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Ethiopian Airlines is making a name for itself on the international stage, and it deserves a look when you’re booking travel. The pros: brand-new A350, great IFE features, solid food and a pleasant crew. The cons: The airport in Addis Ababa is lagging and 2-2-2 in business class isn’t ideal.
Ethiopian Airlines is perhaps the best-regarded airline in all of Africa, and, as I found out, it’s for good reason. The airline offers daily flights throughout the African continent — and all over the world — on a state-of-the-art fleet that’s certainly more modern than many European or US carriers. While the country’s geography puts it just slightly out of the way if you’re traveling directly to or from the US, Ethiopia is an excellent jumping off point to the rest of eastern Africa, including some of the jaw-dropping landscape along the western Indian Ocean in Tanzania and Mozambique. I had heard of mostly positive experiences with the airline, so I was particularly interested to check out the airline’s newest planes and its rapidly expanding Addis Ababa hub.
Ethiopian’s generally solid award availability and well-positioned East African hub made it the perfect routing choice to get me home from Africa. Sure, it was a little out of the way from where I was in Angola, but I was able to find a one-way ticket on Ethiopian from Luanda (LAD) to Addis Ababa (ADD) on a 787 for just 17,500 United miles and $114 in taxes and fees — not bad for the almost five-hour flight to the other side of the continent.
I was eager to try Ethiopian’s A350, particularly its business-class product (dubbed “Cloud Nine”), as I was seeking an answer to my burning question: Would Ethiopian’s service prove as a truly competitive alternative to more established airlines as a way of getting to and from Africa?
It cost 75,000 Aeroplan miles (and $95 in associated taxes and fees), transferred at a 1:1 ratio from American Express Membership Rewards, to get me the 7,000+ miles from Addis Ababa (ADD) to New York City, with a stop in London (LHR), all in lie-flat business class — plus, as an added bonus, the first leg was operated by Ethiopian’s brand-new A350-900 aircraft.
If you want to book via Aeroplan but find yourself short on miles, consider signing up for The Business Platinum® Card from American Express OPEN, which is currently offering a welcome bonus of 100,000 bonus points — 50,000 after you spend $10,000 in the first three months and an extra 50,000 points after you spend an additional $15,000 also within the first three months from account opening. If you don’t want to deal with such a high spending requirement, the personal Platinum Card is offering a welcome bonus of 60,000 points after you spend $5,000 within the first three months of account opening.
Since this was a Star Alliance award booking, you could also book through the United MileagePlus program — the same ticket would have cost 80,000 miles plus $170 in taxes and fees. Remember that if you’re short on United miles, they transfer instantly from Chase Ultimate Rewards at a 1:1 ratio, and it’s easy to collect UR points, considering cards like the Sapphire Reserve and Sapphire Preferred are each offering a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 within the first three months of account opening.
After booking, I received a United confirmation number, which meant that I needed to call Ethiopian in order to select my seat on the first leg of the journey. Luckily, the call was totally painless and I selected a window seat over the phone. I also found that Ethiopian’s app was solid and was effective at making minor changes before the flight.
I arrived at Addis Ababa Bole International Airport (ADD) by taxi two hours and 45 minutes before my 12:30am boarding time. From the outside, ADD looked modern and large, constructed mostly of glass — though the interior would reveal that it’s in need of a big upgrade.
In fact, it’s currently undergoing extensive renovations, funded primarily by Chinese investment — like many other projects around the Ethiopian capital city. Renderings of the new main terminal were posted outside, proudly displaying the airline’s (and country’s) ambitions to be a global connection spot.
In addition to the expansion and renovation of the existing airport, the Ethiopian government has announced that in 2024 it will open a completely new airport capable of handling 120 million passengers annually, but several details about the new airport are still unclear.
I needed to go through a security check as soon as I entered the airport, even before checking in. There was a metal detector, an X-ray machine and, luckily, no line. In just a few minutes I was on my way to check-in — I was pleased to discover that there was free Wi-Fi throughout the terminal!
Check-in was easy. I used one of several self-service kiosks, and didn’t even need to stop by a counter since I didn’t have any checked bags.
My business-class ticket meant I could use the Cloud Nine priority line for clearing immigration, but it was still a pretty slow process.
Beyond immigration, there are duty-free shops and cafes. The main security checkpoints in Addis are split up, located right beside the international gates. There didn’t seem to be any food or shops beyond security, so make sure to get your shopping done before passing through this final checkpoint.
Lounges, too, are accessible only before clearing security; after a brief stroll through the terminal, I was ready to relax in Ethiopian’s business-class lounge.
A quick look at the departures screen gave me a sense of just how international Ethiopian’s network was. This screen also displayed city names in Amharic, the primary language of Ethiopia.
