Ethiopian Airlines – Growing through the odds

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Ethiopian Airlines is the largest African airline group and Ethiopia’s flag carrier airline. EAL (Ethiopian Air Lines: Former name of Ethiopian airlines) was founded in 1945 and commenced operation in 1946 and started international flights in 1951. In 1965 the airlines’ name changed from Ethiopian Air Lines to Ethiopian Airline and became a share company. The airline has been a member of the International Air Transport Association since 1959, a member of the African Airlines Association (AFRAA) since 1968, and a Stars Alliance member since 2011.

The headquarters and main hub of the airline are located at Addis Ababa Bole International Airport from where he serves 105 international destinations, 20 domestic destinations, and 44 cargo destinations. The airline has also a secondary hub in Togo and Malawi in Lomé–Tokoin International Airport. As of December 2017, the airlines have about 14,000 employees.

The airlines have managed to become one of the top airline groups in Africa. It has been lauded by many international institutions, economists, and aviation professionals for its rapid growth that doesn’t seem to slow down. The airlines managed to grow through several famines, economic crises, and political crises, upheavals, and revolutions. Despite all this, the airline is one of the most successful business ventures to come out of the country.

History of Ethiopia Airlines

After the liberation of Ethiopia and with the help of the US and UK Emperor Haile Selassie I established the then called Ethiopian Air Lines (EAL) in 1945 as part of his modernization effort. The creation of the airline Carrier was also part of an effort to remove the idea of Ethiopian poverty from the international mindset.

After negotiation between the Imperial Government and the Trans World Airlines (TWA) on September 8, 1945, an agreement was signed between the TWA and the then US foreign affairs advisor to Ethiopia, John H. Spencer, on establishing a commercial aviation company in Ethiopia. Hence; with an investment of 2.5 million ETB, Ethiopian Air Lines (EAL) was founded on December 21, 1945.

The company was financed and owned by the Ethiopian government which held all the 25,000 divided shares of the initial 2.5 million ETB investment. However, management was undertaken by TWA and during its formative years, the airline was operated by an American general manager, H. H. Holloway, and staffed by American pilots, technicians, accountants, and administrators. With the Ethiopian Minister of Works and Communications Fitawrari Tafasse Habte Mikael as EAL’s first president and chairman of the board, the company held its first meeting on 26 December 1945.

Early years of Ethiopian Airlines

Shortly after the first board meeting the airline bought five Douglas C- 47 planes and acquired landing rights with Aden (now Yemen), Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Egypt, and French Somaliland (now Somalia). The first revenue flight of the carrier was on April 8, 1946, from Addis Ababa – Asmara – Cairo, and this route would later operate weekly. Soon the carrier set up destinations in Aden, Djibouti, and Khartoum as well as domestically to Jimma.

In June 1946 Henry Bruce Obermiller replaced Holloway as the general manager and four more Skytrains joined the airline’s fleet. Nairobi was also added as a destination in 1947. Another significant addition to the service the airline provided was operating a charter flight to Jeddah during Hajj beginning in 1947. By the start of the ’50s, the aircraft carrier had more than 13 Skytrains, several destinations including Port Sudan, Lydda, Oman, and Bombay. By 1949 the carrier recorded a profit of £40,000.

During the 50s the airline started operating on long-haul routes such as a destination in Athens via Khartoum that was launched on April 3, 1954. During this age the airline managed to add Three Convair CV-240 planes named “Eagle of Ethiopia”, “Haile Selassie I” and “The Spiritual Power” into its fleet. The Planes were acquired through a 1,000,000$ loan from the Ex-Im Bank. By the end of the era, the carrier had a fleet of 18 planes and an order for two Boeing 720Bs to be delivered in 1961.

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The Fast Growing age of Ethiopian Airlines

On March 1, 1960, Port Sudan was removed from as a destination. On July 15 the first fatal accident happened when a plane en route from Bulchi to Jimma crashed and killing the pilot. An order for two Boeing 720B aircraft was placed based on the then EAL’s general manager’s suggestion of buying two jet planes for long -haul operations. Ethiopian Air Lines was the first African airline to make an East-West Africa by launching an Addis Ababa – Accra – Lagos – Monrovia route on November 8, 1960.

