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Best of Airways — Flying Ethiopian: Discovering The New Spirit of Africa

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Best of Airways — Flying Ethiopian: Discovering The New Spirit of Africa

Riccardo Malpica Galassi

Best of Airways — Flying Ethiopian: Discovering The New Spirit of Africa
October 05
09:48 2017

Reported by Anosh Tamboowala • Airways Magazine, August 2014


Ethiopian Airlines has a long and rich history that can be traced back to the mid-1940s when an aviation legend, Trans World Airlines (TWA), contracted with the local Ethiopian government to set up a national airline. Over the years, Ethiopian has grown to become one of the largest airlines in Africa, flying to more than 80 destinations worldwide using Addis Ababa as a springboard to such faraway places as Seoul (ICN), and Washington Dulles (IAD). Over the last decade, the airline has gone through some radical changes, from joining Star Alliance to being an early-delivery customer of Boeing’s latest 787 aircraft. The airline continues to flourish by thinking innovatively and doing things its own way while adding a distinctly Ethiopian touch.

When the time came for me to make another Middle East-to-Europe trip, I decided to take the road less traveled and go with something rather distinctive. Ethiopian offered a decent schedule and I would get to sample the airline’s latest product on both the Boeing 777-300ER and 787-8.

A brand-new Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 777-36N(ER), ET-APX (MSN 42101 / LN 1150), awaits its delivery at Paine Field (PAE). PHOTO: BERNIE LEIGHTON.

Dubai – Addis Ababa

I arrived at Dubai International Airport (DXB) just shy of the three-hour mark to find an absolutely packed and chaotic check-in area. Thankfully, because there was a dedicated business class line that was being staffed by an agent who refused to take anyone not flying in Cloud Nine (Ethiopian’s designation for business class), I could squeeze my way to the front of the desk. Once all the standard formalities were checked and my boarding passes printed with my pre-assigned window seats, I was given instructions on where to find the business class lounge and wished a pleasant flight.

Dubai’s Terminal 1 may not be as large or grandiose as its two newer counterparts, Terminal 3 and Terminal 3A– the newer terminals serve Emirates and QANTAS passengers– but Terminal 1 still has a certain charm of its own.

Despite the massive Duty-Free shopping area conveniently located as one enters the terminal, I decided just to head straight to the lounge. This was a standard contract lounge used by many different airlines serving Dubai. It had all the essential amenities one could want including free drinks, a hot buffet, and Wi-Fi.

As boarding time approached, I proceeded to the gate only to find a mass of people standing by the entrance to the jetway. I took a seat to wait until the congestion eased up. A good 25 minutes later, I walked down the jetway and was warmly greeted at the door by a female flight attendant with a radiant smile. After settling into my plushy red seat, another flight attendant came by with a tray of welcome drinks followed by an amenity kit and a menu for the day’s flight. Before I knew it, the cabin door was closed, we pushed back from the gate and headed for the runway. At this hour of the morning, Dubai is relatively quiet which meant a quick taxi. The large GE engines powered to life. We rolled down the runway and lifted off into the starry night sky.

Once the seatbelt sign was extinguished, the cabin crew sprang into action and hot towels were distributed followed by offerings from a drink cart. My glass of juice was delivered with a smile before the cart was rolled back up to the galley. I explored the entertainment system and found it easy to use with more than enough choices to keep me entertained.

Barely ten minutes into my movie, a meal tray appeared in front of me. Despite the menu listing two options, French toast or a beef pastrami sandwich, everyone was presented a tray with the latter. There was also a bowl of fruit, some yogurt, and a croissant with the standard butter and strawberry jam fixings. After offering multiple refills of coffee and tea, the friendly flight attendants were quick to remove my tray once I had consumed my early morning snack.

It is just shy of 05.30 in Dubai and my having been awake for close to 24 hours, I reclined my seat as far as it would allow and tried to get some shuteye before our arrival in Addis. While the business class seat Ethiopian installed on these birds does not recline fully flat, it was possible to sleep relatively well in a cradle position.

