Katie and I just arrived in Cape Town after spending around 36 hours with Ethiopian Airlines. After this experience, it’s probably going to be our last experience with the airline. Here’s why, in chronological order.
1. No PreCheck. This is minor compared to what’s to come, but with more and more foreign carriers signing up to participate in TSA PreCheck, it was a bummer to have to clear very slow standard security in Newark (EWR).
2. Four hour delay departing Newark (EWR). Delays happen for a variety of reasons on all airlines, but it’s not a good sign to start your experience with an airline with what turned out to be a four-hour delay. Thankfully I paid for the taxes and fees for this United award ticket with my Citi Prestige, so I knew we’d be covered for up to $500 per person of expenses we would have to incur along the way.
3. Lack of communication during delay. Yes, delays happen. But, we expect airlines to keep us informed about what’s going on, especially when the delay stretches into multiple hours. New departure times weren’t communicated over the intercom, departure boards or even online. Multiple flight tracker websites showed our flight as having departed on-time and projected an on-time arrival, even as we sat in the terminal waiting to board the aircraft hours after the original departure time. For the four hour delay, there were exactly three announcements: 9:16pm, 10:27pm, 11:16pm.
4. Misinformation during delay. And these announcements weren’t helpful or true. After the departure time had passed — and we had witnessed pilots and mechanics shining flashlights around the cockpit — an announcement was made that the delay was “due to late arrival of the aircraft” (the flight had in fact arrived 34 minutes late). Each of the three announcements promised an update “within 15 minutes”, but stretches between announcements were always much longer.
We were assured — via the few announcements and whenever approaching the gate agents — that the flight would “make up the delay in the air”. Agents wouldn’t discuss rebooking flights for missed connections as the flight would arrive “on time.” I’m not sure who was pushing this fantasy, but it surely wasn’t true. Our flight pushed back four hours late and arrived into Addis Ababa (ADD) four hours late.
5. Children and families board first. Boarding wasn’t announced, but news that we would be boarding soon spread through the boarding area quickly, causing everyone to rush to the gate door. Gate agents descended into yelling at passengers rather than using the intercom. First to board: families with children. And, not just infants; any families traveling with children were invited to board first. It seemed that half of our flight from Newark (EWR) to Lome (LFW) was families with children of various ages. This aspect of the experience might be a “pro” to traveling families, but is another strike against Ethiopian Airlines for Katie and me.
6. Children assigned to sit in emergency exit rows. While I waited for the flight attendants to resolve a seating situation, I stood in the middle economy exit row area. Checking out the exit row seats for pros and cons, I noticed a couple of young faces smiling back at me. Sure enough, a dad with his two kids (maybe around 5 and 7) were sitting right next to the exit door (seats 28A-C). The father seemed discerned about the situation, eventually flagging down the flight attendants to point out he didn’t think they should be sitting there. The flight attendant started a quick search of a three-person row to switch with them. A couple rows back, she had some volunteers…
7. Pre-board passengers allowed to sit in emergency exit rows. The problem with her volunteers is that two of them were very old and frail passengers, along with what seemed to be a grandson. Merely hobbling from row 31 to 28 exhausted the two older passengers so much that the flight attendant rushed off to get water for them. It’s safe to assume that they wouldn’t be much help in an emergency.
8. Passengers wandered the aisles during taxiing. The potential safety issues weren’t limited to the passengers in the emergency exit rows. Once we finally pushed back at 1:40am for our 9:35pm scheduled flight, passengers continued to retrieve items from overhead bins and get up to use the restroom as we taxied. After landing in Lome, passengers were quick to stand to retrieve bags, even as we were still taxiing. Only for our arrival in ADD did I hear a flight attendant tell a passenger headed for the bathroom to sit down.
9. No standard power plugs. Each seat had a USB plug available to charge your phone — or other devices via a USB plug. However, the USB provided a very slow charge — like 10% of phone battery per hour with the phone not in use. But, at least it was some power. There were no power plugs in economy on either of the 787-8 Dreamliners we flew. So, if you’re planning to work on a laptop on this flight, you’re going to want to board with a full charge and put your computer in power save mode right away. After all, it’s a long 17-hour journey EWR-LFW-ADD without access to a power plug.
10. Strangely inconsistent seats. Some seats had seatback mesh pockets in addition to the standard seatback pocket, while other seats were missing this. And there seemed to be no rhyme or reason on where the pockets were. Between Katie and me, we sat in five different seats on the 787-8 Dreamliner. Some were definitely more comfortable than others. Worst of all: the bulkhead seating in the front of the rear economy cabin.