On September 5, 1961, the second fatal accident for the airline happened when a DC-3 plane crashed after it took off from Sendafar taking the lives of four passengers and a flight attendant. This would not be the only cause of accidents involving DC-3 planes. On January 13, 1962, another DC-3 plane crash took the lives of the crew and four passengers prompting the Civil Aviation Department to investigate the accidents. The lack of infrastructure at many airfields was identified as a major contributor to the accidents leading the airfields in Mizan Teferi and Tippi to close down.

By December 1962, the two Boeing 720 jets named “Blue Nile” and “White Nile” marked the airline’s entry into the jet age. The addition of the two crafts opened up a network to Madrid, Frankfurt, and Rome. The addition of the Boeing crafts prompted the construction of a new airport to replace the Lideta Airfield in order to accommodate the Boeing Jets. This airport was to become The Bole Airport where the Company sets its headquarter.

The firm changed from a corporation to a share company in 1965 and changed its name from Ethiopian Air Lines to Ethiopian Airlines. In 1966 the airline started to transfer management from the TWA to itself with the appointment of an Ethiopian deputy general manager. In 1970, the role of the TWA changed its role from manager to an advisor. Finally, in 1971, on its 25th anniversary, the company broke professional assistance ties with the TWA and appointed Colonel Semret Medhane as the first Ethiopian Manager. Ever since then the company has been managed and staffed by Ethiopian Personnel.

The 1980s and onward of Ethiopian Airlines

After expanding the airline’s workforce resulting in the decline of quality and revenues, Derg allowed the company to run independently of the government and on a “strictly commercial basis”. In 1980 Captain Mohammed Ahmed became the CEO of the company and managed to slash the workforce by 10%. The airline made business ties with the west despite the links between the country’s communist government and the USSR.

During the 1980s and ‘90s, Ethiopian Airlines focused on expanding its fleet and destinations. The company especially had strong business ties with Boeing co, with many of the fleets’ planes bought from Boeing. In 1984 a Boeing 767 twin jet made a new distance record of flying 12,100 km nonstop from Washington D.C. to Addis Ababa. Despite famine and general economic downturn, the airline managed to maintain its reputation and growth during this time.

In the late 1990s the carrier grew its fleet number and the number of destinations it served with international destinations such as Copenhagen and Maputo being incorporated. New York City and Washington also became one of the key transatlantic destinations. The frequent flyer program is known as “Sheba Miles” was also launched during this time. In 1998 the airline discontinued their flights to Asmara following the war between the two countries.

The 2000s saw a fleet renewal with the airline becoming the launch customer of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner planes. September 2010 saw Ethiopian Airlines officially invited to join Star Alliance under Lufthansa Air. The airlines became the third African airline following EgyptAir and South African Airways to join the Star Alliance and became a member in December 2011.

As of 2020, the CEO of Ethiopian Airlines is Tewolde Gebremariam after replacing Girma Wake in 2011. Under his leadership, the company has seen an unparalleled growth in revenue, profit, and size becoming the largest carrier in Africa and exceeding the company’s own 2025 vision. Currently, the company’s headquarters is located at Bole international airport but is intending to build a new 300million ETB complex on a 50,000m2 plot at Bole International Airport. The design of the headquarters was awarded to BET architects in September 2011 after a competition.

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From Brith to Now Ethiopian Airlines

Since its birth 74 years ago Ethiopian Airlines has been on an upward growth trajectory. As of 2016, the company has crossed the 100 marks in two major ways. Fleet number and destinations in total. The airline has 125 planes and 127, 105 international, and 20 local destinations now.

