Past, Present, Future
Ethiopian Airlines: A symbol of Pan-Africanism and African Renaissance.
The half-century of the African Union’s success has significant ties to the success of Ethiopia and its national carrier, Ethiopian Airlines — established almost two decades earlier. Take a look at the airline’s remarkable story:
It was 1945 and most of Africa was colonized. That year, Ethiopia established an airline in a joint venture with Trans World Airlines. It was a bold, albeit humble, beginning that would change the aviation industry in Africa.
On April 8, 1946, Ethiopian Airlines made its maiden flight to Cairo in one of its five Douglas C-47s. This ushered in an era of prominence: an African airline with weekly services to destinations in Africa and beyond.
Before 1946, passengers had to transit through countries outside of Africa in order to reach their destinations within the continent. With its motto of “Bringing Africa Together,” Ethiopian Airlines eased travel within Africa while also marking major milestones in the continent’s aviation industry.
Although many routes in Africa back then were very thin, with passenger numbers not justifying service, Ethiopian stuck to its operations.
Along the way, the green, yellow and red livery of Ethiopian across African skies came to symbolize an independent Africa. Ethiopian soon became the sole operator to other African countries as they broke free from the yoke of colonialism. To this day, many of the celebrations of Ethiopian inaugural flights to African destinations coincide with the years those countries gained their independence.
In the early 1960s, a wave of Pan-Africanism was spreading across the continent. Along with it came the idea of establishing a continental body that would serve as the instrument of change and the voice of a united Africa.
It was aboard Ethiopian Airlines that the founding fathers of the Organisation of African Unity traveled across the continent to negotiate its vision and birth. Then came the realization of a dream: In May 1963, leaders of 32 African nations gathered in Addis Ababa to sign the charter establishing the OAU and to herald a new chapter in the unity and solidarity of Africa. It was also on Ethiopian Airlines that many of the leaders traveled to Addis for this historic event. Making history had already become commonplace for Ethiopian. Just a few years before the signing of the charter, Ethiopian became the only airline to operate east-west services across the continent, truly bringing Africa together.
In 1962, a new airport and tower were built to accommodate the growing fleet and destinations. Soon after, and a few months before the establishment of the OAU, Ethiopian again made history by introducing the continent’s first jet aircraft: the Boeing 720.
While Ethiopian operations in Africa grew, there was a shortage of skilled Africans in the aviation sector. Realizing that a true African airline should be managed by Africans, Ethiopian Airlines started to train Ethiopian professionals to take complete management of the airline, with the first Ethiopian CEO coming to the helm in 1971.
Trained Ethiopians began taking over the various operations, providing an eye-opening experience for many passengers—even Nelson Mandela, who wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, about his surprise upon encountering a black pilot during a 1962 flight to Ethiopia.
Although the Ethiopian Aviation Academy first provided training only for Ethiopian pilots, aviation technicians and cabin crew, it eventually opened its doors for trainees from other African countries. Soon, a third of its intake capacity was utilized to train professionals from the rest of the continent and later from Middle Eastern countries.
As the Ethiopian fleet grew, the need also grew for a technical facility where maintenance and repair could be done in-house. Backed by skilled professionals from its own training academy, Ethiopian launched Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul services and soon began offering these MRO services to other airlines as well.
Meanwhile, Addis Ababa was fast solidifying its position as the continent’s political and diplomatic capital. The airline began serving as the presidential airline for many African nations, carrying heads of state to OAU assemblies.
As other African nations started establishing their own airlines, Ethiopian assisted technically or offered advice in developing the necessary human resources. In 1968, Ethiopian spearheaded the formation of the African Airlines Association — a platform for establishing best practices. At the same time, Ethiopian was expanding in other ways. In 1973, the airline became the fourth in the world to fly to China. And in 1984, Ethiopian became the first airline in Africa and second in the world to operate the Boeing 767. It landed at Addis Ababa Bole International Airport after a 13½-hour delivery flight from New York — setting a new world-distance record for a commercial twin-engine jet.