Before I knew it, the captain announced we had begun our descent and asked the cabin crew to prepare the cabin for landing. Closer into Addis Ababa, I could not help but be mesmerized by the fantastic yellow and green landscape that was running past my window.

All too soon, we touched down at Addis Ababa Bole International Airport, one of the highest airports in the world, sitting over 7,500 ft. above sea level. As we taxied to the terminal, there was no doubt as to which airline calls this airport home. Before we spread a vast sea of Ethiopian Airlines tails ranging from the small Bombardier Dash-8Q400 all the way up to Boeing 777-300ER. Ethiopian Airlines is a heavy-duty Boeing customer with a diverse fleet of modern 737, 777, 787, along with some classic 757 and 767.

After docking at a jetway, we were wished a pleasant onward journey by the cabin crew waiting by the door and let off the aircraft. Terminal 2 is a relatively modern facility; while it would not be winning awards anytime time soon, I found it efficient and comfortable. A sign directed me toward the Ethiopian Cloud Nine Business Class lounge. Upon handing over my boarding pass to the agent behind the desk, she politely pointed me to a back door and stated that there was another lounge behind this one.

Sure enough, at the back of the lounge, I found a hallway which led to another Cloud Nine lounge. Despite the crowd, seating was not an issue and I managed to find a nice quiet corner to relax for the next few hours. The lounge offered basic Wi-Fi, which was much appreciated. A full hot breakfast buffet was on offer, featuring scrambled eggs, French toast, potatoes, and many more items such as fruits, cold cuts, and muffins. Being in Ethiopia, I decided to go for a local favorite that I have relished in many Ethiopian restaurants around the world, Injera, which is a sourdough-raised flatbread with a unique spongy texture that is normally served with various kinds of stew dolloped on top.

As time went on and boarding announcements were made for various African points in the ET network, the lounge grew quieter and quieter until the only passengers left were a handful of us bound for Frankfurt. The staff called our flight for boarding just short of an hour before our scheduled departure time. The signs were relatively straightforward so we continued through a dedicated business class security line and down to the gate, which was void of any Ethiopian Airlines staff.

The breathtaking scenery and the Dreamliner’s signature wing flex flying over the African continent. PHOTO: AUTHOR.

Addis Ababa – Frankfurt

After waiting for nearly ten minutes, staff began to appear and speak loudly on their walkie-talkie radios. Another ten minutes passed before boarding was called by the color of the stickers that had been placed on everyone’s boarding passes. Cloud Nine passengers had green, which meant we would board first. As this was a hardstand gate, we went to a lower level where a bus waited outside the door. However, it was not to be, as the staff pulled all Cloud Nine passengers to the side and told us to wait for a dedicated bus. A few minutes later, another bus pulled up and we were told to board. While this all sounds rather chaotic and disorganized, it felt somewhat well rehearsed by the ground staff who knew exactly what to do and when to do it; organized chaos you could say.

Once the bus filled up, we rode to our aircraft, which was parked 50 feet away from the boarding gate. This day’s aircraft was to be one of Ethiopian’s early delivered Boeing 787-800 (ET-ADR) named Addis Ababa. The view was just spectacular, as the bus dropped us off right in front of this engineering marvel. It is relatively rare these days to have such a magnificent and up-close view of an aircraft.

Upon boarding, I was greeted by another smiling flight attendant dressed in traditional Ethiopian attire who directed me to my seat in the third row of the business class cabin. Much in the same fashion as the previous flight from Dubai, a welcome drink was offered followed by an amenity kit and menu. Once boarding was completed, the doors were closed and we began our pushback and taxi to the runway. With the engines spooling up for takeoff, it became apparent just how much quieter the 787 is compared to many modern airliners. There was a noticeable reduction in cabin noise, which makes the journey just that much better.

