When Etihad Airways was awarded a coveted 5-Star rating by aviation ranking company, Skytrax in October last year the announcement came as a surprise to many observers. It wasn’t that Etihad didn’t deserve to be certified as a 5-Star airline but rather the carrier’s relationship with Skytrax had been somewhat troubled up to that point.
In fact, in 2014 Etihad made a formal announcement telling the world it had withdrawn from Skytrax. In a statement, a spokesperson for the airline said the decision had been made following a “review of the criteria and measurement of the Skytrax Airline Rating System.” Instead, Etihad would focus on monitoring “customer satisfaction and feedback” to improve its product.
Fast forward two years and Etihad had invited Skytrax behind the scenes of its operations for what it called an “exhaustive three-month audit”. In attaining the 5-Star certification, Etihad joins just eight other airline’s worldwide in this prestigious top tier of luxury and service.
Peter Baumgartner, chief executive at Etihad said the rating was “a culmination of over a decade of hard work and continuous innovation.” Baumgartner heaped praise on his staff, saying the award would never have been possible without their efforts.
“This could not have been achieved without the passion and commitment of our people – from frontline staff at airports, cabin crew in flight, to those who work behind the scenes in Abu Dhabi and around the world – all tirelessly delivering the very best products and service in the industry.”
Cabin crew driving force behind 5-Star rating
Skyrax researchers were said to be particularly impressed with the service and genuine interest in customer welfare displayed by Etihad’s cabin crew. Although of course, a number of other investments probably helped as well…
From the luxurious First Class suites, the onboard chef and sumptuous in-flight dining, the three-room Residence Apartment and classy airport lounges. As Baumgartner said at the time, Etihad has become “recognised as the airline which is reimagining flying, and doing it with style and flair.”
But this was before Etihad reported a loss of $1.87 billion USD for 2016 and announced plans to “implement changes across the group as part of a comprehensive strategic review.” The airline publicly said it would be cutting costs under what it called its Right Size and Shape strategy.
And those cost-cutting measures have been coming thick and fast in the last few months. It started fairly tame – things you might not ever notice had been cut. A menu for economy class passengers for instance. Who needs that? It was cut. But then bigger cuts started to be announced and once loyal customers are not impressed.
A long list of recent cut-backs
Etihad’s generous complimentary worldwide chauffeur service for Business and First Class guests was axed in July. Now its only available as part of the ticket price at the airline’s hub in Abu Dhabi – at all other airport’s, premium passengers are expected to pay for the service.
And while it may seem minor, Etihad’s frequent business travellers don’t much like the airline taking away their free in-flight pyjamas on long-haul flights either. Nor have they taken too kindly to data caps being imposed on in-flight wifi or the quality and quantity of food suddenly nosediving.
But wait, there’s more. Those ‘classy’ airport lounges we were talking about haven’t escaped the frugal new Etihad business strategy either. Some are being closed down entirely, many are having their food and beverage options significantly trimmed back and The Six Senses Spa at London Heathrow’s Etihad lounge suddenly closed with barely a months notice.
Even the frequent flyer programme has been downgraded
Now if there’s one thing guaranteed to keep a frequent flyer, well, flying with an airline during a spot of downsizing then it’s their frequent flyer programme. The ability to use miles and points for flight and hotel upgrades draws in many a traveller who would otherwise “never fly with your airline again.”
But even Etihad’s frequent flyer programme, Etihad Guest is getting a downgrade with new passenger surcharges and even more points needed for an upgrade. Interestingly, the airline is saying the changes are needed to keep its already poor frequent flyer programme, “competitive”.
Cabin crew are now being criticised by passengers
And on top of all of that, the airline’s cabin crew are feeling the wrath of unhappy passengers who don’t much like the service they’re receiving. Over the last few months, we’ve tracked more and more airline reviews from Etihad passengers who have not been happy with the service and attitude of flight attendants onboard their flights.
One recent review branded cabin crew a “complete disgrace” and “very unprofessional”. Another said the cabin crew “hardly cared or bothered.” There are many more similar comments on popular review sites such as Tripadvisor and Skytrax.
Now, in the defence of Etihad’s cabin crew, there’s also plenty of reviews which praise their work. But this is a troubling new trend and passengers are becoming quite specific in their criticism. What’s going so wrong at an airline that won the title of ‘World’s Leading Cabin Crew‘ at the World Travel Awards in 2015 (along with a host of other similar accolades)?
To a certain extent, it would be wrong to entirely blame the flight attendants for the criticism being thrown their way. First of all, remember, there has been a lot of cost-cutting and those poor cabin crew are the ones who somehow have to go on like nothing has changed. They feel the wrath of passengers expecting more but can do little to make the situation better.
Cabin crew are doing “more with less”
But it goes much deeper than this. Many cabin crew are now working for an airline which is shrinking its workforce – that means less career progression and a higher workload for less money (staff bonuses have been put on ice). Passengers might not notice one or two less cabin crew on a flight but the flight attendants sure will. They’re stressed, harassed and overworked.
It probably doesn’t help that there aren’t any new recruits joining the company either. No eager, young enthusiasm to lift spirits. It’s the same crew who are constantly hearing bad stories about the future of their employer – driving a nail into the heart of morale at the airline.
So spare a thought for Etihad’s cabin crew at the moment. There are still some amazing and hard-working flight attendants out there who are clearly winning over passengers. Other’s are projecting a much bigger problem facing the airline at the moment.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.