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Serious shortcomings: A review of Ethiopian Airlines in economy on the 787-8 from Newark to Lome and back

Jan. 27, 2020
21 min read
Ethiopian Airlines Economy EWR-LFW
Serious shortcomings: A review of Ethiopian Airlines in economy on the 787-8 from Newark to Lome and back
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[tpg_rating ticket-class="economy" tpg-rating-score="56" ground-experience="2" cabin-seat="19" amens-ife="21" food-bev="12" service="2" pros="Ample and appealing meals, relatively comfortable seats, amenity kit, large blanket " cons="No AC power outlets, no Wi-Fi, messy bathrooms, chaotic ground experience, inconsistent seats and MIA flight attendants who consistently ignored call buttons" /]

The first long-haul flight my husband JT and I took when we gave up our apartment in Austin and became digital nomads was on Ethiopian Airlines. It should have been a memorable flight, and it was, but for the wrong reasons.

We flew from Newark to Addis Ababa via Lome, and it was easily the worst flight we'd taken at the time. It still is among the worst, even after we've flown many hundreds of thousands of miles since then. JT even wrote a post titled "20 reasons I wouldn't fly Ethiopian Airlines again" after the flight.

So, when editors assigned flight reviews to five staff members traveling to represent TPG at a PeaceJam conference in Liberia, I wasn't excited to learn I'd be reviewing Ethiopian Airlines on the way there — and on that same route too, between Newark (EWR) and Lome (LFW). I'd also be on the same flight on the return to the U.S., so I could review it both ways. Ethiopian has so-called fifth-freedom rights to carry passengers between the U.S. and the capital of the West African nation of Togo, even though it's based in neither country.

Related: A guide to planning your family’s African vacation


TPG Travel Analyst Zach Griff booked my round-trip from Newark to Monrovia, Liberia, and back, via Lome. The booking was made through American Express Travel for $1,051. We used The Platinum Card® from American Express, which earns 5x points on bookings made directly with airlines or Amex Travel, earning 5,255 points, which we value at $105. That effectively lowered the cost of the roundtrip to below $1,000.

After booking, I tried to enter my Asiana Airlines loyalty number on Ethiopian's website — since I have Star Alliance Gold status through Asiana, and Ethiopian is a Star Alliance member — but repeatedly got an error. I was eventually able to enter my number using Ethiopian's app. Doing so ended up being very useful; Ethiopian blocked the seat next to me on both trans-Atlantic flights, as a courtesy for my elite status.

If you're looking to use points, there are better ways to get to Monrovia than the circuitous route I took via Lome and Accra. For example, multiple PeaceJam staff used 40,000 United miles plus $28 to book economy saver award tickets through United, for travel on United and Brussels Airlines. The PeaceJam staff I spoke to recommended this routing, which can also be booked in business class for 80,000 United miles plus $28 if you're able to find business saver availability.

Related: Top 9 ways to fly business class to Africa using points and miles

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[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Ground Experience" tpg-rating="2" tpg-rating-max="5" tail="ET-AOV" age="5" departure="21" departure-2="44" duration="9" duration-2="12" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]

I was able to check-in online for my outbound and inbound flights, but was told after checking in that I'd need to obtain my boarding pass at the airport. There weren't check-in kiosks in Newark or in Monrovia, and I didn't have time to clear immigration and visit the check-in area in Lome.

(Note that the airplane's tail number, departure time and flight duration in the table above refer to the Newark - Lome flight. On the way back, the 10 hour, 41 minute flight was operated by another 787, also five years old.)

Ground experience in Newark

The economy check-in line was about 15 minutes long in Newark. The security line then took about 30 minutes because Ethiopian Airlines doesn't participate in TSA PreCheck.

The Art & Lounge participates in Priority Pass, but is located before security at EWR Terminal B. Once past security in the section of Terminal B that Ethiopian uses, there isn't much to see or do. There is a sit-down restaurant and a quick service shop, as well as some power outlets near the restroom.

The boarding queues were roped off to prevent passengers from lining up before boarding began.

I didn't have to wait long after clearing security though, as boarding began abruptly about 20 minutes ahead of schedule. Ethiopian attempted to use a color-coded boarding process, but didn't clearly indicate to passengers their group. So, passengers boarded at will and ground staff didn't stop them from doing so.

Ground experience in Lome

For my flight to Newark, I checked my luggage with Ethiopian's partner ASKY Airlines in Monrovia.

Check-in for ASKY in Monrovia

I received handwritten baggage tags and boarding card for my ASKY flight and was told to pick up a boarding pass for my Ethiopian flight once I got to Lome.

