I’d be going to Africa for the very first time onboard an Ethiopian Airlines business class flight. Ethiopian Airlines operates a fifth-freedom route from Newark to Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire; after this, I’d be continuing onto Accra, Ghana onboard South African Airways later that evening.
This will be a shorter review than usual, since I’ve actually already flown in business class on the Ethiopian 787 before, on a Buenos Aires–São Paulo flight last year.
I’ve already covered the hard product in detail in that post (and it’s a pretty standard forward-facing business class seat, so there’s not too much to enthuse about). Same goes for things like the in-flight entertainment system, which didn’t change much from last year to now.
Therefore, in this post I’ll just go over my experience from this flight itself, focusing on the onboard food, service, and other elements of the soft product.
Ethiopian Airlines | ET513
Aircraft: Boeing 787-8
Cabin: Business class
Route: Newark (EWR) to Abidjan (ABJ)
Date: Wednesday, January 23, 2019
Time: Departing 11:55pm and arriving 2:40pm the next day
Duration: 9 hours 45 minutes
Upon boarding the Ethiopian Airlines 787, I turned left into the business class cabin. Ethiopian Airlines uses forward-facing business class seats in a 2-2-2 configuration on their Boeing 787, so every seat is virtually the same.
Compared to the best business class seats in the industry, these seats lack privacy and storage space and don’t offer direct aisle access from every seat; on the other hand, they do make the cabin feel more open and spacious.
The seat finishes are decked out in the colours of the Ethiopian flag: red, yellow, and green, which also happen to be known as the Pan-African colours. It’s perhaps fitting that Ethiopian Airlines’s cabin finishes proudly represent the wider continent as well, since the Addis Ababa-based airline is the largest and arguably most successful airline within all of Africa.
I arrived at Seat 3L by the window, which is the seat I had been assigned for the flight. In a rather odd turn of events, I had originally chosen Seat 4L during the online check-in process, but when I double-checked a few hours later, Seats 4J and 4L had become blocked off and I had been kicked out of my assigned seat!
It turns out that the business class cabin was nowhere near full on this flight, so Ethiopian decided to set up Seats 4J and 4L as a “rest area” for the captain and the first officer. When I arrived onboard, the two seats had been set up with curtains around them, and I saw various members of the flight crew resting here throughout the flight. How strange!
Anyway, Seat 3L was an adequate replacement – as a solo traveller, I was mainly hoping that the seat next to me would remain empty, which it did.
I’m usually quite enthusiastic about playing around with the seat features whenever I try out a new business class product, but since I already flew the Ethiopian 787 last year, I didn’t spend too much time doing that.
You can read my review of that flight for all the details about the business class seat and the in-flight entertainment system.
Instead, I sat back and relaxed as the other business class passengers boarded the plane. During this time, I was welcomed by a flight attendant, who provided me with some bottled water, and verified that I’d be disembarking in Abidjan instead of continuing onto Addis Ababa.
The cabin service manager also stopped by to greet me and welcome me to the flight. Everyone was genuine and warm in their interactions with me, and I also took note of the crew’s distinctive uniforms: the flight attendants all wore colourful uniforms in the Pan-African colours, while the cabin service manager was dressed in a beautiful white habesha kemis.
Thankfully the bottled water wasn’t the only pre-departure beverage, as I was also given the choice of a glass of champagne or orange juice, and I chose the former. I was also handed the in-flight menu.
The very extensive menu, which included both food and drinks, read as follows (note that there are separate sections for Newark–Abidjan and Abidjan–Addis Ababa, the latter of which wasn’t applicable to me):
The amenity kit was also distributed, which came in a vibrant red colour (and as I understand it, these same amenity kits are available in yellow and green as well on other Ethiopian flights). There didn’t appear to be any sort of specialty branding on the kit.
The amenity kit was designed in an interesting fashion, as it could fold over to reveal quite a few pouches on the inside. It included the usual assortment of items: socks, earplugs, lip balm, a dental kit, an eye mask, and a comb.
Business class was slightly less than half full, with most passengers travelling on their own and spread out across the 2-2-2 seats, as we departed Newark and took off across the Atlantic Ocean.
This would be my first flight from North America to Africa, so unlike the usual transatlantic flights to Europe, I’d be flying over thousands of miles of open ocean, which is just a little unnerving when tracking the progress of the plane across the flight map.
