Trip Report and Photos by Matteo Legnani.
MIAMI — Ethiopian (ET) is the airline of the moment. The achievements of the Addis Ababa-based carrier in the ten years running to 2017 are astonishing.
The number of aircraft in the fleet: from 26 to 97; passengers carried: from 2.1mln to 7.6mln; net profit: from $11.2mln to $222.2mln. Its airplanes fly to 122 destinations, 74 of which in Africa, making for the largest network in the continent.
That’s why I was so excited when my request to visit the carrier’s headquarters in Addis Ababa and interview the company CEO Tewolde Gebremariam for.
Its airplanes fly to 122 destinations, 74 of which in Africa, making for the largest network in the continent. That’s why I was so excited when my request to visit the carrier’s headquarters in Addis Ababa and interview the company CEO Tewolde Gebremariam for Airways was accepted. Not only that, I was permitted to experience both “sides” of ET’s onboard service: economy class and Cloud Nine business class.
Ethiopian sports a quite varied fleet of the last generation aircraft including Boeing 777s, 787s and 737NGs, Airbus A350s, and Dash-8 Q400s. The workhorse on the European network is the 787-8, that also serves my hometown Milan and the other Italian city ET’s network, Rome.
My trip included a Milan Malpensa (MXP) – Addis Ababa (ADD) non-stop flight and an ADD-Rome Fiumicino (FCO)-MXP return, with the MXP-ADD leg in business class.
For passengers convenience (in order for them to quickly connect in ADD to ET’s early morning African services), almost all of Ethiopian’s flights from Europe leave at very late hours in the evening. In the case of ET727, the scheduled time of departure (STD) from MXP was 21.55, the flight originating in Bruxelles (BRU) and leaving to ADD after a one hour stop in Milan.
That evening, I reached Ethiopian’s check-in desks in Terminal 1 two hours before STD. Five of them were dedicated to the economy and one to Cloud Nine passengers. After a quick search in the system, the agent found the upgrade requested for me by the airline, checked my bag and handed me a boarding pass indicating seat 1L, together with the invitation to the Montale Lounge, the newest and prettiest of the three VIP facilities managed by SEA-Aeroporti di Milano at MXP.
At that late hour, when MXP was starting to get sleepy, fast track was not strictly necessary, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. After that, I proceeded through passport control ignoring the vast array of elegant shops and restaurants and reached the lounge one hour before boarding.
There, the best things to enjoy are the exceptional views of the apron around Pier C and the elegant decor. Food (mostly sandwiches, cold cuts, and cheeses) and drinks are fine for a snack, but not for a proper meal.
With just five flights (including mine) left on the departure board to call it a day at MXP, the place was very quiet and I relaxed anticipating the pleasures of Cloud Nine business class sipping a glass of chilled Prosecco.
Boarding was called thirty minutes before departure and it took me half of that time to walk from the lounge to gate B4. When I entered the forward cabin of the 787 (ET-ASH Mountain Nyala, a 2015-vintage Dreamliner), lights had already been dimmed anticipating pushback.
One of the two FAs dedicated to Cloud Nine passengers escorted me to 1L, picked my jacket and asked me what I would like to drink while waiting for departure. Settling in my window seat on the right side of the cabin I noticed that more than half of the 24 seats, arranged in 4 rows with a 2+2+2 cross-section, were empty, including the one next to me.
A pillow and a green duvet were placed on the seat, while headphones and vanity kit in a niche immediately below the 15.4” (39.1cm)-wide IFE individual screen in front of me. A complimentary bottle of water was on a shelf between the seat and the window.
Lallier Brut champagne arrived a couple of minutes later, poured from the bottle in a high stem glass, followed by a hot towel and a pretty menu with dinner options including a card for breakfast selection. I noticed that all the FAs wore a typical Ethiopian suit that I learned to be the shemma, except for the purser, who personally came to my seat to introduce herself and welcome me onboard.
The cabin door was closed at 21.50, followed by pushback, engine start and a long taxi to runways 35R, where we started our take off roll at 22.05. Turning right immediately after lift-off, we proceeded eastward until the city of Verona, before heading south-est following an almost straight course over the Adriatic Sea, western Peloponnese, to reach Africa right above the Lybia-Egypt border and then continue over eastern Sudan and Ethiopia.
