Join Ethiopia’s mile-high club

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After chaotic boarding at OR Tambo International Airport stepping on board one of Ethiopian Airlines’ modern A350 aircraft and seeing a friendly, smiling face is oasis like. Where local service providers failed to manage a boarding queue, or rather a throng of eager passengers, seating procedures on board were orderly and cordial.

Travelling on an African airline comes with certain preconceived notions, mostly unfairly so. And even more disjointed is the idea of managing expectations based on what you would get when flying SA Airways, pre-business rescue and today.

The flight to Addis Ababa is just under five hours long. And twiddling your thumbs on board, waiting for descent and deplaning is part of the deal.

Pictures

Picture: Supplied

But thankfully Ethiopian Airlines has a decent in-flight entertainment system, and it is functional. There are old and new blockbusters, television series, locally produced documentaries and award-winning short films. There are games, and on-board Wi-Fi is available.

This compared to what I expected: An in-flight entertainment system with a poor collection of media, touch screens which are more like punch screens – if they are operational.

Travellers not subjected to the SAA drill

It was a great and pleasant surprise that Ethiopian Airlines travellers are not subjected to the SAA drill. And not a single member of the cabin crew appeared surly or unhappy. It was smiling all round, from passengers to onboard staff.

Flying economy felt akin to travelling Etihad or Qatar Airways. The seats have reasonable leg room and when the annoying person seated in front of you reclines, your knees are not squashed up to your chin. There is a bit of breathing space.

Picture: Supplied

Comparisons are odious but forgetting ex-continental airlines, Ethiopian stands far above its African peers I have had the privilege, or in some cases, the unfortunate opportunity, to travel on.

For comparison’s sake, if Ethiopian were a domestic airline, it would be equal to Airlink in terms of service, quality and comfort. It would be a first choice when compared to SAA or any of the other full-service airlines, to get anywhere regionally and locally.

Food-wise, it was chicken or beef. And the cabin crew had a sense of humour about it. But the difference is, had I dared ask for seconds on a journey, like I have done previously on SAA and other carriers, crew would frown and more often than not, decline. This time, it was eat as much as you want.

I saw several passengers have seconds; a guy two rows ahead, three servings. Nobody batted an eyelid. Nobody protested. On-board service was attentive, and unlike on some airlines, long trips do not see crew huddled in the galley, with the curtains shut for a good old gossip or snooze.

The cabin crew are up and at it throughout the flight, checking on passengers, being available. And when you ask for something, it is not met with disdain. What a pleasure.

Picture: Supplied

European carriers can learn a lot from Ethiopian, too. The smiles on board are not fake. The service not fuelled by a must-do attitude but can do, want to do. It really feels as if the airline is focused on nurturing return customers.

And that is the difference. It is as if everyone understands it is my hard-earned cash, along with that of every other traveller’s, that puts petrol in the car, or in this case, jet fuel in the belly.

This is why Ethiopian Airlines is attracting increased passengers. It is comparable to Middle Eastern airlines and far above many European and American carriers. Insofar as continental airlines go, SAA will have a lot of catching up to do when it restarts its network.

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