Tried & Tested

Ethiopian Airlines B767-300 economy

25 Apr 2013 by ScottCarey7

First impressions When I arrived at London Heathrow’s Terminal 3, the queue for the Ethiopian Airlines flight (mostly six times a week, but the schedule does vary throughout the year) to Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa was short, and my boarding pass was quickly printed. It is possible to check in online and print out a boarding pass.

I did choose my seat on-line, but at check-in the seat listed on my ticket was not the same one. Upon querying this, I received one of those inadequate explanations that just does not ring true but cannot be argued against, at least not without a lengthy wait – and when told the flight was full, which it was. Also, the bar code on my boarding pass did not register with the next barrier of security, so I had to return to check-in to correct this fault. It did not work the second time either, but that time they let me through anyway.

Boarding The flight (ET701) was due to leave London Heathrow at 2015, and it did, but the request to go to the gate was made at 1900, even though boarding did not commence until 2000. Boarding was conducted via the usual “blocks-of-seats” method on the way out, but not when returning from Addis Ababa, when it was a “free-for-all”.

At Heathrow, the plane taxied for some while – as you might expect on a Friday evening. Coming back from Addis Ababa (flight ET700), there was definitely more confusion. Quite in advance from the return flight, that is, even before leaving London, I received an e-mail from Ethiopian Airlines stating that my return flight had been changed from 0135 to 0035. I praised the company’s customer service as very efficient for this advance notice. Furthermore, this change of schedule suited me (Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport is close to the city, and there are excellent restaurants less than 10 minutes from the terminal, such as Habesha 2000, which puts on a cultural show blessedly free of gimmicks and tack).

However, on the return date, I had to somewhat review this positive judgment. Upon arriving at Bole International Airport, where the ultra-modern international terminals sitting next to the still pleasant domestic one, staff rushed me through a separate security checkpoint after the entire process of getting to the plane began to snarl, but as soon as I reached the gate, the overhead screen stated that the flight was now leaving at 0135. Fifteen minutes later, the screen changed again, with the flight now delayed until 0230, without the change being announced across a speaker system. Then, suddenly, boarding was announced. We boarded at 0100 and left at 0130. Confused?

We were leaving 55 minutes later than the original time but five minutes earlier than our readjusted time and a whole hour before the last displayed time. Thus, smiles all round, even if the process seemed to have a life of its own. My overall impression was an airline/airport staff that was genuinely business-like if not utterly efficient, and perhaps there were forces outside its control that led to some baffling information being posted.

The seat The Boeing 767-300 plane was a joy to first encounter, with seats in two shades of tropical green and pseudo-Caribbean rhythms puncturing the air. To inspect a seat plan, click here.

Which seat to choose? Sitting near to the front of the plane is always my choice, so as to allow quick disembarkation. On ET701, I was in 16D (I asked for the best seat farthest forward when check-in changed my original choice, but all that was left were central seats). 16D was an aisle seat in the middle section of a 2-3-2 layout. Most seats have their own entertainment screens, with a decent selection of films, but on the way back (ET700), I was seated in 12F, which, although positioned exactly where my outbound seats was, was in a separate area, vastly cutting down on noise from the rest of the plane.

If there are no children present in this area – rows 11 to 13, comprising only 16 seats and not regarded as economy plus, or some such designation – sleep is a very real possibility. The downside is that this area has a shared entertainment screen, but as the flight left in the small hours and arrived in London at 0830 (there is a three-hour time difference), sleep, not Hollywood, was the goal.

There are 24 first-class seats, and 192 seats in the main economy section, not including the 12 separated seats noted above. In economy, seats at the front enjoy slightly more pitch than those behind them, and rows 14 to 23 enjoy an inch more pitch than those in rows 11 to 13 mentioned above. Row 24 is the only exit row.

The flight The cabin was quiet, the seat was comfortable. The sides of the headrests can be moved to help cushion one’s own head. Addis Ababa is one of Africa’s main centres of administration and government, so there was on board a definite sprinkling of diplomats. The country is still considered an adventurous travel destination, and the families I saw on board seemed, from what I could gather, to be flying onwards from Addis Ababa to safaris in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa.

The in-flight meal was so-so, and by the time the trolley reached me, the beef dish had already gone. So, chicken it was. It would have been nice to have what is termed “national food,” for instance, Ethiopian soft bread, injera, and wat, small cubes of meat in sauce, but such dishes always are eaten with the fingers and shared off the same plate, so perhaps that is deemed too messy for the airline’s spick-and-span planes. Do not worry, as there are plenty of occasions in Ethiopia to eat such delicious fare. The in-flight magazine, Selanta (it means “Greetings” in Amharic, Ethiopia’s national language) is a good read, too. Paper quality, pictures and layout all have a very high professional standard.

Arrival The flight landed in Addis Ababa (everyone refers to it simply as Addis) 20 minutes early. The first port of call is to obtain your Ethiopian visa. This would be another reason to choose a seat towards the front of the plane. Many travelers had connections at Addis so did not require an Ethiopian visa, which cut down significantly on the visa queue. In any case, there were four people inside a small room processing visas, so things moved swiftly.

Passengers staying in Ethiopia need a $20 bill (throughout Ethiopia, the dollar is given more credence than the pound sterling) for the visa. Despite having passport photographs and vaccination certification, I was not asked to use or display them. Yellow fever vaccination is not mandatory for Brits and a number of other Western nationalities if they are not arriving from a country with risk of yellow fever transmission. The obtaining of a visa comes before passport control, and neither took long. Note that if entering Ethiopia through any other channel apart from Bole, a visa must be purchased before leaving London, or any third country.

Ethiopian Airlines has seven classes of passenger plane. Within Ethiopia, I took a 45-minute flight to Lalibela, famed for its rock-hewn churches and for being the centre of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (the bus takes two days, thanks to there being only a handful of asphalt roads in the country). The plane on that route from Bole’s domestic terminal (always, always, always confirm domestic flights the day before, else risk finding your seat assigned to someone else) was a Bombardier 400, with 78 seats in a 2-2 formation, with 14 Cloud Nine seats that seemed not worth the extra cost.

Once comfortably seated, there was just about enough travel time for a cup of coffee and a (bland) sandwich. Passengers are advised to get to the airport three hours before take-off, and this is stressed time and time again. You start to believe it. The airport was deathly quiet when we arrived, although check-in and security staff was present. Most other passengers seemed to ignore these dire warnings. The check-in staff was far more efficient that the staff of the one coffee shop, which showed absolutely no ingenuity. Getting the bill proved taxing.

Verdict Overall, based on my two flights, I would say that Ethiopian Airlines is a good airline, one that should be encouraged and used to help open up the huge continent of Africa to more and more travelers. Certainly, inside of Ethiopia, it was a joy to fly in larger, more comfortable planes than in smaller jets with nine or 18 seats. Airline staff appeared on the whole to be helpful and realized how important their service is to your trip.

Apart from my outbound seat being changed, I had no qualms, believing myself to be in good hands. The company also has ten Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners ready to make their debut when the recalled planes are finally given their all-clears, which could be as early as the end of April 2013.

Terence Baker

FACT FILE:

CONFIGURATION: 2-3-2 (A-C, D-F-H, J-L)

SEAT PITCH: 31-33in (78.7-83.8cm) in economy/52in (132.1cm) in first class

SEAT WIDTH: 17.3in (43.9cm) in economy/21in (53.3cm) in first class

SEAT RECLINE: 6in (15.2cm) in economy)/15in (38.1) in first class

CONTACT: ethiopianairlines.com

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