11. Passengers are forbidden to use cell phones. Per Ethiopian Airlines regulations, cell phones are required to be completely turned off and stowed during the entire flight. I laughed this off when it was announced, but it seems this is one “safety” aspect that flight attendants seemed to care about — as I was asked by flight attendants to turn off my phone.
12. No Wi-Fi or cell connection for over 24 hours. While some travelers might not mind going a flight without being connected, this experience takes it to the extreme. There’s no Wi-Fi on-board Ethiopian Airlines flights. During the stop in Lome, onward passengers are required to stay on-board and there’s no cell or data connection for travelers using Google Project Fi, T-Mobile or Sprint. In Addis Ababa, Google Fi, T-Mobile and Sprint users also don’t have cell or data service, and there’s no public Wi-Fi available in the airport. So, if our originally scheduled flights (EWR-LFW-ADD-JNB-CPT) had gone according to plan, we would have been disconnected from departure in Newark (9:15pm Eastern) all the way through landing in Johannesburg (9:55pm Eastern) over 24 hours later.
13. Chronic broken in-flight entertainment. It seems that having a broken IFE system on Ethiopian’s 787-8 isn’t rare. From EWR-LFW-ADD, my middle seat neighbor’s touchscreen was broken — requiring him to clunkily use the controls built into the armrest. During our unplanned long layover in ADD, we spoke with a couple of South Africans whose entire IFE systems didn’t work the whole flight.
Then, from ADD-CPT, my IFE system on another 787-8 was broken. Not only didn’t the touchscreen work, but the armrest remote wouldn’t respond either. This meant that the overhead light was stuck on for the whole 6.5-hour flight I was trying to sleep through.
14. Bathrooms weren’t adequately serviced. Katie used the bathroom shortly after reaching cruising altitude. The bathroom was already out of soap. Later on the same bathroom was out of toilet paper. Long lines formed at the remaining usable bathrooms.
15. The cabin descended into a madhouse. As we approached Lome, trash was all over the floors and aisles. There were children running up and down the aisles — including one in just a shirt and a diaper. Even after hours of running, he just didn’t seem to wear out. There were knocked over trays in both the seating areas and in the galley. One child was even playing in the galley — right in front of FAs — with used service trays.
16. Flight attendants were ill-informed and/or un-empowered. Through the whole delay process, it seems that the FAs were kept in the dark. They weren’t aware of adjusted arrival times — still running with the “on-time arrival” story the gate agents had used in Newark, even after our arrival time in Lome had passed with us still being at cruising altitude.
From Lome to Addis Ababa, I asked the ADD-based cabin crew where we should head upon arrival in order to be rebooked. None I spoke with were aware of the process or where we should go.
17. No announcement what onward passengers should do during the stop in Lome. Upon arrival in Lome, most passengers got up and exited the plane. This seemed to be especially odd considering I figured most passengers would be continuing on to Addis Ababa — either as a destination or connection point. So, I wondered if we all had to clear off for security checks or just holding in the terminal while the crew turned over. It took me asking at the boarding door what onward passengers should do before finding out we should stay on-board while the crew turned and cleaners came on to service the aircraft.
18. Addis Ababa airport isn’t great for connecting. There’s no free Wi-Fi or cell/data service for those using Google Project Fi, Sprint or T-Mobile. The terminal is rather boring, merely housing duty free shops and a few restaurants. There were temporary mobile bathroom units set-up in the terminal, supposedly due to the airport expansion. While there are a few lounges available for Star Alliance Gold members and those flying in business class, there are no Priority Pass lounges for those of us in economy. There are only a handful of jetway gates, meaning some large aircraft have to board from buses, leading to packed boarding areas.
19. Ethiopian left one of our checked bags in Addis Ababa. Upon arrival in Cape Town seven hours after our scheduled arrival, we cleared border control and waited for an hour for our baggage to come out. There were still bags circling, but no new bags coming out. So, we inquired with a nearby baggage handler. He noted that all of the bags from our flight were out and that some bags were left behind as they wouldn’t fit. It seems that there were so many bags (and/or cargo) on a two-thirds full Boeing 787-8 that they left one of our bags behind.
20. Low compensation for delayed baggage. We filed a claim for our delayed/lost bag before leaving the airport. The agent took information and handed us a piece of paper telling us to call back. When I inquired what the compensation would be for necessities, I was told $75. No, that’s not per day. That’s $75 total no matter how long the delay. Thankfully, our Citi Prestige will cover an additional $500 on top of what the airline will cover, assuming that Ethiopian doesn’t magically make the bag appear within three hours of arrival.
There were certainly some pleasant parts to our long Ethiopian Airlines experience. But, these 20 issues include some serious red flags and plenty of annoyances. Considering how many other airlines are available in the global market, I’ll be looking to avoid Ethiopian Airlines for future bookings.