Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Does Ethiopian Airlines keep the 'Spirit of Africa' alive?

Ethiopian Airlines - a review!
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)


The New Spirit of Africa
Ethiopian Airlines bills itself as the 'new spirit of Africa'.  My family and I recently traveled from the U.S. to Tanzania and decided to try out and see if Ethiopian Airlines lived up to its motto.


Ethiopian Airlines is one of a few African Airlines which travels the world - others being South African, Kenyan, EgyptAir, and Royal Air Maroc. Out of this list, only Ethiopian and South African provide good connections from Europe and America to other cities in Africa (via their hubs). Additionally, Ethiopian has been prominent in competing with Middle Eastern airlines by upgrading their service, expanding to new destinations, and increasing focus on safety and comfort. Ethiopian is part of Star Alliance and is the first African airline to fly the Boeing Dreamliner (Kenya Airways was the second) and is in the process of adding more Dreamliners.  In addition to competing with the Middle Eastern carriers, Ethiopian is also competing with South African on flights from North America.  From North America, Ethiopian flies from Washington, D.C. (in competition with South African) and recently started flying to Toronto, Canada. 

Our trip to Africa started because we wanted to go and see Tanzania and Zanzibar.  Looking at what airlines to both the U.S. and Dar Es Salaam, it was a choice between the Middle Eastern Carriers, Ethiopian, South African, or Kenyan.  Ethiopian had the best travel time and the lowest fare so I decided to go with them.  As they are part of the Star Alliance, I thought I could book travel via United from New Orleans to DAR via United (MSY to IAD) and Ethiopian from Dulles to DAR via Addis.  

I went to Ethiopian's website, which is very nice and easy navigate, and the site provided me the details from IAD to DAR but could not connect to any domestic U.S. cities.  When I called the D.C. office to ask them for assistance, they informed me that even though they are part of the Star Alliance they cannot book tickets partnering with United.  In order to have everything on one ticket, I would have to go through a travel agent.  This is something that Ethiopian needs to work on if it really wants to compete in the international market - especially since Kenya Airways allowed me to book the flights in partnership with their SkyTeam partner Delta (they had to many connections and too many stops so that is why I did not choose them).   

Why go through the hassle of booking everything on one ticket and not two separate tickets - a couple of reasons:
  1. luggage - internationally, the U.S. allows 2 bags of 50lbs/23kilos as part of free checked luggage.  Domestically, any checked bags require a charge and two bags can cost about $60 per passenger (and we were 3 passengers total).
  2. luggage transfer - if everything is booked on one ticket, then the luggage is booked to the final destination and is automatically transferred during your connections; you do not have to go out, collect your luggage, and recheck them in.
  3. if something goes wrong - if you have booked everything on one ticket, and should something go wrong with one of your connections, then the airline will automatically assist you in getting back to your home destination.  For example, if one plane is delayed and you miss your connection then the airline will automatically assist you in getting on the next flight to your destination - booking two separate tickets, while sometimes cheaper, does not avoid these potential headaches.
In the end, I went to an online travel site (cheapoair.com - very reasonable prices) and booked my flight on United from MSY to Dulles, and then connecting to Ethiopian from Dulles to DAR via ADD.  Note - Ethiopian only has one flight from Dulles to ADD, but has many flights from ADD to other destinations to double check your connection times.  After I booked the flight, I emailed the DC office to confirm the flights as well as to confirm seat assignments (they were very responsive and accommodating).

The flight from MSY to Dulles was the night before so I had about 12-hour layover in Dulles (there are many hotels, inexpensive, near the airport) but due to the long-layover my bags had to be rechecked in Dulles as the airline can only keep the bags for 6-hours or less (we arrived at 9pm and flew the next day at 10am).  

