One of the biggest airlines in the world is just around the corner, in nearby Africa.

Ethiopian Airways, in our continent, is the biggest in terms of aircraft fleet size, the number of destinations, Revenue Passenger Kilometers (RPKs, a multiplication of passengers carried x distance), and revenue. Pre-Covid-19, it could also claim to be one of the largest airlines in the world by destinations served. It has the enviable reputation over recent years of being the only African airline to have made worthwhile profits. Struck down by the pandemic like the rest of the air transport industry, Ethiopian can be counted upon to rise again like the mythical phoenix. 

A notable attribute of this company is that from its origins it has been considered by the Ethiopian government to be (just as in the case of Air Mauritius by founder Maingard in 1967) an essential tool for the development and modernization of the country. Back in the 1940s, Emperor Haile Selassie asked the United States, the United Kingdom and France to help him establish this new carrier, and it was the Americans who were the first to offer practical help. In September 1945, Trans World Airlines (TWA) signed an agreement to set up the airline and to provide the initial management. The Ethiopian government financed the acquisition of five Douglas DC3 Dakotas and negotiated landing rights with Aden, Egypt, French Somaliland, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. Addis Ababa – Cairo was one of its first routes. As 1946 progressed, four more DC3s were added to the fleet and Bombay and other destinations were served. The carrier recorded its first decent profit in 1949. New larger aircraft types such as Convair 240s and Douglas DC6s were acquired in the fifties and many new long-haul routes introduced. Athens, Frankfurt and Nairobi joined an expanding network. During this decade other significant events took place:

(1) A statement was issued to say that it was “the ultimate aim that EAL shall eventually be operated entirely by Ethiopian personnel”; 

(2) In 1955 a self-owned maintenance facility (MRO) was set up;

(3) EAL joined the International Air Transport Association; 

(4) in 1959 ordered its first jets in the shape of two Boeing 720B aircraft, for delivery in 1961.

The arrival of the jets signaled the need to relocate to a new larger airport, and the company then set up its headquarters at Bole International Airport, Addis Ababa. From 1963, the 720s started to replace the older Douglas DC6 aircraft, and new routes, such as to Madrid, Rome and Frankfurt were opened. In 1971, a major change took place as the relationship with TWA came to an end and the first Ethiopian General Manager was appointed. In the late 70s, Boeing 727s took over from the 720s. In the 1980s and 90s new smaller aircraft suitable for shorter regional routes – such as ATRs, Twin Otters and Fokker 50s joined an ever-expanding fleet, while in the airline’s ambitious long-haul new routes were introduced from the early 2000s. By 2019, before the cut-backs due to COVID-19 (which we hope will only have a short-term effect over the next 2-3 years), Ethiopian Airways operated a mixed long and short-haul fleet of 125 aircraft and served one of the most extensive route networks in the world. The airline had joined Lufthansa’s Star Alliance in 2011 and was soon flying to multiple destinations in both North and South America and also to Japan. Cargo boomed also with a daily uplift exceeding 600 tons, with cargo destinations including points as distant as Los Angeles and Mexico City. 

The Ethiopian aviation holding group formed by the government in 2017 includes divisions for the Airports, the Passenger airline, a Cargo and Logistics Company, the Ethiopian Aviation Academy, MRO Services, Inflight Catering, and Hotel and Tourism Services.

After all that, do we need to ask why EAL has been so successful, making substantial profits when almost all other African airlines failed to do so? The answer seems to be “sound and professional management backed by a committed, aviation-minded government – which has traditionally left the airline unfettered and free of political interference.” 

Postscript: EAL hit the headlines a year ago when one of its small fleet of Boeing 737 MAXs suffered a terrible accident. The airline is currently seeking compensation from the manufacturer, and is likely to succeed.