad’s results.
“The service on the ground at many of the European airports that our guests, the ticket-paying guest Etihad, experience is simply unacceptable,” he says.
“Queues that are hours long, lost luggage, etc. That’s not what we want to be associated with. Because at the end of the day, you know, the guest buys the ticket with Etihad. They spend the money with us.
“At our hub in Abu Dhabi, we have not had these problems. So we’ve been able to maintain, you know, service performance.
“We have steadily acquired resources over the last six months as Etihad. We’ve hired over 1,000 people in the last three months in anticipation that the market was going to get in line with what we’ve actually seen.”
In recent weeks, Douglas’ former employer Heathrow has been in the spotlight. Etihad was one of a number of airlines to shrug off the threat of legal action from the airport as it refuses to cut its schedule despite demands to the contrary. It joined Emirates, which launched a scathing attack on Heathrow and boss John Holland-Kaye for failing to prepare for a flurry of summer bookings.
Whether Heathrow is the worst culprit – as British Airways has suggested – is “almost an impossible question to answer”, says Douglas.
It is not alone: Frankfurt also has major problems. A couple of weeks ago, Amsterdam faced chaos. Manchester has had a very tough time, as has Paris’s Charles de Gaulle.
“I can remember back in my days – which are now long ago at Heathrow – I certainly learned the hard way that everything is great when it’s in control,” says Douglas.
“But the moment it gets out of hand at Heathrow, because of the complexity, it takes an awful lot longer to recover. I know in terms of recruitment, it’s going to take time, as it will in many other places also.”
Holland-Kaye warned last week that plans to limit passenger numbers to 100,000 a day must also be introduced next summer. The underfire airport boss has warned it will take 18 months to recover from a chronic staff shortage.
“I don’t know if 18 months is reasonable. Because it’s an awfully long time to put up with a substandard experience, that’s for sure. Maybe he knows something we don’t about security clearance. [But] I would not be happy to accept it. Considering what it would mean for our guests, for sure, says Douglas.
“What I’m saying is that I wouldn’t challenge what might be behind John’s comments other than to say: 18 months is just completely unacceptable.”
Meanwhile, like many other airlines, Etihad has been left in limbo by the struggles of aircraft manufacturer Boeing. It has 11 of the American company’s 787 Dreamliner aircraft on order.
After the deaths of two of Boeing’s short-haul 737 Max planes, scrutiny has intensified across the board, including over the Dreamliner, whose production has been halted as regulators conduct their investigations.
But unlike his colleagues, Douglas is not prepared to stick the boot in.
“It’s been a real challenge, you know, my heart goes out to Boeing. This is a complex problem of large proportions, he says, adding that it is “easy” to criticize Boeing’s struggle to “return to steady production”.
“There’s probably no supply chain in the world that’s more complicated. And that’s where my heart goes out to them. And a lot of the people who were involved in the original problem are no longer there. The people who probably take the beating of all the beating every day and is trying its best to solve the problem.”
Douglas’s approach to Boeing stands in stark contrast to that of Heathrow. It’s as if he knows the Seattle company is trying its best – while the same might not be said of Heathrow.
While Douglas may call Abu Dhabi “home” these days, this “Lancastrian boy” doesn’t hold grudges for long.
“I’m a bit old-fashioned,” he says. “When the blame games are over, it’s probably better to get on with life.”