While still climbing to our initial cruise altitude of 36,000ft an aperitif was served (champagne again for me), but without anything to bite. Thirty minutes into the flight, dinner service started with the FA preparing the ample table extracted from the left armrest with white linen, cutlery and a pretty, small tray with mustard, mayonnaise, sea/salt, ketchup, and Tabasco sauce.
While serving an appetizer of delicious sliced grilled duck with sauteed cherry tomatoes and quinoa salad, the FA took my order for the entreé: out of a choice between Belgian waterzooi with sole, tortellini with ricotta and spinach filling and bechamel sauce or sliced grilled chicken breast with pistachio crust, zucchini, and cherry tomato, I went with the latter, which was tender and juicy although not very abundant.
I accompanied the food with what was an absolute first for me: a red wine (Cabernet Sauvignon) from the Drift Valley, a region of Ethiopia known in the world for being the cradle of humanity. I skipped what appeared as an interesting offering of cheeses and closed my meal with a plate of assorted fruit and a portion of tiramisù.
As I had commented the pretty mini-bottle of Tabasco, after cleaning my table the FA took me about a dozen of them: a bizarre and spicy souvenir.
With a little more than four hours to go, I turned my attention to the IFE. Movies and tv programs selection was fair, although with not many newly-released films, what really surprised me was the music channel: I counted 732 (yes, seven hundred thirty-two) CDs of rock, pop, country, jazz, classical, African, Ethiopian melodies. Enough to reach the moon always listening to something different. The sound of the noise-insulating headphones was excellent, but the maximum volume a little bit too low for my habits.
With only three and a half hours to Addis Ababa, I was tempted to spend the time waiting for breakfast enjoying the IFE but then decided to give a try to sleep. While transforming the seat into a 78” (198cm)-long bed by simply touching a button, I noticed how the Dreamliner’s fuselage narrows in its forepart to give it that sleek look.
Actually, so much to reduce the leg space into seats 1A and 1L, which are probably the best in the house for privacy, but not for individual comfort. Anyway, the bed was cushy enough for me to quickly fall asleep and wake up three hours later only to find the cabin being readied for landing.
Asking for breakfast, I was told that it had already been served, but I was given no explanation about why I had not been wakened up. Anyway, the FA was kind enough to prepare me a cup of tea served with a couple of croissants while the captain was calling twenty minutes to landing.
The final descent into ADD was performed under a still completely dark sky and amidst moderate bumping. After a couple of long, left turn, we aligned with runway 07R where we touched down at 5.45. Our Dreamliner was parked at a remote stand. A dedicated bus, separate from the rest of the passengers, took us to ADD Terminal 2 arrivals.
After a couple of days spent discovering Ethiopian Airlines and its wonderful people working the head office, catering, cargo, MRO and aviation academy and past an exhaustive interview with its CEO Mr Tewolde Gebremariam, I was back at ADD to catch flight ET702 to Milan, via Rome Fiumicino, scheduled at ten minutes after midnight.
So quiet had been Malpensa at late evening, so bustling was the activity at Bole Airport at the same hour, with a dozen of long-haul flights planned between 11 pm and 1 am.
The most annoying procedure was to access the check-in area at Terminal 2, dedicated to international flights (while the older T1 handles domestic and some regional services). Each bag had to go through X-ray machines and that caused long queues.
Because I had checked-in online a few hours before, surprisingly finding available the first row in the economy cabin with plenty of leg space, the procedure at the airport bag-drop desk was relatively fast.
Another long queue was necessary for passport controls and after that, I finally found myself in the departure area.
Despite being just 14 years old, T2 is an unappealing place with poor shopping and dining opportunities. The place was also overcrowded, with limited seating and constrained spaces.
In 2004, when the building was opened, it was more than enough to face Ethiopian Airlines’ traffic of about 2-million ppa. But now that the airline’s passenger figures have surpassed the 8-million mark, it is totally inadequate.
