Etihad May Bring a Good Onboard Product to the US But Its On Time Performance is Awful

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the superiority of the experience on Middle East carriers. While that’s more likely to be true (but not always) when it comes to the onboard product, what about the operation? If you’re flying Etihad to the US, it’s not good. Your chances of departing on time are pretty slim.

This story actually has nothing to do with the fight between the US and Middle East carriers over subsidies. It first came on my radar long before that was even public. The idea of Etihad having operational issues first caught my eye soon after Abu Dhabi opened a pre-clearance facility for US customs and immigration.

Abu Dhabi decided to pay a ton of money to build a pre-clearance facility like what you see in Ireland, Canada, and much of the Caribbean. It is staffed by US customs and immigration agents so that you actually clear into the US before your flight even departs. That means once you arrive in the US, you’ll be treated just like a domestic passenger. This should mean shorter connections to domestic flights… and a competitive advantage for Abu Dhabi’s hub carrier, Etihad.

It wasn’t long after the facility opened that reports of major processing problems were leading to flight delays. Take a look at this report from One Mile at a Time, for example. It sounds like a complete mess, but I decided to wait awhile to see if the kinks got worked out.

The facility opened at the beginning of 2014, so by now, it should all be working right. I went into masFlight’s database and pulled on time performance from January 1 of this year through May 11 for Etihad flights departing Abu Dhabi and arriving in the US. (No other airline uses the pre-clearance facility there.) What did I find?

Etihad On Time Abu Dhabi

The data wasn’t perfect. Of 837 tracked flights headed to LA, San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago, New York, and Washington, only 756 showed actual departure times. The rest were blank. Only 450 of those showed arrival times in the US, which seemed even more odd. But I checked with masFlight and they said the data that they had was correct. They just didn’t get data every day. So I focused on the departure times since there was much more data to be had.

As you can see, only 1 percent of flights departed on or before the schedule departure time. Even if you give a 15 minute buffer, it’s still just 6 percent. More than a quarter of flights were delayed over an hour. That’s pretty awful.

If there’s any good news here it’s that Etihad schedules enough ground time in the US to at least get a better result on departures back to Abu Dhabi. But it’s still not great. Only 13 percent of flights from the US are delayed over an hour. But nearly half of the flights from the US are delayed at least 15 minutes.

This isn’t good, so I went to Etihad to see what the airline had to say. After all, CEO James Hogan said in March that despite some early kinks, “today it works perfectly.” Does that mean Etihad’s operation is just bad on its own and it has nothing to do with pre-clearance? Was the airline working on this? Unfortunately, my usually-responsive PR contact at Etihad did not get me a comment on this issue.

Hopefully Etihad realizes that this is an issue now and is doing something to fix it, but we haven’t seen any public admission suggesting that’s the case. Keep that in mind when you’re booking a connection in the US after coming in from Abu Dhabi. You might want some extra buffer.

Update: While I was on vacation, Etihad sent me a statement on the airline’s on time performance. Here it is:

“We recognize that flights to the U.S. via the Abu Dhabi U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Pre-Clearance facility are often delayed, however, ironically they are a sign of the success of the facility and demonstrate that our guests see the opportunity of pre-clearance upon departure as a positive — in preference to pre-clearing upon arrival in the U.S. The facility was opened in January, 2014 and at the time only served two flights a day to the U.S. Today, as of May 2015, the facility now handles over 45 flights a week, over two shifts, with an increasing numbers of guests. Furthermore, the capability of the facility is constantly increasing with the recent addition of Automated Passport Control kiosks, Global Entry kiosks, and additional U.S. CBP staffing resources. Last month, Etihad opened a premium lounge on the “U.S. side” of the facility. This is an undeniable success in an incredibly short space of time and confirmation of the popularity of the pre-clearance process.

A recent drop in departure performance was, in part, due to a schedule change which saw the re-timing of many of our flights to the U.S. to meet the needs of our guests. Schedule changes often bring about a drop in performance as procedures and resources adapt to the new timings. As stated in a recent article by CBP, almost 80% of all guests passing through the facility are in transit from many other parts of the world, initially contributing to the drop in performance as new connectivity profiles associated with the schedule changes become familiar.

Despite some delays, the vast majority of our guests are making their onward domestic connections in the U.S. It is also important to understand that the primary purpose of the facility is to assure the immigration process for entry into the U.S. — and doing that overseas, rather than on the U.S. border, is a significant advantage for both the guest and U.S. CBP.

