Ethiopian Airlines: Beautiful Forest, Fallen Trees

Ethiopian Airlines is the Africa airline with the highest capacity, courtesy of aviation publication Flight Global, but for the aviation industry’s insiders, the picture is not that of a beautiful forest but one of fallen trees, writes Yonathan Menkir Kassa (, an aviation correspondent.

Most recently, Ethiopian Airlines was awarded “Africa’s Outstanding Food Services by a Carrier” award by PAX International readers in addition to the Four Star certification by SKYTRAX last year. The award and certification were only compliments for the honour of being recognised as the airline with the most capacity in all of Africa by Flight Global last year, one of the most revered publications in the industry.

Flight Global’s report can be assumed to be legitimate. This is mainly due to Flight Global’s evaluation in the overall performance of the airline, essentially taking the various parameters that can explain and describe how good or bad the carrier is performing vis-a-vis other competitors in the region.

However, for the aviation industry’s insiders, the picture is not that of a beautiful forest as is viewed from a distant place. Instead, one recognises fallen, burnt and damaged trees. If one takes the discontentment and the many grievances heard from employees, let alone the financial implications of the ever-growing acquisition of a fleet of aircraft, it tells a different story.

It is difficult to deny the massive expansion and subsequent growth that has helped the airline to build its image – in turn giving it a competitive advantage over its competitors. This includes the ease of competition in establishing regional hubs in various African countries such as Togo, Malawi and recently Zambia.

It is thus no wonder if it continues outperforming its competitors in Africa, mainly South African Airways, Kenyan Airways and EgyptAir, all of whose strength is hugely derived from the economic strength of their respective countries.

However, in the case of Ethiopian Airlines, even after having gone through the economic and political turmoil of wars and a resulting disconnect from the world, Ethiopian has continued to operate and now has repositioned itself as the dominant player in air transport.

While exalting the achievements and accomplishments of Ethiopian though, one has to simultaneously review the organisational and corporate culture that helped Ethiopian reach these milestones. In doing so, some factors come to light.

Ethiopian’s success is attributed, but not limited, to its rigorous training culture, safety records, the autonomy of the management from government influence and few to no significant competitors locally and continentally. This is even from major global airlines, save for the recent Gulf carriers.

Add to this an immense sense of belonging and solidarity by most of the African nations as Ethiopian is considered a Pan-African airline by nature and by design. This has made it almost the sole carrier for many African travellers to and from Africa.

In trying to analyse a list of factors that have contributed to Ethiopian’s success, the company’s notable milestones are a continuation of decades of dedication by thousands of Ethiopians who went the extra mile to ensure the continuity and growth of Ethiopian.

In an airline business, there is nothing that is not inter-related. Take safety, which is a product of several factors such as the quality of training, execution capacity, high-quality maintenance and the average age of fleets, just to name a few. Safety records, in turn, impact the airline’s revenue in terms of increased number of passengers choosing the carrier. Aircraft manufacturers, banks and insurance firms react likewise.

All of these have helped the airline to work in a relatively smoother and more stable environment, gearing itself toward a possible growth and expansion. In fact, Ethiopian is an excellent company with a solid foundation from the outset. It is a source of pride, not only for the nation, but the whole continent.

For the wholly state-owned flag carrier, even though all of these favourable grounds are reasonably self-earned, the government’s decision to endow it with autonomy of management is a crucial aspect of the airline’s advantage over its African competitors. This independence was kept and maintained brilliantly through all three regimes the carrier has witnessed.

The airline enjoys a smooth relationship with the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority. In line with this, the move by the government to merge the Ethiopian Airports Enterprise and Ethiopian into Ethiopian Airlines Group is another showcase of both the autonomy exercised by the Ethiopian management and the unwavering support rendered to it by the state.

The protection of the aviation business from foreign firms and the limitation imposed by policies and regulations on the local operators is another strategic move by the government to protect Ethiopian from any potential competition that may pose an imminent hurdle for the airline. Indeed, as a landlocked country, a huge chunk of the economy, from trade to tourism, heavily depends on air transport.

The airline likewise has had a prominent role in African politics. For instance, it was the only capable airline that was able to transport leaders of the then newly-independent African states and leaders of the independence movements on the continent to Addis Abeba, the headquarters of the Organisation of African Unity. This role has continued to this date to a better, bigger and bolder degree to which many heads of states of African countries use Ethiopian as their official carrier for various events, including the regular African Union summits.

Considering the economic and political importance of the airline for the Ethiopian government, it is no wonder that the carrier is supported and protected, regardless of local operators’ rights to operate and grow in a favourable economic environment.

Ethiopian’s growth at present is indisputable in various parameters that any aviation analyst can think of. But it may be a mere view from the outside. The inside stories unveil the recurrent brain drain of skilled workers in recent times. This issue may severely weaken the human capital of the airline, to which most of the carrier’s success is attributed to.

By Yonathan Menkir Kassa
Yonathan Menkir Kassa (, an aviation correspondent.

Published on Oct 27,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 965]



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