A huge expansion project will be completed by the beginning of 2019, with an entirely new check-in area, an additional departure concourse featuring three more airbridges and a building that will connect T1 and T2, taking total floor surface from current 516,667sqf (48,000sqm) to 1,313,197sqf (122,000sqm) and overall capacity from 8 to 22 million ppa. Decor and passengers amenities will be improved as well.
But for now, moving through the terminal was an unpleasant and stressing experience. After another round of security controls, more than an hour after entering the building I finally approached gate 1A, which was not among those five equipped with an airbridge at ADD.
To reach it at ground floor, I descended a steep stairway, with apparently no escalators nor elevators available. Not exactly what we would call it “accessible”.
A bus took us to the opposite side of the apron, where B787-8 ET-AOS Lucy (after the 3.2mln years-old, world-famous Australopithecus skeleton found in the Rift Valley) was waiting. All around, the scene of ET’s 777s, 787s and A350s being pushed back or taxiing to the runway was spectacular and exciting.
We boarded at exactly midnight and I quickly settled in 11A. A lady was sat in 11C, but 11B remained unoccupied, further enhancing the comfort.
Ethiopian’s economy class on the Dreamliners sports a 3+3+3 cross-section in a configuration that allows 246 passengers to be seated in the two aft sections of the aircraft.
The cabin was well-lit and immaculately clean, although ET’s choice of color palette, with an alternate of green and yellow seats, is disputable, particularly if compared to those cool ambiances aboard competitors like Qatar, Emirates, Etihad or Turkish.
Each seat was furnished with a pillow and a blanket, while earphones were in the pocket in front, together with ET’s Selamta inflight magazine. Seating in the first row of economy, there was no seat in front and the dining table was in the left armrest, while the 8.9” (22.6cm)-wide IFE personal video screen extracted from the right one.
Twenty minutes after “boarding completed” had been called, nothing happened, the stairway still connected to the airplane and the door open. At 00.30, the captain came on the PA explaining that technicians were working on a landing gear wheel but assuring that in the span of ten to fifteen minutes we would be ready for departure. At 00.45 we pushed back and ten minutes later off we went from runway 07R.
As we headed towards Sudan on a route parallel but slightly western than the one we flew from MXP to ADD two days earlier, dinner service started. There was no menu card, the FAs offering a choice between “chicken, fish, or pasta”.
Once again I went with the chicken, only to discover that the “fish” was actually salmon, that I would have chosen if only I had known. The poultry came in a tomato sauce with saffron rice, a salad of beans, cream cheese, and a “cranberry bar” as dessert. The wine was a French red in a 187ml bottle. All summoned a good-quality economy class meal.
After dinner, the cabin crew apparently took a break, leaving the food trays on the tables with full cabin lights on for too a long time, considering the late hour of the night and the passengers eager to the seatback and relax or sleep.
It was not before 2.10am that trays were finally recollected and the cabin set for the (very short) night. Three and a half hours of decent sleep later, as we started our descent into FCO over the Tirrenian Sea, breakfast was served.
Landing occurred on 16L at 4.35, followed by a long taxi to Terminal 3. At that very early hour, we were the only aircraft “alive” in the whole airport. About 90% of passengers terminated their journey in Rome. The few of us continuing to Milan were asked to remain seated with the seatbelts unfastened and the cellular phones off as the airplane was being refueled.
The stop in FCO proved to be lengthy and annoying: in preparation for the 45 minutes hop to MXP, a new crew came onboard, doors were closed at 5.40, but it was not until 6.10 that we moved to runway 25 where we lifted off at 6.20.
With such a limited load onboard, the Dreamliner accelerated like a rocket, rotating at about half of the 10,856ft (3,309m)-long strip of asphalt and reaching cruise altitude at 32,000ft in just fifteen minutes. A light snack consisting of tea or coffee and a ham sandwich was served before we put the nose down to MXP, where we ended our 8 hours 20 minutes (overall) journey on 35R.
Ethiopian offers good quality in the economy, with comfortable seats, an above average IFE and good food. Cloud Nine is a pleasant but maybe not memorable experience: food offer and quality were high but the 2+2+2 cross section inevitably limits privacy in case all seats were occupied and doesn’t allow aisle access to all passengers. Service by the FAs was attentive and personalized, one of the best ever experienced in a business class.