This introduction of jet service in Africa and acquisition of the first 767 would become the hallmarks of Ethiopian Airlines’ appetite for innovation and technology.
By 1996, as it celebrated 50 years of operations, Ethiopian had established itself as a truly African airline, renowned for its operational excellence and safety record. The goal of bringing Africa together was being achieved, and no destination seemed out of reach as Ethiopian spread its wings.
Two years after celebrating half a century of flight, Ethiopian became a cross-Atlantic airline as well, with service to Washington and New York — once more increasing tourist flow to the continent, especially to East Africa.
Ethiopian Airlines had established itself as adept in all facets of aviation services — with its cargo business catering to the growing demand for transportation of goods, and its aviation academy and MRO business endowed with state-of-the art technology, both in infrastructure and services.
All these proved instrumental in realizing the OAU’s own founding tenets of political and economic integration. Ethiopian provided a convenient and smooth means for bringing people, goods and services of the continent closer together.
This was true even when some African countries were embroiled in conflicts. Ethiopian was the last airline to stop operations in these countries, long after many had pulled out. Even then, Ethiopian service to some of these countries continued in a different form: It was aboard Ethiopian that many of the peacekeeping forces were deployed to conflict areas in Africa. At the same time, Ethiopian was an ambassador for Africa, promoting the various economic, cultural and tourism opportunities wherever its airplanes flew. This in-flight magazine,Selamta, was a constant source of information and promotion, highlighting destinations and attractions of the continent.
The turn of this century saw the global prominence of Africa and its renaissance taking root. In 2002, the OAU restructured as the African Union, setting goals and visions for the continent of the 21st century. Africa was rising and the world noticed.
It was also an era of technological boom, and Ethiopian followed suit. By 2005, Ethiopian became one of the few airlines in the world to order 10 Boeing 787 Dreamliners while the aircraft was still on the drawing board. By then, Ethiopian’s fleet was more and more composed of the most modern aircraft being operated.
As the continent grew, Ethiopian stepped up to the challenge, crafting visions and goals for the long term, consistent with the vision of the AU.
After fulfilling its initial motto of bringing Africa together, Ethiopian was ready for a new one. Initially setting a five-year plan — Vision 2010 — Ethiopian chose “The New Spirit of Africa” as its motto for serving the Africa of tomorrow.
True to form and its history, Ethiopian far surpassed the goals set in Vision 2010. By 2010, it was time for a yet bigger vision of this continent and its airline. Hence, Vision 2025: a 15-year strategic road map.
In the meantime, Ethiopian continued to excel, marking its seemingly never-ending milestones. The airline became the first on the continent to introduce the ultra long-haul and wide-body aircraft: the Boeing 777-200LR. This enabled Ethiopian to serve the ever-increasing number of African passengers that resulted from a booming continent.
Africa’s growth also demanded a sophisticated level of operations. Ethiopian set up a second hub in Lome, Togo — establishing a community airline called ASKY with a 40-percent paid-up capital and full strategic management to cater to West Africa.
This was the birth of the multi-hubbing concept, which further enhanced Ethiopian operations in Africa. ASKY is not only serving passengers in West Africa but also feeding passengers to Ethiopian through its main hub in Addis for long-haul, trans-Atlantic routes.
By 2011, Ethiopian had expanded its reach by becoming a member of the Star Alliance, the world’s biggest and most prestigious airline alliance. Passengers on Ethiopian now have access to 1,293 airports in 193 countries. Ethiopian is truly a global airline.
In August 2012, Ethiopian took the world by storm by introducing the first Dreamliner in use in Africa and the third in the world. Those who had not noticed Ethiopian before now did so, as the airline delivered the ultimate travel experience aboard the most technologically advanced passenger aircraft in the world.
However, the airline's achievements did not stop there. Ethiopian Cargo, the biggest African freight operator, was about to see the addition of a technological marvel as well. Soon after taking delivery of the Dreamliner, Ethiopian introduced Africa to the first ultra-modern and long-haul cargo freighter: Boeing 777-200LR.