Once in Lome, I arrived at a packed transfer desk. With just 34 minutes until the scheduled departure of my Ethiopian flight, I heard an airport worker yelling "Newark!" I got out of the line and headed toward the man, who demanded to see my boarding pass. I explained I didn't have one, so he waved me through. Security was lax for passengers who claimed they were going to Newark; we were allowed to completely bypass the primary security check.

The transfer desk in Lome

I then found a long line for a secondary security check. This screening required a baggage X-ray scan, backscatter X-ray scan for each passenger and a pat-down, so the process was slow. Before reaching the gate, there was a passport and boarding pass check with additional questioning for select passengers, but I was allowed to bypass this step since I still didn't have a boarding pass.

Just 11 minutes before departure, I finally reached the gate. The gate agents initially looked confused when I asked for a boarding pass, but then remembered they had a stack of printed boarding passes for connecting passengers. When I finally boarded the aircraft seven minutes before scheduled departure, most passengers were already on board.

[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Cabin and Seat" tpg-rating="19" tpg-rating-max="30" configuration="3" configuration-2="3" configuration-3="3" width="17.25" pitch="32.5" tray="16.75" tray-2="9.5" lavs="6" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]

Economy class on Ethiopian's 787-8s is arranged in two large cabins, each with 3-3-3 seating. The airline also flies the larger 787-9.

My seat on the flight to Lome was 17.25 inches wide while my seat on the flight to Newark was 17 inches wide. Based on my measurement of multiple seats, seats range in width from 17 inches to 17.5 inches.

The seat pitch also varies, ranging from 30 inches of legroom to 32.5 for the seats I measured.

The seat recline also varies. My seat on the flight to Newark had a 6.5 inch recline, although it wouldn't stay reclined on its own. This seemingly wasn't the intended design though, as most nearby seats were able to remain reclined on their own.

The fabric seats were relatively comfortable, although I could feel when the passenger behind me put items in the seat pocket.

There aren't any obstructions under the seats that restrict legroom or storage space. As is true for most economy products, there's no leg rest or foot rest.

The headrest is adjustable, and has bendable wings on each side to support your head and neck while sleeping.

Some seats have an extra storage net attached to the main storage pocket. My seat on my flight to Lome had this net, but most seats don't have this feature.

There is a fold-down cup holder attached to the bottom of each tray table.

The tray table folds down from each seat back.

The table is 16.75 inches by 9.5 inches, but it does not extend. Although most tray tables appeared to be flat, the one on my flight to Newark was slanted so much that drinks and food would slide toward me if I wasn't careful. I was able to work comfortably on my laptop on the tray table as long as the passenger ahead of me didn't recline.

There are six bathrooms in the economy cabin: two at the front of the first cabin, two between the economy cabins and two at the rear of the second economy cabin. These bathrooms generally weren't kept clean or well stocked during the flight.

On my flight to Lome, the soap disappeared from multiple lavatories mid-flight. And, when I visited a lavatory shortly after the departure meal service on my flight to Newark, the small room already smelled terrible.

There are large screens at the front of the cabin that normally show the air show during flight. But, they strangely remained dark throughout my entire flight to Newark.

[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="21" tpg-rating-max="40" screen="9" movies="123" tv-shows="259" live-tv="No" tailcam="No" headphones="Yes" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]

There's an IFE screen that measures 9 inches along its diagonal on each seat back. It's a touch screen, but on the flight to Newark it responded to presses only about one in four times. The screen can tilt so that you can still see it if the passenger ahead of you reclines.

There's a remote on most arm rests that can also control the IFE screen. Unfortunately, the placement of these remotes means your neighbor may unintentionally press buttons. Likewise, it may be impossible to use the remote if you neighbor has their arm on top of your remote.

The IFE system is organized poorly. This means that regardless of whether you use the touchscreen or the remote, you'll need to tap though multiple screens before you get to what you want.

There are 123 movies that are divided into five categories: 20 Blockbuster, 77 Classic, 14 Asian, 10 African and two Arabic.

259 television programs are listed under the "Movies" heading, but in their own categories: 18 Kids, 38 Comedy, 38 Drama, 23 Discovery, 38 Lifestyle, two Brazilian, 48 Box Sets, eight Indian, 10 European, 10 Short Movies, 16 Marvel Universe, eight Star Wars and two Russian.

Unfortunately, you have to sit through a 2.5 minute ad for Ethiopia and Ethiopian Airlines before each movie or show. Plus, there's a one minute ad at the end of each movie or show. You can skip the final ad by simply going back to the home page and selecting another show, but you can't skip or fast forward through the longer ad.

