Which African Airlines Are Best?

By: Hilary Mujikwa

My first choice for air travel in Africa is with Ethiopian Airlines. I've had the good fortune to work a lot with the airline and experience their service firsthand. The company has a long history that started with TWA. They have continued to be on the leading edge management, performance, service and fleet modernization since. They are one of the first to order the Boeing 787 “Dreamliner" and the airport at ADD is the most modern and well-managed in Africa taking it's design from Atlanta's Hartsfield. What this means to the traveler is safe, courteous, comfortable service with efficient baggage transfer and on-time performance to meet connections. With an extensive worldwide network this also means connections throughout Africa, Europe and Middle East. ET has flights from IAD to FCO (Washington to Rome) en route to Addis Ababa and this can oftentimes be a less expensive than European and U.S. carriers to get to the continent.

Below is a brief history of the airline:

8th April 1946:

The first scheduled flight took place to Cairo via Asmara in Douglas C-47 Skytrain. The national airline had been set up a few months earlier as Ethiopian Air Lines Inc., a joint venture with American airline, TWA (Trans World Airlines). Five US Government surplus C-47 aircraft were purchased for venture. Following the successful inaugural flight to Cairo, a regular weekly service was established. Weekly services to Djibouti and Aden followed, as well as a domestic service to Jimma. Demands for additional services were so great that towards the end of 1946, four more C-47 Skytrains were purchased. Since these aircraft were ex-US military, they had few comforts; all had folding bench-type canvas seats along the sides, with the central aisle kept clear so that cargo could be lashed to the floor.


Three more Skytrains were purchased for the international routes. These were fitted out in a `luxury' layout with 21 forward facing seats and were the first to wear the colorful Ethiopian Airlines livery.

During the late 1940s the route network was extended to Nairobi, Port Sudan and Bombay. Charter flights were also flown to Jeddah during the Hajj season, carrying pilgrims to Makkah.


Two Convair 240 aircraft were purchased, followed later by a third, for use on foreign routes. These higher-performance aircraft had fully furnished interiors and seats for 36 passengers. Their pressurized cabins allowed the aircraft to fly higher, in smoother air.

By the end of 1952 the faithful Skytrains were still the mainstay for the domestic routes, linking 21 towns and cities to the capital and carrying both passengers and cargo.


Three quarters of the airline's staff were now Ethiopian but expatriates still held most key posts. The Ethiopian government negotiated and new agreement with TWA with ultimate aim of operating entirely with Ethiopian personnel.


The fist Ethiopian commercial aircraft commander, Alemayehu Abebe, made his solo flight as captain on DC-3/C-47 aircraft.

The National Airline Training Project was set up with US Government help in Addis Ababa to train local pilots, technicians and supervisory personnel.

The airline established its own maintenance facility at Addis Ababa, reducing the need for maintenance overseas.

In subsequent years the facilities expanded into a well-equipped center for maintenance, overhaul and modification work on aircraft, engines and avionic systems, not only for its own aircraft, but also for other airlines in the region.

The route network expanded with flights to Frankfurt.


The DC-6B Cloudmasters were purchased. These four-engined, 71-seat aircraft were used on the long-haul routes.


The airlines prepared to enter the jet age and decide that the Boeing 720B best met its requirements. However, the existing airfield serving Addis Ababa - Lidetta, which had been built in 1936 - was not suitable for jet operation, which required a long runway, and a decision was made to construct an entirely new airport and headquarters at Bole.


A new east-west service was inaugurated, linking Addis Ababa with Monrovia in Liberia, via Khartoum and Accra. This was the first direct air link between east and west Africa operated by any airline.


By December the new runway and control tower at bole international Airport were operational and two Boeing 720Bs arrived on their delivery flights. Ethiopian was the first airline in Africa to order Boeing 720B.


On 15th January the airline inaugurated its first jet service, from Bole to Nairobi. The following day the second Boeing inaugurated a new route to Madrid, via Asmara and Athens. Meanwhile the elderly Skytrains and their related civilian DC-3s continued to fly the domestic and cargo services and six further DC-3s were bought during the next decade. Despite their age, these aircraft were ideally suited to Ethiopia's rugged terrain and high altitude.


