As someone who loves air travel, I’m usually quite excited by the prospect of trying a new airline for the first time. I also especially appreciate the chance to fly with airlines from interesting parts of the world, and furthermore, I always get a kick out of flying fifth-freedom routes (i.e., a flight between two countries operated by an airline from a third country).
Naturally then, on this particular evening, I was thrilled to tick off all three boxes by flying with Ethiopian Airlines between the largest cities of Argentina and Brazil on my way to Iguazu Falls.
I boarded through the door behind the business class cabin, turning left to arrive at my home for the next two hours. Ethiopian Airlines’s markets its business class cabin as “Cloud Nine”, which on the Boeing 787 consists of 24 forward-facing seats arranged across four rows in a 2-2-2 configuration.
The cabin finishes mainly consisted of eye-catching seat cushions and blankets decked out in the Pan-African colours of red, yellow, and green (which were originally inspired by the Ethiopian flag), set against the unassuming whites and beiges of the seat skeletons.
I thought this was a wise move by Ethiopian – they’d obviously want to incorporate their colours into the cabin’s look, but such vivid colours are definitely better suited to the role of a splash of colour rather than the main palette.
Jessica and I had assigned ourselves Seats 4A and 4B in the last row. I settled into Seat 4A feeling very comfortable and revelling in the “new plane” feeling of the Boeing 787. It's fair to say that the novelty of the self-dimming windows still hasn’t worn off yet for me.
A flight attendant came by offering to hang up my jacket, making sure to confirm whether I’d be getting off at São Paulo or carrying on to Addis Ababa, so that he’d know when to retrieve it for me. A few moments later, another crew member offered me a welcome drink and a bottle of water. The crew were all dressed in distinctive uniforms that resembled traditional Ethiopian garb, which was awesome to see – you can catch a glimpse of it in the photo below.
The seat features were exactly what you’d expect for your standard two-person forward-facing business class seats. The dual in-flight entertainment screens were built into the back of the next row of seats, sandwiching a set of coat hooks and a few storage compartments of various sizes.
Meanwhile, the seat controls were embedded in the central console between the two seats. Interestingly, there were “M+” and “MR” buttons – similar to what you’d find on a calculator – for setting your seat in a “default” position that you’d like to return to later.
The tray table pops out of the forward side of the central console, while a set of reading lights are mounted on the shoulder.
On the opposite side, you’ll find the entertainment controller, USB and power ports, and a cup holder within the alcove under the armrest.
There was a blanket available for each passenger at their seat, but no amenity kit of any sort. I’m not sure if that’s because they’d be handed out to passengers at São Paulo for the long-haul segment to Addis Ababa, or if Ethiopian just doesn’t offer amenity kits in business class.
Boarding was completed with about one-third of the business class seats taken. As our plane taxied towards the runway, we were treated to a safety video that featured more than a few hilarious moments.
I also took note of the amazing written Amharic language – seriously, how beautiful is that script?
As we took off into the Buenos Aires night, I browsed the entertainment selection, expecting to see find the usual handful of New Releases mixed in with completely random The Big Bang Theory episodes.
Instead, I discovered quite possibly the largest in-flight movie and TV selection I’ve ever seen, with numerous titles filed under over a dozen categories, from genres like Blockbuster, Classic, and Lifestyle to region-specific groupings like Asian, African, Brazilian, and European. The variety was genuinely impressive, and even as someone who rarely watches in-flight entertainment (I usually prefer to watch stuff on my laptop or iPad instead), I decided to put on a Bollywood flick just for the sheer novelty of it.
I also had a quick look at the airshow, which showed flight path for the evening taking us through Uruguay and the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul before our late-night arrival in São Paulo.
As we hit our cruising altitude and the seatbelt sign was turned off, the flight attendant came by to take our meal orders. “Pork or fish”, she declared, matter-of-factly. There were no menus.
I went with the pork, while Jessica chose the fish. We were also asked what we’d like to drink out of the usual selection of beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and juice, although with no menus at hand, it was difficult to know exactly what varieties of what drinks were available. I decided to order “green tea” and just roll with it.
Both our tables were set, and the salad and main course were served together very promptly. I do love the feeling of a multi-course meal service onboard a flight, but I don’t particularly mind it when airlines keep it unfussy and serve all the food at once either.
The quick-and-dirty approach to the meal service didn’t leave me with great expectations for the quality of the food, though I was pleasantly surprised in that regard. While the salad was nothing special, my pork dish came in a deliciously rich sauce, which was great together with the gnocchi on the side.
We were also presented with a breadbasket, from which I opted for a roll of white bread.
Jessica’s fish wasn’t half bad either, but she wasn’t too hungry and so only ate half of it before giving the rest to me. It wasn’t quite as good as the pork and gnocchi dish, but still decently appetizing. There are a few reviews of Ethiopian Airlines out there that slam the business class food as basically inedible, though that wasn’t my experience at all.
The meal presentation impressed me as well – in particular, these little jars of ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard, and a tiny, tiny bottle of Tabasco sauce. Super cute!
My green tea also arrived, served as a mug of hot water alongside a separate packet of tea.
After we finished our meals, our plates were withdrawn and we were offered dessert, which consisted of a moist chocolate cake with strawberry. It was rather unremarkable.
By the time the meal service was completed, we were minutes away from making our descent into São Paulo. I decided to put the seat into sleeping mode just to see what it would be like to fly one of these Ethiopian 787s in long-haul business class.
It wasn’t great. Ethiopian has angled-flat seats on their 787s, which become flat in the sense that they offer a sleeping surface with no kinks or corners, but are positioned at a slight angle to the ground rather than parallel to it. As a result, I feel like I’d sleep with an ever-so-slight feeling that you’re about to slide off the foot of the bed – that’s certainly how I felt during the brief period I spent testing out the sleeping surface.
You’ll probably get used to it after a while, so I can’t say it’ll make for a terrible experience, but it’s certainly no match for a fully lie-flat seat. It doesn’t make much sense to me why Ethiopian wouldn’t go the distance and install proper lie-flat seats on their newest aircraft. Their new A350s – the cutting-edge aircraft from Airbus – do feature lie-flat seats, so why couldn’t they do the same for their Boeing 787s?
One good thing about the standard forward-facing seat is that you always get ample legroom, although I’m not sure how great that is when you’re sleeping with your legs feeling like they’re about to slide off into the abyss 😉
The captain came on the PA to announce that we’d soon be arriving at the first stop of the night, and before long we were making a smooth descent into São Paulo Guarulhos. We were the only business class passengers who would deplane here, with everyone else – and indeed the majority of the economy class passengers – remaining onboard for the brief one-hour pit stop before continuing onwards to Ethiopia.
Fifth-freedom flights often provide a great opportunity to try out a new airline in advance of entrusting them with your comfort on a long-haul journey, and I’m happy to have had this opportunity to do so with Ethiopian Airlines. It ended up being a mixed experience with several positives and negatives.
The cabin felt fresh and snazzy, the entertainment selection blew me away, and the quality of the food exceeded my expectations (which were admittedly not high to begin with). On the other hand, I don’t imagine I’d sleep very well on these angled-flat seats, and I really missed having a business class menu, as I love studying the menu before meal orders to figure out exactly what my heart desires.
Having said that, I’ll definitely be flying with Ethiopian on a long-haul flight at some point in the future – if only because of their extensive route network around the world with strong connectivity in Africa – and I’m intrigued to see how my next experience plays out.