Ethiopian Airlines is keen to expand its lead in the African aviation market with plans for new aircraft to meet rising travel demand.
The Addis Ababa-based Star Alliance carrier expects passenger numbers to surpass 2019 levels during the year ending in June 2023, group CEO Mesfin Tasew Bekele said at a luncheon in Washington, D.C., on September 2. With the passenger recovery in sight, the airline plans to restart an aircraft order campaign for a roughly 100-seat plane that was paused in early 2020 when the pandemic hit. The aircraft, which Bekele said will be either the Airbus A220-100 or Embraer E195-E2, are needed to Ethiopian’s traffic growth forecasts.
“We are going to finalize our evaluation” of a 100-seat aircraft, he said. Bekele hinted that the A220 “best fits Ethiopian Airlines’ market,” and that Airbus had provided the best commercial terms.
An A220 order from Ethiopian would further expand the plane’s growing dominance of the 100-seat aircraft market. Owing to its small size and low costs it proved one of the more popular planes for airlines’ to fly during the pandemic, and coming out of the crisis has racked up a number of new orders. New commitments have come from existing operators, like Delta Air Lines and JetBlue Airways, and from new customers, including ITA Airways and Qantas. If Ethiopian ordered the A220, it would join the likes of Air Tanzania and EgyptAir operating the jet in Africa.
A roughly 100-seat A220 would sit between Ethiopian’s De Havilland Dash 8-400s with 78 seats and its Boeing 737-800s with at least 154 seats. The airline plans to retire its 9 737-700s that seat 118 passengers in the next few years, Bekele said.
Bekele was bullish on the recovery at Ethiopian, even as conflict in the airline’s namesake country continues. Asked about the impact of U.S. and EU restrictions on government travel through Addis Ababa — for example, all U.S. Embassy staff are barred from transiting through the city’s airport — he said the airline did not “see traffic decline as a result of this,” and cited the hubs status as a major connecting point for travel within and to Africa.
Passenger “traffic is doing well, and it’s growing,” he said broadly. During Ethiopian’s fiscal year that ended in June, passenger numbers hit 82 percent of 2019 levels, or 8.7 million travelers. That percentage was slightly better than previous forecasts for the period by airline executives.
For the eight months ending in February, Ethiopian carried 7 percent fewer passengers on 2 percent more seats on its flights to the U.S. compared to the same period ending in February 2020, according to the latest Department of Transportation data via Diio.
Ethiopian and other carriers are also benefitting from other African airlines’ challenges. Both Kenya Airways and South African Airways struggled during the crisis with the latter shutting down entirely for 18 months. Air France, Delta, Qatar Airways, Turkish Airlines, and United Airlines have all used the opportunity to expand to Africa with new flights and routes compared to 2019, Diio schedules show.
Ethiopian continues to grow out of the crisis, and not just in Addis. In June, it launched new nonstop flights between Washington Dulles and Lomé, Togo, where its affiliate Asky Airlines is based. The airline plans to increase the number of flights on that route to five-times weekly by year-end from thrice weekly today, and to daily in 2023, Bekele said.
In addition, Ethiopian is considering new U.S. service to Atlanta, and a resumption of flights to Houston Intercontinental that it flew for just six months before they were suspended in May 2020. “We would like to open up more destinations — providing more connectivity with the United States [and] Africa,” Bekele said. He did not provide a timeline for a potential Atlanta or Houston launch.
The U.S. is not the only place where Ethiopian is expanding. The airline will begin thrice-weekly flights between Addis Ababa and Amman, Jordan, on September 19. It also added Chennai and Dubai’s Al Maktoum airport to its map earlier this year, according to Diio by Cirium schedules.