Ethiopian flight ET501 was scheduled to depart 10:15am which meant that we had to be at the airport by 7:30am.  When we arrived to the airport, there was a long line of people to check-in (the DC area has one of the largest Ethiopian populations outside of Ethiopia so be prepared for crowds).  It took a while for us to check-in as the lines were long, each passenger had lots of luggage, and many needed to pay extra.  Additionally, each passenger received a color-sticker on the boarding pass to indicate at which time they would board the plane (this took a long time)

After we received our boarding passes and luggage, we proceeded to security and the gate.  There were LOTS of people at the gate and it was very chaotic.  Even though the flight was supposed to depart at 10:15am, we didn't start the boarding process until 9:45am/10:00am (which meant we were going be delayed taking off as well).  Each passenger received a colored sticker on their boarding card and there was a sign as the order in which you were supposed to board -- nobody followed that.  Once they announced the boarding, it was a rush to board the plane (very chaotic and haphazard).  

The plane taking us to ADD was Ethiopian's new Boeing Dreamliner.  This would make the direct flight in 12h30m.  The seating is very comfortable in a 3-3-3 layout (as opposed to the 3-4-3 layout).  The 3-3-3- layout made the plane seem very big and spacious (not as spacious as the A380, but still good).  Since we were 3 people - we got 3 seats together and the seats were nice and comfortable.   Each seat had its own personal tv set, a leg rest (nice touch), a coat hanger, and a usb charging port (also a nice touch.

After majority of the people had been boarded and seated, there was an issue - apparently the same seats were assigned to two different people.  This happened to a number of people on the plane so even as we were pushing back from the gate - not all passengers were seated and not all luggage compartments closed.  My recommendation, get to your seat early in boarding.  Because of the delay in boarding and pushing back, and still not ready as we pushed back, we didn't take off until almost 11:45a/12pm (so almost 1.5hours after the scheduled time).



Once we were airborne, we received complimentary headsets (that you could take with you) along with an amenity packet of eyeshades, socks, and toothbrush - a nice touch.  Once we reached our cruising altitude, everyone adjusted in their seat for the long flight.  We were served drinks, then lunch, then drinks again, along with tea and coffee.  The service was decent and efficient, with the meals also decent.  The entertainment system was also pretty decent.  It's not as nice nor has as many selections as emirates, but it is pretty good and has enough selections and variety to keep you occupied for at least 8-10 hours.   

The new-ness and capability of the plane was well-apparent as the seats were very comfortable, the cabin looked new, and the bathrooms were nice and spacious.  Even though it was a full-flight with over 300+ people on it, the plane did not feel cramped.

Some snacks were served during the flight and prior to landing we were served breakfast, as we were landing around 7:45am in Addis.  Again, breakfast was decent and the service was efficient.  

We landed on time and taxied not to a gate, but rather to a parking stand across the taxiway from the gates & terminal.  We had to deplane via stairs, but then waited on the tarmac for the buses (which were late).  Once we boarded the buses (which looked pretty old) we were transported to the terminal for our 2.5 layover.  3/4 of the passengers were Ethiopians coming home for the holidays (we left in late December) while the rest of us were transit passengers to other parts of Africa.

There is not a lot to do in ADD - the duty free is pretty scarce and there are not that many restaurants or lounges.  There a lot of souvenir shops and other such places, and there is one internet cafe, but that is about it.  If Ethiopian really wants to build up their brand, they should really update their hub airport.

About an 1.5 hour prior to departure, we left the main hall and went through security to get to our holding gate for our departure to DAR.  Ethiopian does a loop from ADD so it goes ADD - DAR - ZNZ - ADD.  You can board at ADD and depart at DAR or ZNZ, or board at DAR or ZNZ and depart at ADD.  We were going to board at ADD and depart at DAR (so the first stop).

After we passed through security, we went downstairs to the holding area for the buses to take us to our waiting aircraft (again, no bridge terminals but buses.  There were bridge terminals there but not used for this flight).  The holding area was very small, cramped, and very hot and there were many passengers there waiting for multiple flights.  This led to a lot of confusion as the announcements were not made over the speaker, but rather yelled out so many people were confused.  We boarded our bus (again, very old bus) to our plane to take us to DAR.  

