How Ethiopian Is Beating Every Other Airline In Africa

When we say the phrase ‘African airlines’ you might conjure up some images of a ramshackle group of ex-Russian planes or some obscure middle eastern carrier that couldn’t make it in the Gulf states. However, this preconceived notion is not only incredibly archaic, it could not be further from the truth when considering Ethiopian airlines (Called just Ethiopian locally).

They are a powerhouse of the African airline scene and the flag carrier for their named nation. They have been running since the end of the second world war, they fly to 125 destinations (20 of which are domestic and the furthest international being Chicago, Jakarta and Geneva) and are Africa’s largest airline. Last year they carried over 10.6 million passengers (a 21% increase over last year) and that is set to continue.

Ethiopian B777
An Ethiopian B777. Photo: Boeing

Ethiopian currently has a fleet of 108 planes (A favourite being the single-aisle Boeing 737), with another 65 planes on order. They are also the third African airline to become a Star Alliance member, being invited and mentored by Lufthansa in 2011.

Their expansion knows no bounds, planning to launch four new airlines (yes, four (4)) across Africa before the end of this year. They are to be launching and operating in Chad, Guinea, Mozambique and Zambia (Ethiopia is working with the Zambian government to relaunch their national carrier with a 45% stake).

Ethiopian Business
An older Ethiopian business class cabin. Photo: TravelingOtter

Financially they are a safe bet, earning 6.8 billion Ethiopian BIRR ($245 million UD), while operating revenue jumped by 43% over the previous fiscal year to 89.1 billion BIRR ($3.23 Billion USD).

“It was an exceptional year for Ethiopian with record performance in financial, operational, commercial and customer service areas,” Ethiopian CEO Tewolde Gebremariam

Ethiopian Economy
Ethiopian economy cabin on the B787. Photo: Brussels Airport

How are they doing it?

The key reason for their impressive growth is their 15-year roadmap that strategically plans their growth. This includes an expanded fleet and upgrading their hub airport for an improved capacity (cargo and passenger) and improved customer experience. It has been said that some of this funding is from China. Additionally, they are wholly owned by the Ethiopian state, affording them flexibility and expansion not seen outside the Gulf airlines. This starts by being based in the hub of Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, which, the city, is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

They also have been implementing a “very heavy cost-cutting program,” targeting an annual cost savings of 10%-20%, without sacrificing jobs or growth. A goal to become leaner and meaner.

Ethiopian Business Class
The new Ethiopian airlines business class (mock-up). Photo: Ethiopian

They have attributed their success to running the state-owned airline like a private-public business, with profit and loss, rather than African competitors who see their airlines as a personal airline fleet they can play with at their tax-payers expense.

They are also betting heavy on the African Union Single Air Airline Initiative, multiple countries plan to streamline the process for airline firms in Africa to operate without too much bureaucracy (much like how the USA has one certificate for the whole country). They have the most to gain and have been a vocal member (with their government’s support).

We also need to look at Africa itself; Unlike the USA with its extensive highway interstate system, or Europe with its network of rail, Africa lacks a robust ground-based logistics network. It contains 54 fully recognised sovereign states (countries), nine territories and two de facto independent states with limited or no recognition. They also have the worlds 2ndlargest population and 2ndlargest continent. These factors make Africa the perfect region for air travel and the ultimate growth area for aspiring airlines.

“This performance is all the more exceptional given the very tough operating and competitive environment in Africa, where jet fuel price, our main cost driver, has soared during the year and is on average 30% more expensive in Africa, our home market, than in the rest of the world, putting the continent’s carriers at a severe competitive disadvantage.” Ethiopian CEO Tewolde Gebremariam

9 comments
  1. There are some mistakes in this article.

    Firstly it is 737 and not 373. I wouldn’t say their favourite is the 737 MAX either, they only have one in their fleet. Sure they have more on order but they haven’t arrived yet so we don’t know yet. I would say they like Boeing, with the 787 being their favourite.

    Furthermore, SAA, Egyptair, Royal Air Maroc and TACV also fly to the US… although Ethiopian probably does operate the most flights.

    That said, Ethiopian is a brilliant airline nonetheless.

    1. Hi K,

      Thanks for your corrections, we were a bit too enthusiastic to say the least and have corrected it. Cheers and thanks for reading!

  2. ET Airlines is indeed one of the best in Africa but they still need to improve on its lagguage reliability! I lost my lagguage twice, which has never happenned in any other airline before! Their services is awesome and not forgeting their awesome crew!

    1. An airline will have some growing pains, but I agree that there is nothing more disappointing than losing your luggage! We recommend using a good travel insurance, perhaps like the ones that come with credit cards to cover yourself in that situation.

  3. Ethiopian airlines may look successful but it has not earned its business. It is protected from competition by Ethiopian government so no effort in its service delivery improvements. The staff are majority comprised of one ethnic group (Tigreans only) and discrimination against non Tigrean staff is well public. Fares are expensive with no competition. Management is so poor that delays and bad food is normal. If you are Ethiopian, customer service is non existent both in cabin and outside. If you are non Ethiopian, the story is different. This article is pure marketing not journalistic in its nature.

    1. Hi Emanuel, since publishing this article many people have weighed in with their thoughts and yes some negatives like baggage and customer service have been raised. However, this article is how Ethiopian is beating every other airline in Africa, by becoming one of the fastest growing on the continent. Whilst they may achieve this by using government support (much the same as the Gulf Airlines do), they also do run it as a public-private business (unlike the support that is given to other airlines on the continent that are wholly owned). I admit I am totally unfamiliar with the geopolitics in Ethiopia and can’t comment on your other points. But I hope you will agree that so far they have been successful, regardless of the methods to do so.

  4. Well done! Strongly Ethiopian proud with fly high. But as u know even when your doing grt you should fail to do a little thing. So pls reads those comments which targets our service we provide.

  5. Mr Emmanuel’s comments on ethnicity within EA are the usual Ethiopian nonsense.
    I have many non Tigrai friends working for EA. Similarly his comments in expensive fares are nonsense. One major major reason for Ethiopians massive growth in the last decade is competitive prices. That is why it is so popular with everyone from Cape Town to Beijing to DC.
    And will certainly hit 15million passengers a year by 2020.

  6. Ethiopian is surging because the only airlines capable of competing, Kenya Airways and South African, have been damaged by neglect and corruption. Kenya Airways alone will need a decade to rebuild from the corruption plagued decisions it’s old management team made, and the stupid decision by the Kenyan government to open easy slot for Emirates (which is heavily subsidized by the government). While the new teams at KQ is doing wonders in restructuring the airline, it is perhaps too late to challenge Ethiopian without some cataclysmic problem inside EA.

    South African is suffering from the Zuma neglect. I also suspect that South African is under pressure to “africanize” and that could be adding to their problems. On paper, SAA should be dominating African routes. They have the people and technology to succeed but the Zuma administration in particular and the ANC in general must not want to see SAA succeed, as to why I have no clue. All I know is that South Africa has fundamentally the wealthiest countries in Africa, with a large professional white population and even ignoring the inequalities that still exist from apartheid, a rapidly growing black, asian and multiracial middle class. They also have the several global companies allowing business travel to compliment tourism. That mix should be a recipe for a national airline success story. SAA and South Africa should not be losing to Ethiopian!

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