I decided to work on my laptop for a while (albeit offline, since there’s no wifi on these planes) and go to sleep after the meal service. Since the flight was almost 10 hours long, that would allow me to get a decent seven hours or so of rest and wake up in West Africa feeling pretty energized.
The “hot light meal” service began about 30 minutes after we reached cruising altitude. My table was set, and the seafood and vegetable appetizer was served first, with some black tea to drink.
It was interesting to note that while the appetizer resembled a salad of some sort, there was actually a separate garden salad dish on the side as well.
I thought the portion size of the appetizer was quite generous, and I was almost feeling full by the time I finished it, together with a roll from the breadbasket.
Imagine my shock, then, when the main course was served. Just look at the sheer size of this pineapple chicken and rice dish!
Thankfully, it was quite a tasty meal, which helped me finish the whole thing even though I was already full. Some other reviews mention Ethiopian Airlines’s onboard catering as a weak point, but I didn’t have any complaints with the food on this flight.
The crew also came around with the breadbasket one more time, and I had a piece of garlic bread.
Unsurprisingly, the portion sizes did not let up by the time the dessert and cheese courses came around. I quite enjoyed the panna cotta, so I finished that, but I only took a few bites of the cheese before giving up and asking the crew to clear my table. Thanks for feeding me like a king, Ethiopian Airlines!
After the meal service, I got ready to go to sleep for the night. Importantly, Ethiopian Airlines’s 787s do not feature fully flat beds; instead, they’re flat but angled downwards at a very slight angle. You can see in the below picture how the seat slopes downwards ever-so-slightly when in lie-flat mode.
In addition, while these forward-facing business class seats often come with the silver lining of having ample legroom on many other airlines, that’s not the case here on the Ethiopian 787. Instead, the seat goes underneath the “shell” of the seat in front of you, meaning that the legroom is rather restrictive.
To be honest, I’m puzzled by Ethiopian’s choice of such an uncompetitive seat type on their Boeing 787. The forward-facing 2-2-2 configuration is forgivable, but the lack of proper lie-flat beds is quite disappointing for an airline with high aspirations to compete with the world’s leading airlines.
On the plus side, despite the lacklustre hard product, I still got a very good night’s rest onboard Ethiopian Airlines business class, waking up with about an hour and a half to go, after we had conquered the Atlantic Ocean and reached the shores of West Africa.
Before starting the second meal service, the crew passed out a small box of chocolates to each passenger.
For breakfast, I had selected the pancakes with blueberry coulis and cream cheese, which was served with some cereal, yogurt, fruits, and orange juice.
The cornflakes were probably the highlight of the meal, as I found the pancakes to be too wet and overladen with blueberry coulis – on this occasion, the large helping sizes did not work out in Ethiopian’s favour.
I was also offered coffee or tea to drink as well, and I asked for a black coffee to fully perk me up. While the crew provided smooth and timely service throughout most of the flight, they were a little slow to fulfill this particular request, and my cup of coffee didn’t arrive until I had almost finished my breakfast.
Soon after the breakfast service was concluded, the Boeing 787’s electronic windows were brightened…
…allowing the West African sunshine to stream into the cabin.
For the remainder of the flight, I gazed out of the window with amazement at the fact that I’d finally be setting foot in Africa for the first time. For me, this vast continent had been a huge unknown quantity until now, and I was feeling excited and, to be honest, a little apprehensive about my maiden visit.
Therefore, as you can imagine, the lush Côte d’Ivoire countryside therefore made for mesmerizing as we made our descent into Abidjan’s Félix-Houphouët-Boigny International Airport.
Objectively speaking, my flight on Ethiopian Airlines business class was good enough, but I’d rank it behind most other business class products I’ve tried. Their hard product on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner lags behind the market in many ways, but at least I still enjoyed a good night’s sleep. The food was good but not great, and the service began very strongly at the beginning of the flight, but settled into a more perfunctory rhythm during the flight itself with a few lapses here and there.
I’m not in a hurry to fly with Ethiopian again, but given their very strong route network throughout all of Africa, it probably won’t be long until they’re once again the most practical option along my travels. I’ll try to get on their Airbus A350 aircraft next time, which I hear features a slightly newer product with lie-flat beds.