Nevertheless, Etihad continues to work with the U.S. and U.A.E. authorities who operate the facility to improve the departure performance and we are confident that this is achievable.”

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32 Responses to Etihad May Bring a Good Onboard Product to the US But Its On Time Performance is Awful

  1. jeffscott_us says:

    Right you are!
    I follow some of the significant long haul routes on the FlightTrack app just for the heck of it.  Routes operated by Emirates and Etihad light up red (indicating a late departure or arrival) practically daily! 

  2. Trent880 says:

    US carriers need 2 kompete!

  3. Grichard says:

    How does this compare to other big foreign carriers with flights into their hubs (Lufthansa into Frankfurt, BA into Heathrow, JAL into Narita…)?

    • Grichard – This is a good question and I think I’m going to do a follow up post on Thursday broadening the scope. In short, Etihad is way worst than most others.

  4. Sean S. says:

    The description of Abu Dhabi reminds me a bit of Manila, which also has an incredibly byzantine security apparatus that results in you getting dumped into an area one) not big enough to handle the number of passengers and two) takes its sweet time getting you to the plane. To me its surprising Ethiad’s performance is so bad considering making connections is a big part of their business, and that being late and delayed can result in a cascade of cancelled or missed flights.

  5. David SF eastbay says:

    How does departure time look for other Etihad flights not traveling to the U.S.? Is the problem maybe that passengers don’t know they need more time to use the U.S. Customs area so that is causing flight delays while the airlines waits for the passengers to clear customs?

    I like the new comment box look, and I usually don’t like anything that changes in cyberland….LOL

    • David SF – It looks better. I pulled all Etihad flights in the database departing Abu Dhabi from Jan 1 through May 11 of this year. Though I’m not going to dissect all the flights in great detail, it shows departures right on time at 18.3 percent and departures within 15 minutes of schedule at 57.2 percent. Those numbers are much better than just looking at the US alone.

      Glad you like the new comments. I’m posting about it on Friday for people to discuss but so far, it’s good.

  6. A says:

    It’s been about a year since I did pre-clearance at a Canadian airport. Have those facilities adopted the new electronic system where you do the questions on a touch screen and then get a quick once over from the agent? Have done that a few times in ATL and very impressed with how fast it works. Have missed flights waiting in huge lines at passport control at YUL and YYZ. While close to the US, the flight options are limited and when you miss a flight it often means another night in Canada. That’s not the worst thing, but missing a 12 hour flight to the other side of the planet, that is the worst thing. Never have been impressed with pre-clearance. Would much rather miss a flight at ATL or JFK or DTW or LAX, etc. They all have tons of options to get me home. AUH…not so much.

  7. Arubaman says:

    If these were the performance numbers of a U.S. carrier, you would give them a “Cranky Jackass” Award. How about a little fairness?

  8. Andrew C says:

    It’s not totally clear from the text, but is the data you’re showing only for departures? On time arrival is FAR more important.

    • Andrew C – That is correct. As stated, the arrival times were less complete, so I had to focus on departure times. While arrival times are important, the percentage of flights that don’t get out on time is pretty important as well.

      • matt weber says:

        My own belief is that departure times on very long haul flights tend to be misleading. I used to take BA’s Afternoon 747 from LAX to LHR 3 times a year, and did it for more than a decade. The number of times it actually pushed back on time you could count on one hand with some fingers left over. It usually took about an hour from scheduled departure to wheels up. The flight almost always was on time a LHR. BA was well aware of the problem in getting out of LAX, and built the schedule according. On the rare occasions we actually got away from LAX very quickly, we almost always made LHR about an hour ahead of schedule

        Cranky’s one time employer once fixed their ontime problems by padding just about every flight on the schedule by 40 minutes. From my perspective, departure on time is meaningless, it is arrival on time that makes a difference.

  9. Keith says:

    Well… if you are as heavily subsidized as the ME carriers are… what difference does it make whether your flights are on-time or not? :)

    Do you really think they care about on-time service?

    • MeanMeosh says:

      They should care about on-time performance, since they, along with the other ME carriers, tout their ability to funnel connections, especially to S/SE Asia, via connecting banks at their hubs. Most of these connections are set to only be an hour to two long, so even a relatively minor delay can have a large cascading effect.

      • AW says:

        It seems that late departures would affect their connection banks more on the non-hub end. By the time I am on the plane in Abu Dhabi, I have already made my connection (unless I am worried about a partner connection). They supposedly have plenty of time built in on the American side to make up any delays before returning to Abu Dhabi.

