Etihad’s Airline equity investments strategy started in 2011 have been a Disaster

Abu Dhabi based Etihad are big investors in other airlines. With investments in Air Berlin and Alitalia already marking an $808m loss on the airline’s books, it looks like Jet Airways is shaping up to become the latest in a string of disastrous investments. Why do all Etihad’s investments go so very wrong?

I remember as it was yesterday being in former EY Chief Strategy Officer Kevin Knight office along other senior executives (2013), kindly advising him to read ‘The case Swissair’ book, unfortunately only available in German or French… His answer was straight forward: ‘we already studied it but following a different path…’ Obviously they didn’t learned from Swissair Grounding following a very similar hunter strategy developed by McKinsey & Company back in 2001. Unfortunately as EY Equity partners strategy is falling apart, it is an evidence that at least they didn’t understand in a proper manner the Swissair case and it is a shame considering the trust and money they got from Abu Dhabi leadership.

So, why have all Etihad’s investments been such a disaster? Etihad A380Etihad have made some terrible investments. 

With India’s Jet Airways grounding, it looks as if they are set to become the latest in a string of failed investments for Etihad. With pilots going unpaid and planes grounded due to non-payment of leases, it looks like the curtain is falling on Jet once and for all.

Over the previous few years, Etihad has attempted to buy its way into closed markets by investing in failing airlines. Time and again they’ve grabbed a stake of a struggling carrier, believing they can turn things around and make those airlines profitable. In the majority of cases, that has not been the outcome, and instead Etihad have been left with yet another failed investment to absorb.

Why does Etihad keen investing in failing carriers?

For Etihad, they were somewhat late to the party. Despite being backed by the richest Emirat in the UAE, the airline struggled to make a place for itself in the shadow of its larger, more well established neighbors, first overall its cusins in the north (Emirates) and Qatar Airways, all of them known in the airline industry as the Middle Eastern Mega Big Three.

To make Abu Dhabi a hub for connecting passengers would mean drawing some away from the competition. And how could they compete with the likes of Dubai and their mega hub?

In an attempt to build the hub of Abu Dhabi and compete with Emirates and Qatar, Etihad have deliberately targeted failing airlines for investment. Their purchases have included a 29.2% stake in Air Berlin, 49% in Air Serbia, 40% in Air Seychelles, 49% in Alitalia, 24% in Jet Airways, 21.8% in Virgin Australia and 33.3% stake in the Swiss carrier Darwin Airline. Darwin rebranded as Etihad Regional from March 2014.

Etihad hoped that, by investing in these airlines, it would make inroads in hostile nations and build feeder traffic for Abu Dhabi to become a hub to rival Dubai. Unfortunately, this came at a price, and not one that most of these airlines could absorb.

Where it all went wrong

Etihad thought they could simultaneously restructure their investment partners and make them profitable too. They went about things relatively aggressively, demanding major changes to routes and schedules, in some cases even demanding to be put in control of the airlines altogether.

Understandably, they were met with resistance. Naresh Goyal has, for years, been unwilling to give up control of Jet Airways, and wasn’t about to hand over the reins to Etihad either. For them, new routes to Abu Dhabi simply made no sense, no matter how much money their benefactor was pumping into the business.

Most of these airlines saw a gold plated, state backed cash cow in Etihad. They thought their investor would simply keep pumping in money, while everything stayed the same. They were in for a shock, when Etihad tried to change anything and everything they could.

Etihad was met with resistance to change, unwillingness to comply, and well organized, unionized labor forces who were adept at saying ‘no’. The end result was the collapse of both Air Berlin and Alitalia, with both airlines filing for bankruptcy in 2017. This was made worse when Air Berlin’s administrator sued Etihad for €2bn last year. In Switzerland, Etihad sold Darwin in 2017 after strong resistance from Swiss.

Not all of Etihad’s investment attempts have been failures. Virgin Australia and Air Seychelles have been doing fairly well, and Air Serbia succeeded in bringing in the feeder traffic Abu Dhabi wanted. However, these were small successes in a stream of severe failures which left Etihad down $808m by the start of last year.

The future of Etihad

The fallout from all this has been that Etihad are now curbing their ambition to become a hub and spoke airline to rival Emirates and Qatar. They are trimming back routes, cancelling deliveries of planes and becoming little more than a middling airline serving Abu Dhabi residents rather than the global market.

Under the leadership of the board of directors chaired by H.E. Mohamed Mubarak Al Mazrouei, the future for Etihad is shaping up to be different, but not necessarily bad. Projections are that the airline will continue to post losses up until around 2022, but that these will become smaller over time. 

To turnaround the struggling airline, Tony Douglas was appointed as Chief Executive Officer on January 2018. With Tony at the helm, a major restructuring started to take shape. This had led to cuts in services, with many of the exuberant frills now gone from the carrier, and cancellation of airline orders. Job losses have been massive too, with more than 4,000 departing the company over the last 18 months.

Their appointment of UAE national Mohammed al-Bulooki as the new COO is very telling of the direction in which the airline is heading. Al-Bulooki is clearly being groomed to become the next CEO, as part of the airline’s strategy to ‘Emitarise’ their business, bringing more UAE nationals into high ranking positions.

With a new focus on local service and cultural values, Etihad is shaping up to be a decent national airline. It’s unlikely they’ll ever really make a dent in Qatar or Emirates market share and doesn’t really make sense for them to try. Hopefully this new direction for the airline will, in time, see it becoming the profitable, successful venture that it always should have been.

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