An ad for the Addis Ababa airport.

There's an airshow that you can either loop or customize, as well as games and audio options. There's no live TV, streaming IFE, tail camera, in-seat ordering or Wi-Fi.

Two-prong earbuds are provided, but they produced dull sound and weren't comfortable. Unfortunately, the two-prong outlet means you'll only get sound in one ear of your own headphones unless you happen to travel with an adapter.

There's no AC power outlet, but there is an USB outlet next to the IFE screen on each seat back. This outlet only provided a limited amount of power though, as my phone said it was charging slowly.

While the aircraft was taxing for takeoff, a flight attendant provided a plastic-wrapped amenity kit with socks, an eye mask, tooth brush and tooth paste.

A pillow and blanket should be on each seat at boarding, but the plane wasn't properly restocked in Lome for my flight to Newark so a flight attendant distributed pillows and blankets to passengers who needed them shortly after take off. The blanket packaging clearly tells passengers they shouldn't take the blanket when they leave the aircraft.

The blanket is thin and not particularly soft, but it is large. So, you can double up the blanket before wrapping it around you if you are cold. The pillow consists of a cotton pillow case wrapped in a disposable paper wrapper that is presumably changed between uses.

[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="12" tpg-rating-max="15" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-meal="2" comp-alcohol="Yes" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]

A departure meal and arrival meal were served in both directions. Although this review is generally focused on the daytime flight to Newark, I'll describe all four meals I received on Ethiopian in this section.

On the flight to Lome, the departure meal was served 80 minutes after departure. Passengers were given a choice of chicken or fish, and I chose chicken. The chicken, which wasn't breast meat and had some tough parts, was served with green peas and rice. My tray also included a pasta appetizer, cheese and crackers, a roll with butter and a chocolate mousse dessert.

The arrival meal was served less than one hour before landing. For this meal, which came in the morning local time, there was a choice of an omelet or pancakes. I ordered the pancakes, which were surprisingly tasty due to a cinnamon apple filling. They were accompanied by two rolls as well as a fruit cup and a choice of tea or coffee.

On the flight to Newark, the departure meal was served 51 minutes after departure. Passengers were given a choice of chicken or beef, so I opted for chicken. It was boneless, flavorful and served with rice. Regardless of whether you ordered chicken or beef, the main entree was served with a chickpea appetizer, cheese and crackers, a roll with butter and a cup of fruit.

The arrival meal was served one hour and a half before landing. Passengers could choose from chicken and beef, so I ordered chicken. The chicken was white meat in a chicken dumpling broth, and was served with mustard-flavored beans, crackers and cheese, a roll and butter and a cranberry granola bar.

A separate coffee and tea service was done after some, but not all, meals. No liquid milk or creamer was available, so creamer packets were provided instead.

The following drinks were available on both flights: water, passion fruit juice, orange juice, apple juice, pineapple juice, tomato juice, tea, coffee, Coke, Sprite, Fanta, Indian tonic water, Barton Guestier Cuvée Spéciale red and white wines, Golden Lager Beer and Bavaria beer.

A self-serve drink area with sodas, water and juices was set up in the galley at the rear of the aircraft. There was also a basket of vegan bread snacks and a lone orange up for grabs in the galley.

[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="2" tpg-rating-max="10" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" blurb="The flight attendants on this flight were not pleasant, generally ignored passengers and were completely absent for part of the flight." /]

I have modest expectations when it comes to service in economy, but the flight attendants on both of my Ethiopian flights did the bare minimum with no personality or friendliness. They even seemed to treat some passengers with contempt. Water was served in the cabin to passengers who were awake just once during my flight to Newark.

I noticed that call buttons weren't answered at all, and instead were mass-reset every hour or so on both of my flights. When I visited the galley mid-flight to Newark, there were no flight attendants to be found. I waited around for about 15 minutes, but nobody appeared. If call buttons were answered, this wouldn't be as troubling, but it's unclear what passengers should do if they needed urgent assistance.

The galley and cabin didn't have any flight attendants for at least 15 minutes during my flight to Newark.

Overall Impression

These flights were better than my bad experience from 2017, but Ethiopian Airlines still has many areas in which it could improve. On the positive side, the food was filling and the seats were comfortable enough for sleeping, relaxing or even working if the passenger ahead did't recline. The IFE didn't contain much that I was excited to watch, but there was definitely enough to keep me busy. However, the lack of AC power outlets and Wi-Fi, dirty bathrooms and poor service are all reasons I'd avoid flying Ethiopian Airlines coach class again.

All photos by the author.

Featured image by (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)