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Words: Jean-Jacques Cornish

Many Africans will have a sense of deja vu when they see Tewolde Gabremariam. His lively face graces the title page of the in-flight magazine of the continent’s largest airline that so many of them have flown with. It’s no exaggeration to call Gabremariam the personification of Ethiopian Airlines.

He joined the company 31 years ago as a booking agent at Addis Ababa airport and rose swiftly to become its chief executive officer. In that capacity, he played a starring role last month when collecting his airline’s first Airbus in Toulouse. The extra-wide-bodied A350-900 named Simian Hills is the first of this new, lighter, fuel-efficient aircraft to be sold in Africa.

The European aviation family, as Airbus styles itself, is understandably delighted with the breakthrough in the African market it regards as the most promising in the world. Ethiopian Airlines, traditionally a Boeing client, has bought no fewer than 14 A350s.

The 343-seater accommodates 40 business-class passengers turning left as they enter the aircraft and even the economy class seats on the A350 are 4cm wider than those on other passenger aircraft. Gabremariam says these new planes are well suited to the very hot conditions at Bole airport, which sits at an altitude of 2 400 metres in the Ethiopian capital. The planes will be used on the routes to North America and Asia, which are the major business destinations.

Ethiopian Airlines is the most lucrative airline on the continent, recording a $175 million profit in 2015. And its safety record is described by industry sources as a beacon for the rest of Africa, as it supercedes all others on the continent. It has a better safety record than any other African airline, with the exception of South African Airways. The company was typically taking the long-term view when it decided to diversify its 80-strong fleet, says Gabremariam. He regards this as part of the secret to the success of the airline celebrating its 70th anniversary.

IMG_9160It began flying tail-dragging Dakotas back when the legendary Howard Hughes was building Trans World Airways. The fleet grew and destinations expanded from Africa, to Europe, Asia and North America. “Ethiopian Airlines has defied the conventional wisdom that there cannot be any innovation out of Africa,” he says. “It shows that Africa can produce a global, effective company meeting the intensive demands of the continent.

“It has also flown in the face of the belief that a state-run company cannot be efficient and successful. Ethiopian Airlines has survived and prospered under the ownership of three distinctive types of government. “It started under an emperor,” he says, referring to Haile Selassie. “Then it fell under the control of the communist regime of Mengistu (Haile Mariam). Currently, it is owned by a democratic government.

“The success has been the demarcation of roles between the government and management of the airline. Government is concerned with the political strategy and ensuring the airline contributes to the national economy. Management is entrusted with the day-to-day running of the company, its development and expansion.” He recalls that the communist regime tried to force the airline to buy Soviet aircraft, but was persuaded that this was not in Ethiopia’s best interests. “This is a role model that can be adopted by other African carriers,” says Gabremariam. “Those in Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria have all suffered because balance could not be found between political control and management accountability.”

Gabremariam’s ability to achieve this has brought both commercial success to the airline flying into 80 destinations, and personal recognition to its boss. He’s been named Africa’s CEO of the Year by the Africa CEO Forum, comprising the African Development Bank and the Groupe Jeune Afrique.

This award is a thumbs-up for companies and investors who have demonstrated a continued determination to advance the continent’s development by virtue of their promotion and development of the African private sector, intra-African trade, regional integration, as well as social and environmental responsibility. However, the airline cannot afford to rest on its laurels.

Bole Airport is a major African hub – the largest in Africa. It attracts more than six million passengers a year. However, it has inadequate and outdated facilities that compound the over-crowding that its users experience. Boarding aircraft to all destinations is slowed by understaffed security that draws out the process. Not surprisingly it does not feature in consumers’ lists of top ten best African international airports.

The airline also has to provide a more uniformly pleasant passenger experience. Having flown to Addis Ababa from Toulouse on the brand-new Airbus, this writer was then put aboard a creaking old Boeing 737 with no inflight entertainment and one working toilet for more than 200 passengers for the homeward leg to Johannesburg.

Gabremariam says Ethiopia will have a new airport within four to five years. He believes it is necessary to maintain his airline’s reputation along with South African Airways and Kenya Airways as the trio of African carriers spearheading change and safety on the continent.

The airline’s cargo division was awarded The African Cargo Airline of the Year in early 2011. Last year, Ethiopian Airlines won the Best Regional Airline of the Year award at the 41st Annual Airline Industry Achievement Awards by Air Transport World (ATW), held in Washington, DC.

Gabremariam says the airline, which has been the most profitable in Africa for a couple of years now, exceeded its revenue and profit targets for the latest recorded fiscal year, chalking up $2.39 billion in revenues for the same period. Ethiopian Airlines is already planning to double its aircraft fleet and add new routes by 2025 as part of its long-term plans. In addition to the 14 new Airbuses, it’s taking delivery of 13 new Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners.

It plans to expand to new destinations, including Jakarta, Indonesia and Ho Chi Minh City, as well as to more points in India, and of course more points in China. The company has 50 aircraft on order, including 13 Airbus A350s and six 787s.

By 2025, the company aims to increase its revenues to $10 billion and operate 30 Boeing 787 aircraft.


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