Tony Douglas knew the flight was not going well when the cabin began filling up with smoke shortly after taking off from Tampa Bay, Florida.
As panic set in among passengers on board the British Airways MD-11 aircraft, “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 complement of passengers 40 minutes later at 11.30 at night – only to find that the airport’s immigration staff had finished their shift and all had left the airport. It was the worst flight in my life. An absolute shocker.”
The incident was almost 20 years ago, when Douglas was an executive at BAA, the British airport operator privatised under Margaret Thatcher.
After overseeing the building of Heathrow’s Terminal 5, he was made chief executive of the London airport before departing a year later after BAA was taken private by Spanish firm Ferrovial in 2007.
Stints followed leading building contractor Laing O’Rourke prior to the London Olympics, and heading up Abu Dhabi ports, before Douglas returned to the UK to be head of Defence Equipment & Support, the branch of the UK’s Ministry of Defence in charge of all military procurement contracts.
For the last five years, however, he has been “back home” in Abu Dhabi as chief executive of Etihad Airways.
Douglas is one part of a British aviation executive triumvirate in the Gulf states, which also includes Sir Tim Clark, boss 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, “I’ve not been back, regrettably, for a long time,” the 59-year-old says. “But I’m still very proud of being a simple, country, Lancashire lad.”
While he may live thousands of miles away, state-owned Etihad has connections not too far from Douglas’s hometown. Its 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 known simply as “The Etihad” with the carrier’s name emblazoned across the team’s jersey. As a die-hard Everton fan “through thick and thin”, Douglas says he regularly finds himself biting his tongue.
Speaking 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 are looking anything but gloomy.
Last week, the airline returned to the black after a painful turnaround five years in the making. Restructuring the business has not been without its difficulties.
“We’ve had [to perform] open-heart surgery on the balance sheet,” Douglas explains.
“We’ve had to reduce our employees from 29,000 down to 8,500 today. We’ve reduced the number of different aircraft types in our fleet from a massive, diverse fleet down to what I would describe as a two-horse stable with the 787 Dreamliner and the [Airbus] A350-1000.
“We’re an 18-year-old company. And we’ve made some pretty fundamental mistakes, you know, earlier on in our teenage years.
“And that’s why, for the last five years, we’ve had to go through the real challenge of a transformation that’s now delivered the results in a market that’s recovering.”
Only the recent travel chaos in Europe is taking the shine off Etihad’s results.
“The service that is on the ground in many of the European airports that our guests, the Etihad ticket-paying guest, experience is simply unacceptable,” he says.
“Queues that are hours long, lost baggage etc. It’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’ve not had these problems. So we’ve been able to maintain, you know, the service performance.
“We’ve been resourcing up steadily 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 recovering along the lines of what we’ve actually seen.”
In recent weeks, Douglas’s former employer Heathrow has been in the spotlight. Etihad was one of a number of carriers that shrugged off the threat of legal action by 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 its boss John Holland-Kaye for failing to prepare for a glut of summer bookings.
Whether Heathrow is the worst culprit – as British Airways has suggested – is “almost an impossible question to answer”, Douglas says.
It isn’t alone: Frankfurt is also having big problems. A couple of weeks ago, Amsterdam was facing chaos. Manchester’s had a really tough time, as has Paris’s Charles de Gaulle.
“I can remember back in my days – which are now a long time ago at Heathrow – learning absolutely the hard way that everything is great when it’s in control,” says Douglas.
“But the minute it slips out of control at Heathrow, because of the complexity, it takes an awful lot longer to recover it. I know in terms of recruitment, it’s going to take them time, as it will do in many other places as well.”
Holland-Kaye last week warned plans to restrict passenger numbers to 100,000 a day may need to be imposed next summer, too. The under-fire airport executive has warned it will take 18 months to recover from a chronic shortage of staff.
“I don’t know whether 18 months is reasonable. Because it’s an awful long time to put up with a substandard experience, that’s for sure. Maybe he knows something that we don’t in terms of security clearance. [But] I wouldn’t be happy accepting that. In terms of what that would mean to our guests, for sure,” says Douglas.
“What I’m saying is I wouldn’t challenge what might sit behind John’s comments other than to say: 18 months is just totally unacceptable.”
Meanwhile, like many other airlines, Etihad has been left in limbo by the travails of planemaker Boeing. It has 11 of the American company’s 787 Dreamliner aircraft on order.
Following the fatal crashes 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 inquiries.
But unlike his counterparts, 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 grand proportion,” he says, adding it is “easy” to critique Boeing’s struggle to the Max “get back into smooth production”.
“There is probably no supply chain in the world that’s more complicated. And that’s where my heart goes out to them. And many of the people involved in the original problem are no longer there. The people who are probably taking the beating of all beatings every day and are trying their best to solve the problem.”
Douglas’s approach towards Boeing contrasts sharply with that towards Heathrow. It’s as if he knows the Seattle company is trying its best – while the same may not be said about Heathrow.
While Douglas might call Abu Dhabi “home” these days, this “Lancastrian lad” does not hold a grudge for too long.
“I’m a bit old school,” he says. “Once the blame games are done, it’s probably better to get on with life.”