As of 2018, the company made a revenue of $3.1billion and a profit of $245million. It is the world’s 4th largest airline by the number of countries it serves and the largest African airline. In 2010 it became the 3rd African airline and 28th International member of the Star Alliance group. The average age of an Ethiopian Airlines aircraft is 5.4 years, compared to United Airlines (15 years), American Airlines (10.7 years) and British Airways (15 years).

Africa’s Biggest Airline: Ethiopian Airlines

In 2018 the airline was voted the Best Airline in Africa. The state-owned carrier has overtaken its regional competitors Kenya Airways and South African Airways to become the biggest airline in Africa. It is the biggest airline in terms of revenue, profit, fleet number, passengers served and destinations included. It is widely regarded as one of the most profitable airlines business in Ethiopia as well as in Africa.

Beyond its own operations, the airline has stakes in several African airliners. With a 49% and 45% stake in Zambia Airways and Malawi Airlines respectively, regional bases planned to be established in Djibouti and Chad, Hubs in Malawi and Togo and a plan to help re-launch a new airline in Mozambique the airline has been lauded as having “a very smart model” by Max Kingsley-Jones, of aviation publisher Flight Global. It recently overtook Dubai as the biggest international transit hub for long-haul travel to Africa.

The undergoing expansion of the main Bole International airport is expected to further enhance the company’s presence and influence in the aviation industry of Africa. Once the expansion is complete the airport will be able to accommodate up to 22 million passengers a year outpacing South Africa’s OR Tambo International airport in Johannesburg. However, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has a bigger ambition than 22 million passengers a year and want to expand to be able to accommodate at least 100 million passengers a year.

A new expansion of the Ethiopian Airlines

In order to achieve the 100 million passengers a year mark, Ethiopian Airlines is planning on constructing a new $5 billion airport later this year. The airport will cover an area of 35 square km and will be built 39 km south-east of Addis Ababa in Bishoftu town. The airport is projected to have the capacity to handle 100 million passengers a year, a passenger number topping those at Dubai international airport.

Vision 2025 of the Ethiopian Airlines

In 2010 the airline launched a 15-year plan called “Vision 2025”. The 2025 plan objective is to make Ethiopian Airlines the leading airline group in Africa in seven strategic areas: aviation academy, Maintenance, and Repair Operations (MRO), international service, regional service, cargo, in-flight catering service, and ground service.

The airlines have been spending up to 120 million$ on expanding its MRO services. It has built three new maintenance hangars, spent around a 100 million$ for pilot and flight attendee training, and expanded its catering service by spending 2.5milion$ to increase food production from 23,000 in-flight meals to 80,000 daily. It also trains students from other African countries.

The airlines have managed to achieve its Vision 2025 seven years ahead of schedule. In 2018 the airlines became the largest airline group in terms of revenue, profit, fleet number, passengers served and destinations included. The airlines are now working toward its new Vision 2035. The vision aims to increase its total revenue to 25 billion$, the number of its fleet to exceed 200, and 100 million passengers per year capacity airport.

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Accidents and Criticisms

Flight 302 was the deadliest accident involving Ethiopian Airlines to date. The flight was an international flight scheduled from Addis Ababa to Nairobi. The aircraft took off from Addis Ababa at 08:38 Local time and had 149 passengers, 35 different nationalities, and 3 crew on board. Many of the passengers were traveling to Nairobi to attend A UN Environment Assembly. The plane was captained by Yared Getachew, 29, who had an almost 9-year experience of flying and logged a total of 8,122 flight hours. The first officer, a recent graduate from airline’s academy Ahmed Nur Mohammed Nur, 25, had 361 flight hours logged with 207 hours being on the Boeing 737 Max.

The accident happened after a “flight control” problem was reported to the control tower. A malfunction in the plane’s MCAS system led the plane’s nose to continually dive toward the ground. The pilots struggled to control it and managed to prevent the nose from diving downwards, but the plane continued to lose altitude. After the pilots shut off the electrical trim system which disabled the MCAS system, they attempted to stabilize the plane by cranking the wheel manually.

