Etihad Airways Turns 20 Years Old: 5 Key Milestones

  • Etihad Airways celebrated 20 years of operations last year and has grown to become a world-class airline.
  • The first commercial flight was operated in 2003, with expansion to North America in 2005.
  • The airline launched the Etihad Guest loyalty program in 2006, welcoming the ten millionth passengers in 2024.

November 2023 marked a special milestone for Etihad Airways, as the airline celebrated 20 years since it commenced operations. Etihad was established as the national carrier of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) following a royal decree issued by the late President, Sheikh Khalifa. Etihad Airways has grown to become a world-class airline and one of the Middle East Big Three. Over the last two decades, it has helped redefine air travel in the Middle East, achieving several milestones in the process.

First commercial flight

November 2003

Etihad Airways was founded in July 2003, when Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who was later the President of the UAE between 2004 and 2022, issued a royal decree to establish an airline for Abu Dhabi. The airline was founded by Sheikh Ahmed Saif Al Nahyan.

On November 5, 2003, the airline launched services with a ceremonial flight from Abu Dhabi to Al Ain. It was a special day for the airline as it was revealed in a memorable way at the airport. According to the National News, passengers were given boarding passes that read “inaugural flight.” The flight was operated on an Airbus A330-200.

Exactly a week later, on November 12, 2003, the airline commenced commercial flights to Beirut, Lebanon, with the Airbus widebody. At the time, the global aviation industry was still in a challenging period following the 9/11 attacks. The airline only served Beirut with a fleet of two Airbus A330s. Today, it flies to over 70 destinations with nearly 100 aircraft, including the following types:

  • Airbus A320
  • Airbus A321
  • Airbus A350
  • Airbus A380
  • Boeing 777
  • Boeing 787

Inaugural flight to North America

October 2005

Nearly two years after commencing operations, Etihad launched flights to North America, a significant market for many Middle Eastern carriers. The service commenced on October 31, 2005, operating three times a week on the Airbus A330-200. The service was operated via Brussels, which also allowed Etihad to expand its services in Europe through a codeshare agreement with Brussels Airlines.

States, with a daily service from Abu Dhabi to New York JFK. Flights were operated with the airline’s new Airbus A340-500, which the airline had purchased as part of a historical order. As of July 2023, it has up to 39 weekly flights to North America, serving the following airports:

  • Toronto Pearson (YYZ)
  • New York (JFK)
  • Boston Logan (BOS)
  • Washington Dulles (IAD)
  • Chicago O’Hare (ORD

The Etihad Guest Loyalty Program

August 2006

TierTier Miles

Nearly three years after the first flight and just before its expansion into the US, Etihad launched a frequent flyer program known as the Etihad Guest. The airline conducted surveys and thorough market research before launching the program. Etihad’s research highlighted that passengers had become “increasingly dissatisfied and disillusioned with the concept of frequent flyer programs.”

As such, the Abu Dhabi-based carrier aimed to introduce “hospitality-oriented services that would rebalance the notion of encouraging loyalty” among the traveling public. Within the first 24 hours of launch, the program had received 3,000 applicants from over 50 countries worldwide.

Fast-forward to July 2024, when the airline welcomed its 10 millionth member to the Guest loyalty program. The lucky member will immediately be upgraded to Platinum status, which would require 125,000 tier miles to attain. The Guest members are distributed widely across the globe, with the largest membership bases in the UAE, India, the UK, the US, and Australia.

Manchester City’s new Etihad Stadium

July 2011

In July 2011, Etihad Airways and Manchester City Football Club announced a groundbreaking decade-long comprehensive partnership, significantly expanding their previous commercial relationship. At the same time, the airline announced the launch of twice-daily flights from Abu Dhabi to Manchester, highlighting the growing demand between the two cities.

The new partnership included renaming the club’s stadium from City of Manchester Stadium to Etihad Stadium, which still stands today. The stadium became the centerpiece of a newly-named Etihad Campus, which comprised a significant portion of the Sportcity site in east Manchester. The upcoming 2011/12 season would be Man City’s first time playing in the UEFA Champions League, dramatically increasing the visibility and worldwide recognition of the Etihad Stadium. The partnership also included the following:

  • Shirt sponsorship
  • Media co-operation
  • Business co-operation
  • Community co-operation
  • International co-operation

Etihad Airways extended its shirt sponsorship deal with Man City, reflecting an increased media value due to the club’s improved on-pitch performance and participation in the Champions League. Since then, the club has gone on to win several major honors, including one Champions League trophy and a record-extending four consecutive Premier League titles. Etihad has even featured the Man City logo and colors on its Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

The UAE’s first female Emirati captain

August 2022

Nearly two years ago, Etihad Airways’ Captain Aisha Al Mansoori became the UAE’s first female Emirati captain in a commercial airline. This marked a significant milestone for the airline and aviation in the UAE and was part of Etihad’s efforts to expand the role of women in aviation, particularly as part of the flight crew.

Aisha Al Mansoori became a captain at the age of 33 after joining Etihad’s Cadet Pilot program in October 2007 as one of only two UAE national females in the group. She took her first flight for the airline on the Airbus A320 in 2010, flying from Abu Dhabi to Amman, Jordan.

She climbed up the ranks to become a first officer and eventually the first female UAE national to fly the Airbus A380. She started regularly flying as an Etihad Captain on August 28, 2022, a day which marked Emirati Women’s Day.


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