The company changed its legal status from a corporation to share company. At the same time the title was changed from Ethiopian Air Lines to Ethiopian Airlines.


Colonel Semret Medhane was appointed general manager, the first Ethiopian to hold the position.


A Boeing 720B flight simulator was acquired, making the airline independent of foreign airlines for its pilot training.


Two Boeing 727s were purchased for medium-range routes, to replace the oldest Boeing 720s.


The airline bought a third Boeing 727 and two de Havilland Canada DHC-5 Buffalo short-field transports for use on domestic services.


Ethiopian Airlines attracted worldwide attention on 1st June when its first Boeing 767 landed at Bole after a thirteen-and-a-half hour delivery flight from New York - setting a new world distance record for commercial twin-jets. The airline, which was a launch customer for the new aircraft, brought two of the advanced, wide bodied B-767 aircraft to replace the ageing Boeing 720s. In addition to their 190-seat passenger capacity the aircraft could carry 12 tones of cargo in the hold.

At the end of 1985, when the DC-3/Skytrains started to be withdrawn, the airline still had nine of these in service, all of them at least 40 years old. The last of these aircraft remained in service until October 1991. The main replacements were six 18-seater DHC-6 Twin Otters, and - for the busier domestic routes - two ATR-42sL fast and modern 46-seater aircraft.


The Cargo Management Department was established to afford special attention to the development of the airline's cargo services. Hitherto the airline had regarded its cargo operations more as a public service commitment that as a secondary source of income.


The airline's Engineering Division opened a new purpose-built jet engine test facility, allowing engines of up to 45,000 kg (100,000lbs) thrust to be ground tested.

April 1996:

As the airlines celebrated 50th anniversary the route network stretched from Europe (London, Frankfurt, and Rome) to China (Beijing) and Thailand (Bangkok). The Middle East and Indian sub-continent were well represented, and the airline's African routes reached Senegal and Ivory Coast in the west, Cairo in the north, and Johannesburg and Durban in the south. The fleet consisted of two ATR-42 and four DHC-6 Twin Otters for the domestic passenger services, one Boeing 737 and four Boeing 757 aircraft for the medium range passenger services and three Boeing 767s for long-range services. For its cargo and non-scheduled services the airline had one Boeing 707 freighter, one Boeing 757 Freighter, two Lockheed L-100 commercial Hercules and one DHC-5 Buffalo.

The pilot training school was equipped with a state-of-the-art flight simulator, replicating the flight deck of the Boeing 767. The simulator was also used to train crews on the Boeing 757, whose flight deck is similar.

In October 1996 the first of five Fokker 50s was acquired to enhance the domestic services.


Another giant leap was made with the launch of a twice-weekly service to Washington - the Airline's first destination in the America - and New York followed shortly after.


In February the ShebaMiles frequent flyer program was launched. Construction started on a new, ultra-modern terminal building at Bole International Airport to upgrade passenger services and cater for an anticipated increase in traffic. In November Scandinavia was brought into the route network for the first time with a new service to Copenhagen, Denmark, along with anew route to Maputo, Mozambique.


The airline embarked on a period of sustained growth and fleet modernization with plans to purchase, over the next four years, 12 new aircraft, Six Next-Generation B737-700s and six 767-300ERs were scheduled to replace the existing two B737-200s and two B767-200. In October night operations out of Addis Ababa were introduced, to supplement the daytime flights.


The new, 3,800 meter runway and control tower at Bole International Airport become operation, along with the spacious new airport terminal with its 21st- century facilities. Renovation of the older terminal began, to serve mainly domestic flights.


Ethiopian Airlines announced that it would be Africa's launch carrier for the new Boeing 787 `Dreamlinder', with a firm order for ten of these ultra-modern jets, and an option in five more. The order for the new fuel-efficient, long-rangeArticle Search, passenger-friendly aircraft was valued at US$ 1.3 billion. Boeing begins production for the revolutionary new aircraft in 2006 and Ethiopian expects to take delivery from 2008.

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