        • CF says:

          AW – Yeah, for flights from Abu Dhabi the issue is connections in the US.
          But Etihad has been aggressively working on building connecting opportunities here through interline and codeshare. Remember it partners with American so it has connecting options in a lot of places in the US (not to mention interline agreements with others).

  10. Cook says:

    Agree, it does not look pretty. However, with but 6% departing on time, perhaps they have a blocking problem, not an operations problem. They would not be the for or the last to adjust times to accommodate local issues.

  11. I know folks focus on ontime arrivals, but ontime departures are important as well.

    The on plane experience isn’t as great when you’re on the ground. (Air conditioning, not being able to get up)

    Also being tethered to a gate and having the departure time change left and right can also suck…

  12. Mike says:

    Can we please have a few weeks go by where we don’t talk about open skies, the ex-im bank, or Middle Eastern carriers?

  13. iahphx says:

    For those of us outside the business, ops remain somewhat of a mystery and the folks who do a great job at it remain largely in the shadows. It seems like a very hard job to get right. I remember when Doug Parker hired Robert Isom to fix his ops, and he must do a heck of a job because Isom is now one of the highest pay individuals at AA.

    I’m not a bit surprised that an airline growing at breakneck speed in a place without homegrown talent would have “operational issues.” It would actually be more surprising if they didn’t.

  14. WOODY says:

    For a ride with superior service and comfort, I’ll wait an extra hour or so (in the lounge) with no complaints. USA airlines are complaining because the are losing customers due to poor service and inane fees. ( “build a better mousetrap …”)

    • Sean S. says:

      You didn’t read the post did you or the material Cranky linked to? The complaint is, due to the security system for a number of the US flights, you cannot just “stay in the lounge.” In fact you have to get out of the lounge and go to your gate ostensibly to take off at the time you were promised, only to find out that your plane is still going to be sitting there with you stuck in a tiny roped off area with minimal amenities. I guess one COULD just presume it is going to be late and hang out in the lounge, but that is doubtful.

  15. Etihad sent me a statement while I was on vacation saying the following:

    “We recognize that flights to the U.S. via the Abu Dhabi U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Pre-Clearance facility are often delayed, however, ironically they are a sign of the success of the facility and demonstrate that our guests see the opportunity of pre-clearance upon departure as a positive — in preference to pre-clearing upon arrival in the U.S. The facility was opened in January, 2014 and at the time only served two flights a day to the U.S. Today, as of May 2015, the facility now handles over 45 flights a week, over two shifts, with an increasing numbers of guests. Furthermore, the capability of the facility is constantly increasing with the recent addition of Automated Passport Control kiosks, Global Entry kiosks, and additional U.S. CBP staffing resources. Last month, Etihad opened a premium lounge on the “U.S. side” of the facility. This is an undeniable success in an incredibly short space of time and confirmation of the popularity of the pre-clearance process.

    A recent drop in departure performance was, in part, due to a schedule change which saw the re-timing of many of our flights to the U.S. to meet the needs of our guests. Schedule changes often bring about a drop in performance as procedures and resources adapt to the new timings. As stated in a recent article by CBP, almost 80% of all guests passing through the facility are in transit from many other parts of the world, initially contributing to the drop in performance as new connectivity profiles associated with the schedule changes become familiar.

    Despite some delays, the vast majority of our guests are making their onward domestic connections in the U.S. It is also important to understand that the primary purpose of the facility is to assure the immigration process for entry into the U.S. — and doing that overseas, rather than on the U.S. border, is a significant advantage for both the guest and U.S. CBP.

    Nevertheless, Etihad continues to work with the U.S. and U.A.E. authorities who operate the facility to improve the departure performance and we are confident that this is achievable.”

  16. Abdullah71601 says:

    Etihad’s on time performance is terrible in the middle east as well. I am based in Abu Dhabi and Etihad is the obvious choice for business travel. However, they are always late. And they will never admit they will be late at the gate. I asked an Etihad exec I met at the Dubai air show why they don’t keep passengers informed at the gate. The reply was that they didn’t want passengers to be able to reschedule on to competitors flights once they find out their flight will be hours late.

    The last eight business flights within the middle east on Etihad were at least an hour late. One flight to Muscat was four hours late. I could have driven to Muscat faster than Etihad got me there. On top of which, they have a bad habit of closing the door, pushing back, and sitting for an hour while they sort out their problems.

    My company no longer flies Etihad, unless it’s the only choice. They are just too unreliable and their fares are higher than other regional carriers who manage to reach the destination on time.

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