Ethiopian Airlines’ strong domestic network gets less attention than its international hub and spoke operations. However, with international travel demand sluggish, the carrier has been quick to reinstate capacity on its domestic routes. Already, 18 of the 23 destinations served from Addis Ababa are back on the map, with pent up demand driving a swift recovery.
A strong domestic backbone
Ethiopian Airlines is well known for its long-haul operations. Flying a hub and spoke model, the airline is perfectly positioned in east Africa to funnel passengers between east and west. As such, it was likely to be a hard hit victim of the COVID outbreak, as international travel dried up.
While pivoting to cargo and repatriation operations certainly helped Ethiopian to survive, another, less well-known area of its business also helped it keep revenue flowing. The airline operates a substantial domestic network, and even at the peak of the COVID lockdown, it attempted to keep at least some services operating.
From March 30th, all Ethiopian’s ticket offices were temporarily closed. However, it continued to fly to domestic destinations, although it said demand dropped out by some 50%. Acting chief commercial officer Esayas WoldeMariam explained the importance of this market to the airline. He said,
“Domestically, Ethiopia is a country of more than 110 million people. It’s the second-most populous country in Africa. Because of that, we have a dense network of domestic operations. It is, by far, the largest in Africa, because in large aviation markets like Nigeria and South Africa, the two biggest economies on the continent, they do not have such a large domestic network as Ethiopia.”
Ethiopian’s domestic network includes 23 airports outside of Addis Ababa. At the time of writing, the airline has restarted regular operations to 18 of those airports, some seeing services multiple times a day.
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Pent up demand
The ability of Ethiopian to jump back onboard as soon as capacity is demanded has allowed it to be incredibly responsive to the pent up demand seen in the domestic market. Esayas noted the carrier’s well-known agility and the need of the Ethiopian people to get moving again as fundamental to the carrier’s aggressive ramp-up of domestic services. He said,
“Because of our aviation capability and the need to move the second largest population on the continent from place to place, within about nine to 10 different regions on the country … the need is highly pronounced.
“We need to reconnect businesses, economies, universities, which have been scattered all over the country. Because of the lockdown situation, people have been eager to start revamping the economy. So whenever the demand rises, we equally use the agility that we are known for to increase the domestic network to reconnect people and goods.”
The ability of the airline to rapidly add capacity where demand exists has been one of the hallmarks of Ethiopian throughout this crisis. This has allowed it to, so far, work through the downturn with no bailout and without missing any payments to suppliers.
With domestic and regional travel predicted to return to 2019 levels much faster than international, it is this robust domestic network and Ethiopian’s positive approach that will see it fighting through the crisis to come out strong once again.