Pressing ahead with a relentless buying spree, Etihad Airways acquired a 33.3 per cent stake in Swiss carrier Darwin Airline, and announced on Sunday that it would launch its first branded regional operation.

The UAE national carrier said the regional operation of the Swiss carrier, to be rebranded as Etihad Regional, would connect passengers from secondary markets into Etihad Airways’ European network and hubs of equity alliance partners.

The launch of the rebranded regional service coincided with Etihad’s announcement of daily flights from Abu Dhabi to Zurich, complementing current daily service to Geneva.

In a statement at the Dubai Airshow, Etihad described the rebranded regional operation as a “step-change in global aviation,” and said the new expansion move was subject to regulatory approval. Etihad, however, did not reveal the value of its latest acquisition deal.

James Hogan, Etihad Airways’ president and chief executive officer, said the ‘Etihad Regional’ logo would be displayed prominently on each side of the fuselage of the Darwin Airline aircraft, while the rear of the plane will carry the words “Operated by Darwin Airline”, and the Darwin Airline’s present logo.

By mid-2014, Darwin Airline will add 21 new routes and 18 new destinations. Its network will then include six European gateways served by Etihad Airways — Geneva, Amsterdam, Paris, Dusseldorf, Belgrade and, commencing in June, Zurich. The new airline will also connect into Etihad’s existing equity partners Air Berlin and Air Serbia.

“This is a step-change for Etihad Airways. With our new partner Darwin Airline, we are creating a unique approach to network development for global airlines,” said Hogan. “European travellers will now be able to connect from a far, far wider range of European towns and cities on Etihad-branded aircraft, through Abu Dhabi to our destinations worldwide.

“We are also linking the new Etihad Regional network into the key hubs of our equity alliance partners, bringing benefits to the customers of airberlin and Air Serbia.

“This is not just a great new offer for European travellers. It is also great news for Darwin Airline, which will see increased investment, greater sales and marketing opportunities, and the chance to benefit from Etihad Airways’ global network,” he said.

Hogan said the new approach could be extended to other markets over time. “This new model is one that can bring the Etihad badge of quality to air travellers around the world,” he said. “In just a decade, we have established the Etihad brand as one of the most recognised and most highly regarded in aviation. This model offers a new direction for that brand in future.”

“Launching Etihad Regional provides an effective stepping stone not only to filtering traffic into and around Europe via its take in airberlin and of course Darwin Airlines, the prospect of Etihad turning this into a bigger low-cost airline operation looks ever more likely to happen,” Saj Ahmad, chief analyst at London-based StrategicAero Research, told

“Not only does this move put it in direct competition with Swiss, Etihad will be looking to increase its European presence using this new equity approach,” he added.

Darwin currently offers scheduled flights to 21 destinations in Europe using a fleet of 10 50-seat Saab 2000 turboprop aircraft. The Darwin acquisition will give Etihad Airways access to regional markets in Europe, and enable a major expansion of Darwin Airline’s operations. Subject to regulatory approval, Etihad Airways, airberlin and Air Serbia will codeshare on Darwin Airline routes, while Darwin Airline will codeshare on Etihad Airways, airberlin and Air Serbia flights from a range of European gateways. This will provide deeper access to Europe for the three larger carriers and significant new international connectivity and feeder traffic for Darwin Airline.

Maurizio Merlo, chief executive of Darwin Airline, said he hoped the Etihad Airways partnership would enable the Swiss carrier to build upon its success to date and enjoy significant growth, not only by providing a larger network for customers within Europe but also greater access to Europe for travellers from around the world.

“We have built a solid position in regional markets across Europe and through this partnership we can add another major dimension, enabling our customers to access the global network of destinations offered by Etihad Airways, while providing fresh options for overseas visitors to travel through Europe on our flights,” said Merlo.

Darwin Airline’s expanded network, to be implemented in stages from April 2014, will provide significant new opportunities for travellers to fly between major regional centres in Europe and the global network of Etihad Airways, via its hub in Abu Dhabi, capital of the UAE.

Etihad Airways’ minority shareholdings include 29 per cent of airberlin, 40 per cent of Air Seychelles, 19.9 per cent of Virgin Australia and three per cent of Aer Lingus. Etihad Airways has also received regulatory approval to acquire 24 per cent of India’s Jet Airways, and from January 2014, will acquire 49 per cent of Air Serbia.

Etihad’s new daily non-stop flights to Zurich will also connect with the route network of Darwin Airline.

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