I particularly loved the relaxation rooms with lounge chairs.
Behind the main stretch of shops and eateries was a corridor with the various airline lounges. Beside the Cloud Nine lounge were lounges for Star Alliance Gold and Silver members.
With a big smile, the Cloud Nine desk agents handed me a slip of paper with a unique password that gave me access to three hours of Wi-Fi.
The space was larger than you might expect from the outside, with different rooms and an array of seating options. It was relatively busy when I arrived, but I think it would have been packed an hour earlier.
Ethiopian provided a hot buffet and a self-service fridge with nonalcoholic beverages. The food looked like it had been out for a while, though, which spooked me enough not to try it.
Bathrooms were not particularly nice but functional — no showers in this lounge though.
There were outlets, although they were only available on the wall, as the ones built into seats didn’t work. People rested in a quiet room with plush lounge chairs.
With about an hour until boarding, I took a seat, plugged in my iPhone and got an Ethiopian beer from the bar.
Even with plenty of screens with departure information, lounge agents came around every so often to announce which flights had begun boarding.
Cabin and Seat
Ethiopian Airlines 700, a new A350-900, was being loaded with freight and catering as I breezed through the security checkpoint adjacent to Gate 14, where we’d be departing. Many flights arriving in Addis park at remote stands near the terminal, requiring a quick bus ride to the terminal. Some flights, however, including this one, are awarded gate space with jetways.
Cloud Nine passengers sat on a smaller red-carpeted area, while the vast majority of passengers were in the seating area surrounding it. There was a special line for business-class passengers, but only one jetway. If you’d like to board early, you should arrive before boarding starts or you’ll likely end up being grouped with economy passengers.
Like Ethiopian’s 787, the A350’s business-class — sorry, Cloud Nine — cabin was arranged in a 2-2-2 configuration, but it featured a different seat type.
Each of Ethiopian’s nine active A350s operates with this same two-class arrangement, with 30 Cloud Nine business-class seats and 313 standard economy seats.
I immediately realized just how new this aircraft was. Nearly everything was spotless, from the seat to the overhead bins and lavatories. In addition, the choice to not install overhead bins in the center section of the business-class cabin made it feel roomier, but, unfortunately, the airline opted out of A350 mood lighting.
On this flight, the business-class cabin was around 80% full.
Seat 3A was toward the middle of the five-row business-class cabin. Luckily, I didn’t have a seatmate — a 2-2-2 cabin with 1-2-1 perks!
Generally speaking, this configuration isn’t ideal for privacy, but the seats were decently wide (22 inches) and comfortable.
There was a decent amount of storage space. There was even shoe storage and a coat hook.
The footwell isn’t huge, but there was enough room for my feet once I took my shoes off.
The window-side table came with a yellow Ethiopian amenity kit, bottle of water, TV control and a USB port.
The other side held reading materials, a noise canceling headset and the safety card.
The seat controls were familiar to me.
The tray table stowed right behind it, and a universal power port was a few inches above the floor on the front-facing side of the shared table.
The dividing wall between seats provided more than adequate privacy when I was reclined. The outside armrest could be adjusted, so I dropped it all the way down to sleep better, as you can see in the picture below. I slept comfortably for three and a half hours.
There were four lavatories for business class, two in the front and two in the back of the cabin. This proved to be more than enough, as I never had to wait. They were clean, with the usual amenities.
Amenities and In-Flight Entertainment
The IFE screens were crisp, bright, fully HD and loaded with an impressive catalog of movies, TV shows, music, games, information and a highly functional (and really cool) moving map display. There was no Wi-Fi on this flight, but Ethiopian has plans to install it across these aircraft.
Movies were in a number of languages and included Japanese and Bollywood films.
The large HD screen could be controlled via touch or with the touchscreen, multipurpose remote. You could do quite a bit with this remote, from tweaking volume and brightness to messaging, video playback, games, moving maps and more.
Ethiopian’s 3-D flight map uses high-definition imagery and noted places of interest. I tracked towns along the Nile as we flew over them, appearing just as bursts of light from 38,000 feet. Another cool feature of this system is that you can pin flight information to the top of your screen to have it up no matter what you’re watching. We flew over northwest Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, Greece, Croatia and onward to Western Europe.
Thanks to this excellent map, I caught moonlit views of the Nile before falling asleep.
I woke up over Croatia, and caught a view of the Italian Alps as the sun began to rise.
Cloud Nine passengers received several amenities upon boarding and during the flight, including a highly functional Ethiopian Airlines amenity kit. I love the hook! You can actually use it as a hanging toiletry bag, not just a pouch.