The plane to DAR - ET0805 was also nice, but an older plane (boeing 737-800) and it was a bit disappointing when coming from the Dreamliner.  The seats were comfortable and the plane decent, but you could tell it was an older plane.  The flight took off late - we were supposed to take off at 10:45am and took off around 11:15am - and there was a lot of waiting inside the aircraft (which seemed to be a theme on Ethiopian).  The flying time from ADD to DAR was 2.45 in which, again, complimentary headsets were handed out and we received lunch.  The food was decent and the service was efficient and friendly on this full flight.  The first stop was DAR so those passengers who were continuing on to ZNZ had to wait for us to deplane, and wait for passengers who were going back to ADD to board the plane.  

We landed at DAR, went through immigration and customs (very hot, very noisy and haphazard, and very cramped), then proceeded to gather our luggage (again very chaotic as bags were thrown everywhere), and then left the terminal.

Our return flight from DAR to ADD and then to IAD was a little different.  First, the flight took off very early in the morning  - at 2:10am - so it was a long day exploring and then a long night waiting at DAR airport (which does not have a lot to do).   As stated earlier, Ethiopian does a loop so ADD to DAR to ZNZ to back to ADD - we had got on on the DAR sector so that meant we had a pretty empty plane to ZNZ, but we had a long wait on the ground as passengers were boarded in ZNZ.  It was only supposed to be 30 minutes on the ground, but it ended up being over 1h20mins on the ground (again -- see a theme).  We landed in ADD and again had to take a bus to the terminal. 

Our flight landed at 7am into ADD and our next flight to IAD was not until 10:15pm - I did not purposely create the long layover, this is what the travel site had given me but I used it as an opportunity to explore Addis. 

Usually, with long layovers, the airline gives you a hotel or accommodation to rest.  Ethiopian had said that because I had chosen the long layover - which I actually was given the long layover - and that they had multiple flights from DAR to ADD that required less layover, they would not provide accommodation.  I had been told this by the DC Ethiopian office so had already arranged accommodation for myself and family.  I looked online and U.S. citizens do not need a transit visa - they can get a visa on arrival for Ethiopia.  I had all this information ready when I proceeded to the immigration counter - who sent me to the transfer desk and thus started the whole process.  

The transfer desk sent me to the visa on arrival, who sent me back to the transfer desk, who sent me back to immigration.  After an hour of going up and down from one place to another (and all this on 2 hours of sleep) I had enough.  I explained to the immigration supervisor what I had been told and what was needed, and he agreed with what I had but said that I needed to get the stamp from the transfers desk.  He went with me to the transfers desk - which was completely full and inundated with people and only one person to help at least 25 people; can we say INEFFICIENT!!! - and explained the situation to the lady but she still insisted I pay for my visa (which was supposed to be free).  As I said, it had been a long day and I was with my family so I just decided to pay $200 for our three visas to get us out of the airport and in a bed (when I returned to the U.S. I had emailed the DC Ethiopian Office, explained what happened, provided the evidence, and 2 months later received a check in the mail for the $200)

We went through customs and immigration and proceeded to our hotel --- we stayed at the Hilton Addis and to read my review of that hotel and our process, check out my tripadvisor page in the description or click here: http://nokiamaps.tripadvisor.com/members/0504Traveller.  

Our return flight from ADD to Dulles took a little longer and was not as comfortable as it was on a Boeing 777 instead of the dreamliner (which was still decent but not as comfortable) and because the return flight stops in Rome and has a crew change *passengers do not get out of the plane.  

Again, it is only supposed to be an hour wait in Rome but we were on the ground for almost 2.5hours (very inefficient).  The only good thing was that the AC and the entertainment system was on the entire time.  Even though we were delayed, we still made our arrival time into Dulles.   Dulles now has a separate area for international transfers so this made the process a lot easier and smoother.  



Overall, Ethiopian is a good airline but there are little things that need to be improved to make it a great airline - timeliness, efficiency, customer service, and an improved hub airport.  With these updates, Ethiopian could be a great airline.

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