I’m not a fussy traveler (the bulk of my leisure travels consist of backpack and shoestring travel) and I'm aware of the fact that “affordable” often means “basic” and you get what you pay for. With this in mind, I booked a return trip on Ethiopian Airlines in March for travel in July: Johannesburg ORT to Rome FUM. The main selling point was an incredibly low airfare and a number of not-so-bad reviews of the airline. Being the eternal optimist, I reluctantly noted some really negative online reviews and decided not to dismiss an emerging, fast growing “local” (i.e. African – I’m South African) airline before experiencing it for myself. I’m going to summarize my flight experience before making a call on this carrier:
- Two days after I made my booking in March (and 3 months before departure), I over-enthusiastically logged into my booking on the Ethiopian website only to notice that my return flight out of Rome was changed from the Tuesday 12 July to Sunday 10 July with a 23 hour layover in Addis Ababa, without my knowledge. By that time I had already made bookings in Rome and there was no way I could return earlier, but more disturbing was the fact that the changes were made without my consent, and without informing me. A very pricy international call and some hard words to an operator who could hardly speak English rectified the problem, but only after I was told that my original departure date was moved since the flight was “overbooked” (3 months prior to departure!?!). Anyways.
- On the day of departure, check in in Johannesburg literally took 2 hours. Apparently there was a problem on their system, but there was no communication to passengers. Being a bit of an aviation geek I was really disappointed to find out that they had changed the aircraft for this sector from one of the new EA Airbus A350’s to a Boeing 777. Don’t laugh, but this was one of the reasons why I booked this flight – to experience the A350!
- Once airborne and heading to Addis Ababa, the cabin crew literally disappeared for an hour and a half. Literally. Passengers called for water / drinks with no response. After about 90 minutes the in-flight service commenced; the food was reasonable but portions were small and, where other airlines almost force feed you and pest you with more food and drinks, refreshments and meals on Ethiopian were not at all enough (how can you run out of Coke halfway through the service on an international flight?). In-flight entertainment was good with a proper selection of movies, series and audio.
- Then, Bole. Aijajaijajai. I had read some horror stories about Bole international Airport and, having transited through the likes of Lungi International Airport (Sierra Leone), Jomo Kenyatta (Kenia) and Kotoka International Airport in Ghana, I really thought these doomsayers were exaggerating; which they were, and weren’t. Bole is not horrendously terrible. But it’s dirty, chaotic and not at all sufficient for the volumes of passengers who transit through here. Passengers stand, sit and sleep everywhere and toilets are tangibly dirty in the poorly lit, half-dark terminal building. Passing through the security gates took about an hour and a large amount of passengers had already waited at the boarding gate in the lines of different zones when I got there. Boarding time came and went with not a single EA worker in sight. At some point, a few passengers joined us and told us that they were headed to Paris and we were standing at the boarding gates for the Paris flight, even though the notice board displayed our flight number and destination. Next thing, the display changed to the Paris flight number and destination and we had no idea where to go. At the end, all the Rome passengers had to walk from boarding gate to boarding gate looking for our flight. Again no communication. When we finally found the boarding gate to our flight, a very annoyed attendant informed us (we are talking hundreds of passengers) that we were late and the flight was about to close. A rushed and chaotic boarding procedure followed.
- The flight from Addis to Rome was good and I was amazed at the comfort of the newish 787 Dreamliner which carried us to Italy.
- The waiting game started again when I headed back to South Africa after my Italy trip. For some reason, staff at the Ethiopian check-in counters at Rome Fiumicino International airport only arrived at check-in 1 ½ hours before departure. By that time, rows of passengers were trailing across the entire terminal building with some really irritated customers and very unfriendly staff. Check-in was a tedious rush with no time to spare in duty-free as we had to take the hike directly for boarding after check-in. At the boarding gates, again a problem with the Ethiopian system and passenger boarding passes could not be verified – resulting in an excruciatingly slow process of manually checking each passenger against the plane seat plan on the computer. The flight departed an hour late.
- After departure in a remarkably untidy 787, the cabin crew yet again disappeared for close to 2 hours. There were no ear-phones at my seat and about half an hour into the flight I pressed the call button to ask for a pair. Next to me was seated a hardly mobile lady with a sleeping baby and I did not want to trouble her by getting up to fetch earphones. Long story short – after calling the attendants for about 40 minutes (and about an hour and a half into the flight) I squeezed past the lady next to me to find the attendants in the back gallery chatting away while slowly preparing meal service. I asked for a pair of headphones and one attendant pointed to a used pair lying in the isle, saying “sure use that one”. I lost it and demanded a sealed pair. Food was served halfway into the 6 hour flight at about 2am, which is peculiar because most other operators would serve dinner as soon as possible on night flights to enable passengers to get some rest during the bulk of the flight.
- On the return trip, Bole International airport was much of the same, and I spent my entire transit time of 2 and a half hours moving trough the security gates and boarding immediately thereafter. The flight back to Johannesburg was good but I arrived in Johannesburg hungry, tired and frustrated.
And that’s it; some of the above may be nit-picking but that was my Ethiopian Airlines experience. Would I recommend this airline to my friends or family? Probably not. Would I in future fork out the additional USD150 to fly the (mostly Middle Eastern) competition where I know the level and quality of service? Probably...
Thing is…you do not want to arrive at your (in my case holiday) destination tired, stressed and irritated and you do not want to return from your (in my case holiday) trip tired, stressed and irritated. And, even though we all know that cheap flight prices will probably buy you a more basic and less sophisticated flight experience, very few people would actually pay for an UNPLEASANT experience. Unfortunately, that is what a ticket on Ethiopian gets you…your flight turns out to be 24hours of waiting in queues, running around to find boarding gates and having to tolerate unfriendly and rude crew members.
In my opinion, this can be attributed to two things: an incomprehensible ignorance towards client service, on and off the aircraft, and a truly problematic airline transit “hub”. EA will have to carefully strategize and, for the time being perhaps stop buying new aircraft, and rather tear the entire Bole down and start from scratch...and on this; quite a few online reviewers disqualify EA based on their experience of Bole airport and initially I thought this was unfair, since I felt you have to separate the carrier from any airport they service. Not so, unfortunately. If you’re gonna fly EA you’re gonna transit through Addis Ababa, and Bole is sure to ruin your experience of an otherwise OK airline. Apparently, EA has ambitions to become Africa’s largest operator with Addis their hub (much like Emirates and Dubai) but that is an almost laughable prospect if you walk through the dark crowded and dirty Bole terminal building.
To finish off...if you are really cash strapped and you are willing to endure hours of waiting in queues, running around a nightmarish airport in search of boarding gates and someone to assist, and a mediocre flight experience EK is your bet. Otherwise, avoid and pay a bit more, even if it is just for the peace of mind...