Inside were standard business-class amenities: socks, an eye mask, a pen, earplugs, a toothbrush, toothpaste, lip balm, a comb and toothpick.
Additionally, each seat came with a comfortable plush green duvet and full-size pillow.
There were also double-pronged noise-canceling headphones, which were OK but not great.
And flight attendants handed out reading material in English and Amharic.
Cloud Nine passengers received hot towels — one in the very beginning of the flight and one before breakfast service 90 minutes prior to landing. Not too shabby at all.
Food and Beverage
Ethiopia is famous for a few things, and one of them is its cuisine.
A few minutes after settling into my seat, flight attendants came through offering drinks and the menu. I chose orange juice over sparkling wine.
Because of the late-night departure and early-morning arrival, passengers could skip dinner and breakfast entirely to sleep, or try the express menu, which included abbreviated meals with appetizer, entree and dessert all served at once.
I opted for a full dinner and a light breakfast, especially since having to be woken up at least an hour and 45 minutes before landing for the full hot breakfast wasn’t appealing.
Both the drink and food menus were extensive. There were several wines from Ethiopia and other places in Africa and Europe, as well as Ethiopian beer and an assortment of liquor. I went with the tasty Ethiopian Rift Valley chardonnay.
Meal service began soon after takeoff, and it was efficient. To start, I had king prawns with papaya salad.
The papaya salad was decent and the rolls were excellent, but the prawns were clearly from frozen and not particularly good. Next came injera and chicken, lamb, kale and lentils. This course was delicious and a good representation of the nation’s cuisine — at least to me.
I was full, but, as DJ Khaled says, “another one” — well, another course, that is. This time it was delicious couscous with roasted vegetables.
Finally, for dessert, passengers could choose carrot cake or an assortment of cheeses and fresh fruit, all served with Ethiopian coffee or tea. Totally stuffed, I decided to skip dessert, but the flight attendant handed me a small box of chocolates.
Flight attendants were courteous, attentive and prompt without being overly formal or hurrying. About an hour and 45 minutes into the flight, dinner service was complete. Cabin lights were dimmed, and it was time to get some rest.
A few hours later, as the sun began to peek over the horizon in northern Italy, flight attendants came around with hot towels. Roughly 90 minutes before landing, breakfast was served. On the sheet that I handed to my flight attendant before bed, I selected all of the cold options: fruit salad, corn flakes, yogurt and pastries, and a hot main of a mixed-pepper egg muffin with a miniature beef cake, grilled tomatoes and wedge potatoes. I also ordered Ethiopian coffee and apple juice.
All was good except the egg muffin, which kind of reminded me of flan without the sweetness. Ethiopian also offered hot entrees like orange-zest pancakes and spicy beans with a croquette and naan.
After the food came the Ethiopian coffee. It was delicious — at least as delicious as airplane coffee can get.
Coffee in hand, I watched a glorious sunrise as we flew over Germany, Holland and the English Channel, descending through the cloud layer above southern England, eventually making a smooth landing on one of Heathrow’s west-facing runways.
We taxied to Terminal 2B, the new — and beautiful — Star Alliance terminal, catching a glimpse of Lufthansa’s new livery before parking.
A note on connecting at Heathrow if you choose to make this same routing: Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to make your connection, since Terminal 2B is a good 15-minute walk to Terminal 2, where the security checkpoints and immigration lines are. All Cloud Nine passengers received a Fast Track pass for priority security for connecting flights (and presumably for immigration for arrivals), but the Fast Track line was closed (it often is), so expect to wait with the rest of passengers.
Ethiopian Airlines, which dubs itself the “New Spirit of Africa,” didn’t disappoint. Granted, I flew on one of its newest jets, but for Western-based flyers, expect similar amenities, service and new aircraft. (Ethiopian serves many of its important international markets with 787s and A350s.) The lounge in Addis wasn’t gorgeous and the Cloud Nine seats aren’t what you’ll get on some airlines like Qatar, but overall it was a good flight with excellent cabin crew and IFE, good amenities and decent food. Plus, considering the value, I really can’t complain.
The weakest aspect of Ethiopian’s product is surely the 2-2-2 business-class configuration, placing it a bit behind the standard for premium cabins today. That said, the seats are comfortable, and the duvet and pillow will serve you well. Maybe you’ll luck out like I did, and find yourself without a seatmate.
There aren’t all that many convenient ways to reach Africa on points and miles, but Ethiopian is one of them and it’s definitely a pleasant experience. For just 75,000 Amex points, I got to fly for several hours over gorgeous terrain in a lie-flat seat and on a brand-new aircraft, an AvGeek’s dream come true. You won’t be disappointed if your travels take you to this ancient country’s capital, whether for an onward connection or for a longer stay.
Know before you go.
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