Ethiopian Airline’s Achilles heel

Ethiopian Airlines is now the continent’s largest airline by fleet size, passenger numbers, revenue and profit — an astonishing success story that has left its main competitors, South African Airways and Kenyan Airways, languishing in its contrails.

But the airline has grown so fast that its main hub airport — Bole International in Addis Ababa — failed to keep pace. Built in 2005 to handle 5.5-million passengers annually, more than 10 million travellers now meander slowly – very slowly – through Bole’s congested security checks every year, putting unbearable pressure on the airport’s limited facilities.

Frequent flyers are all too familiar with the long, sometimes fruitless search to find an unoccupied seat; with the uninspiring menus at the few understaffed, overpriced restaurants; with the queues outside the shipping container that doubles as the primary toilet facility. Only the excellent homegrown, freshly-ground coffee on offer provided some consolation.

It’s not that Bole is a bad airport per se; it’s just that it was never designed for the kind of volumes that Ethiopian Airlines is generating.

Abel Alemu, Ethiopian’s regional manager for southern Africa, is all too aware of Bole’s shortcomings because he was on the receiving end of many of the complaints. “The service standard and amenities were not up to the level we wanted to give to our passengers,” he said.

But that’s all supposed to change with the official opening this year of an expanded passenger terminal designed to accommodate 22-million passengers. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed presided over the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Sunday, using the opportunity to outline even grander ambitions: “What we learn from today’s inauguration of the new passenger terminal is that we have a lot of work ahead of us. We expect the Board and the Management not to be complacent with the new terminal, but rather to aim for a bigger facility with a capacity to accommodate at least 100-million passengers.”

There is already a proposal, still very much in the planning stages, to build a brand new airport in Bishoftu, a town just outside of Addis Ababa, that could handle 80-million passengers per year.

Initial feedback from passengers who have passed through Bole’s expanded terminal has been positive, although not exactly glowing. It is “smooth but soulless,” researcher Gregory Mthembu-Salt concluded. “It is a large and featureless hangar of a building with nothing Ethiopian about it at all, including any shops. But the wifi worked and we just wanted to go home, so it was fine.”

David Smith, who travels all over sub-Saharan Africa for work, said: “Been through several times. It’s an improvement but only just. Transferring at Addis is Ethiopian’s weak point.”

The newly-expanded terminal was built by the China Communications Construction Company a for $363-million, with funding from China’s Exim Bank. The same construction firm built the Skylight Hotel adjacent to the airport. Among the new hotel’s attractions is “the largest Chinese restaurant in Africa”, which perhaps offers a glimpse into Ethiopian Airline’s direction for future growth.

Ethiopian’s stunning commercial success casts its main rivals in a poor light. South African Airlines is on life support, having already squandered billions in government bailouts. It now requires an estimated R21.7-billion in additional funding to implement its turnaround plan. Kenyan Airlines is also running at a loss, despite last year’s financial restructuring which converted a $2-billion into equity.

It is significant that Ethiopian Airlines has achieved this growth despite Bole International’s limitations. After the new expansions, how can its competitors ever catch up?

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison, The Continent
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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