With six dedicated freighters — two of them B777Fs — Ethiopian Cargo now caters to the growing market for imports and exports of Africa in 25 destinations, with Liege, Belgium, as its second cargo hub.
On the domestic and regional front, Ethiopian garnered another world’s first — this time as the first to operate the Bombardier Q-400 with business and economy classes. Technicians at Ethiopian were highly involved in reconfiguration of this aircraft, which initially had a single cabin.
Not only that, but the airline’s MRO is an approved maintenance and overhaul facility for all of the aircraft it flies. This is remarkable, because most other African airlines outsource their MRO services.
With such capabilities, Ethiopian Airline’s passenger service now caters to 80 destinations worldwide — 55 of them in Africa — with a unique in-flight service that conveys the flavor of the continent. In 2012, Ethiopian spanned its intercontinental reach by launching Africa’s first scheduled nonstop flight to Canada.
These and other achievements have made Ethiopian a multi-award-winning airline unparalleled in operational excellence and profit. Despite operating in an aviation industry that has seen reduced returns because of high and volatile fuel prices, weak demand and geopolitical unrest, Ethiopian has proven to have mastered a recipe for success.
With an average growth of 25-30 percent over the past seven years, Ethiopian is now the fastest-growing airline in Africa and is solidifying its position as the flagship carrier of Africa.
Ethiopian is betting on Africa for its future, as can clearly be seen in the goals and dreams of Vision 2025. With the continent’s increasing prominence, Africa’s population is fast demanding the most efficient and convenient means of transportation.
With its growing and young population of 1 billion people — more than one-seventh of the world — Africa is becoming the destination of choice for investment and tourism. As air travel is one of the drivers of economic growth, Ethiopian has positioned itself as the airline that can cater to the growing demands of aviation services in Africa.
In an industry in which it is difficult to plan for even one year, Ethiopian is implementing a 15-year strategic roadmap. Already in the third year of its Vision 2025, Ethiopian is laying the foundation to become the leading aviation group in Africa.
For example, Ethiopian has carved its various aviation services into seven profit centers: domestic and regional passenger services, international passenger services, cargo, maintenance/repair, flight training, in-flight catering, and ground services.
These profit centers will also eventually see half their income coming from third-party clients, many of them African airlines.
Central to these goals is the geographical location of Ethiopian’s main hub, Addis Ababa. The city is situated at the intersection of the fastest-growing trade lanes between Africa and the countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China.
Ethiopian is also establishing additional hubs in central and southern Africa as a way to provide smoother and hassle-free connections both within the continent and beyond. These are being complemented with continued fleet modernization, state-of-the-art technology, facility expansion and modernization, and an increased investment in the development of human capital.
For example, Ethiopian will soon become the first airline in Africa to own and operate the Airbus 350-900, with an order of 14 scheduled for delivery starting in 2016.
To maintain and continue its fast growth and profitability, Ethiopian is also undertaking massive expansion projects:
Cargo The new cargo warehouse, with a capacity of 1.2 million tons per year for both perishable and dry cargo, will be the biggest in Africa. Its capacity for perishable cargo alone is slated to be one of the biggest in the world.
MRO As part of its increased Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul services, a fourth modern hangar will accommodate the world’s largest commercial aircraft.
Training Ethiopian has invested US$42 million in the expansion of its Aviation Academy. When completed, the academy intake capacity will increase fourfold from current capacity to 4,000. By then, half of the trainees will be from other African countries.
By 2025, Ethiopian plans to fly 18 million passengers, uplift 820,000 tons of cargo, and serve 121 destinations using a mix of the youngest and most modern fleet. Success in these plans will see Ethiopian generating US$10 billion in revenue and close to US$1 billion in profit.
Indeed, Ethiopian Airlines is betting on Africa, as it has done since its inception, and it is betting big. This Pan-African airline is clearly the flagship carrier best positioned to lead the continent into this time of renaissance, bringing Africa to the world and the world to Africa.