Ethiopian Airlines Blazes African Trail

Ethiopian Airlines
Ethiopian Airlines

For Ethiopian Airlines, winning a reputation as a world-class airline hasn’t come easy in a continent not known for its commitment to service or stellar safety record. Seemingly against all odds, it has managed to do just that, all the while expanding its fleet to 48 aircraft and its route network to 83 international and domestic destinations. With 43 airplanes on firm order, Ethiopian Airlines has laid a foundation that might indeed make it the continent’s flag carrier to watch in the next.

CEO Tewolde GebreMariam eyes the Brazil-China axis as a seam of emerging market growth that will serve the airline well. “If you draw a line between China, India, Africa and Brazil, and you are located in the middle of that, these are the regions that [enjoy] really fast GDP growth as emerging markets,” he said. “We are looking for fast growth in the BRIC region.”

GebreMariam holds no illusions about the difficulties facing his airline in today’s environment, however. “I think one of the most difficult challenges we are facing…is profitability,” he said. “On the supply side, the oil price is going up and staying at its highest level for a long period of time. On the demand side, we have excess capacity. It’s very common now to see…airlines flying to destinations in half-empty airplanes.”

Still, the airline’s fleet has grown to become the envy of its neighbors. It recently took delivery of five Boeing 777-200LRs, and it holds orders for 12 Airbus A350-900s and 10 Boeing 787s, putting it well ahead of several “developed world” players. “We are expecting two of the 10 Dreamliners to be delivered before the end of 2012; five of them will be delivered [by] the end of 2013,” said GebreMariam.

Founded in 1945, the airline is 100-percent government-owned and based at Bole International Airport in the capital, Addis Ababa. It serves 66 international destinations, 41 of them in Africa, seven in Europe and 17 in the Middle East and Asia. Washington D.C. accounts for its sole Americas destination. The airline also operates a 24-route cargo network.

Meanwhile, with eight Boeing 737-800s and five Bombardier Q400s on order, and five 737-700NGs, six 737-800s and eight Bombardier Q400s already in the fleet, domestic and regional business stands as a growing priority. “There are 18 airports in Ethiopia, 14 of them asphalt,” said GebreMariam. “We have plans to link regional capitals with neighboring countries like Sudan, Kenya and Djibouti.”