The view, as we lifted off into the sky, was breathtaking, especially when framed by the massive wing flex that the Boeing 787 is known for. Once the seatbelt sign was switched off, the cabin crew came around offering hot towels, followed by the taking of lunch orders.

This day, there were four choices on offer: Peri Peri chicken, beef in a mushroom stew, pan-fried kingfish fillet, and spinach ravioli. When the friendly flight attendant approached me, I asked which option she thought was better, the chicken or beef? She sheepishly smiled and said both were very good but would recommend the beef. That settled, the lunch service began at a leisurely pace with a drink and a bowl of Ethiopian spiced rice puffs and oats, which I found to be a great change from the standard mixed nuts that the majority of airlines serve these days.

Once everyone had finished their drinks, refills were offered before tablecloths were laid down for the appetizer trays to be placed before us. I had selected the seafood appetizer, which consisted of prawns and ratatouille; the alternative choice was spiced chicken. The shrimp, served chilled and fresh, were just the way they were supposed to be. These were served with a bowl of fresh salad along with a small bottle of Italian balsamic dressing. The flight attendant offered a breadbasket, recommending that I try some warm cheesy zucchini bread, which was absolutely delightful.

Next came my favorite part of the meal service, the Injera cart. I must have looked like a kid in a candy store licking my lips because the flight attendant took one look at my smile and said “A little bit of everything?” The plate was delivered to me with a big beaming smile.

As mentioned earlier, Injera is a flat yeast savory pancake, which you use your hands to eat. Today there were four kinds of stews, chicken, stir-fried beef, chickpea flour, and vegetable. I savored every morsel of this dish and enjoyed each bite to the fullest. I was tempted to lick my plate clean and thought of pulling an infamous Oliver Twist line, but decided it best to restrain myself, otherwise, the crew would have had to roll me off the aircraft when we reached Frankfurt.

Once the flight attendants were sure I had finished, my empty plate was collected and my beef stew was brought out with another beaming smile. She said, “Let me know if you do not like it; I can get you the chicken if you wish.” After one bite I knew that she had steered me in the right direction. The beef was tender and flavorful, the beef stew tasted much like a spiced mushroom stroganoff, and I absolutely loved it. To top it off, the flight attendant brought more warm cheesy zucchini bread and I just could not help myself.

Lunch was far from over; the meal continued as the flight attendants presented a choice of carrot cake or pistachio cake. I went for the carrot cake with raspberry coulis along with a sweet dessert wine. By now I was completely full, though they still offered tea and coffee. After this feast, I needed a nap. The seat on the 787 is almost identical to the 777, and more than comfortable. When I awoke, I found a bottle of water had been placed on my armrest, which was very much appreciated.

Once we were flying past the coast of Italy, the flight attendants were back in the aisles checking with passengers if they wished to have a snack. My requested warm cup of tea was delivered with a set of two plain butter muffins.

The pre-arrival snack consisted of hot tea and high-quality butter muffins. PHOTO: AUTHOR.

Before I knew it, we were starting our descent into Frankfurt. After a smooth touchdown on runway 07R, we parked at our gate in Terminal 1C a few minutes ahead of schedule. With typical German efficiency, I completed immigration and customs to exit the terminal in less than ten minutes.

Overall I was very pleased with Ethiopian Airlines. While this is not the most convenient way of getting to Europe from the Middle East, I am glad I had the opportunity to try this route for a change.

I could not find any faults with the cabin crew or catering on either of the two flights. However, the biggest flaw was the fact that Cloud Nine business class seats on both the Boeing 777-300ER and 787 were not flat, standing well below what’s expected from a top-tier airline in terms of quality and comfort.

Would I be willing to fly Ethiopian business class again in the future? Absolutely, without hesitation.

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A Global Review of Commercial Flight since 1994: the leading Commercial Aviation publication in North America and 35 nations worldwide. Based in Miami, Florida.

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