However; this proved difficult as the stabilizer was located opposite to the elevator and strong aerodynamics forces were acting upon it. The engines were inadvertently left on full take-off power causing the plane to accelerate at high speed and adding further pressure on the stabilizer.

With the pilots’ attempts at manually cranking the stabilizer back into position failing and the plane accelerating beyond its safety limits, the first officer requested traffic control to return to the airport. After struggling to keep the plane’s nose from diving down further manually the pilots’ turned on the electrical trim to put the stabilizer back into neutral trim. However, the electrical trim also activates the MCAS system back on which pushed the nose further down.

At 8:44 local time, six minutes after takeoff, Flight 302 crashed in a farm field in Gimbichu district, Oromia region near Bishoftu town 62 km away from Bole Airport. Shortly after the crash, police and firefighter crew arrived at the nearest Ethiopian Air Force base to extinguish the fires. Ethiopian Red Cross personnel and air crash investigators together with local villagers, sifted through the wreckage to recover artifacts, personnel effects, and human remains.

Several international teams aided in the emergency response and subsequent investigation of the crash. Personnel from Interpol gathered human tissue for DNA testing. The black boxes were given to Ethiopian Airlines and sent to Paris for inspection by the French aviation accident investigation agency, BEA.

Following the accident and the Lion Air Flight 610 crash, most airlines around the world chose to ground the Boeing 737 MAX for safety concerns. Ethiopian Airlines also grounded their remaining four MAX 8 aircraft after the crash.

An investigation by the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority (ECAA) seems to suggest that MCAS was “to the best of our knowledge” active when the aircraft crashed. According to the then transport minister Dagmawit Moges, the crew “performed all the procedures repeatedly provided by the manufacturer but was not able to control the aircraft”.

However, Boeing’s CEO Dennis Muilenburg argues that if “you go through the checklist…it calls out actions that would be taken around power management and pitch management of the airplane … And, in some cases, those procedures were not completely followed”. There is also a speculation based on A data spike in the flight data, that a debris hitting the plane as it was taking off, cutting off away the airflow sensor.

Although the safety record of the airline is outstanding as compared to other African airliners, the Flight 302 accident had led many to doubt the airline and question its reputation even if the airlines had nothing to do with it.

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Criticism for Corona

Since the outbreak of the Corona Virus in January 2020 and a declaration of a public health emergency by the WHO, almost all African countries with the exception of Ethiopian Airlines have canceled all flights to China. The decision by Ethiopian Airlines has garnered massive criticism toward the carrier both internationally.

Amidst the criticism, Ethiopian Airlines continued flight to and from China only reducing its number of flights. But many fears that this reduction in a number of Ethiopian flights and flight capacity might not be enough to avoid a health crisis. And many cynics believe it is more in response to the economic benefit of the Chinese flights rather than safety precautions the airlines decided it won’t cancel flights.

Others like Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta take the position that in a continent where the health system is weak a decision like this can be very compromising to the health of the whole continent, Urging Ethiopia to cancel all flights.

However Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde Gebremariam has defended the airline’s decision to maintain flights to China, arguing that suspending flights to the country would not stop the spread of the corona virus outbreak. Instead he urged that strengthening screening according to WHO guidelines is a better alternative and that it would be “immoral” to marginalize and cut ties with china.

Many critics also believe that the Ethiopian Government’s reluctance to curtail the airline stems from fear of falling out with China over Its economic dependence and political ties.

Conclusion, Ethiopian Airlines

Ethiopian Airlines has been in the business for over 70 years. In those 70 years, the airlines have managed to grow exponentially. This is due to the fact that unlike other African nations airlines, which are controlled by the government, Ethiopian Airlines, although owned by the state, operates as an individual, independent company. This model enables airlines to grow free of government nepotism, bureaucracy, and political pressure. Part of the company’s growth also comes from brand management and the reputation it garnered through the many years of aviation work.

Ethiopian Airlines is considered to be one of the most respectable business ventures and almost national heritage to the country. The 70 years history of aviation is a testimony to the above fact.

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