Ethiopian Airlines – a flexible Star Alliance Carrier
Africa – it’s not exactly a place where one can stick to a schedule or have firm plans. And that’s usually fine. As they say in Swahili, “pole, pole” – slow, slow, take it easy. Years ago some friends and I were traveling from Victoria Falls to Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe when the bus stopped in the little town of Dete to drop off passengers. We saw a treehouse lodge. We had already paid for reservations at a lodge inside the park, but staying in a treehouse? Very cool. So we quickly hopped off the bus. The lodge was actually closed for a few weeks because of feared election violence, but we found the manager and he agreed to open it just for us. He got the treehouses ready. He found a cook for us. He took us on game drives. Hearing elephants heading to the watering hole practically underneath the treehouses in the middle of the night was amazing.
But for all of the flexibility that dominates life in Africa, a major airline there must operate differently, right? Especially the national carrier of the world’s most populous landlocked nation and a member of the Star Alliance, a group of airlines that includes United, Lufthansa, Air New Zealand and Singapore Air? Ethiopian Airlines is the carrier in question. And as I learned, one must be careful with assumptions.
When heading to Ethiopia this month on a National Geographic expedition, I had a lot of options as to carriers and routing. I chose to book a business class ticket from Los Angeles to Muscat, Oman on Lufthansa and then an economy class ticket from Muscat to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on Ethiopian Airlines. It was the best travel/seat option for the best price. And because of the timing of the flights, I would have a day and a half in Oman on the way home – a chance to see a new country. I booked a hotel there for two nights and a full-day tour of Wadi Shab and Muscat.
Everything went perfectly on the way to Addis. Even though I technically had two plane tickets, Lufthansa (a Star Alliance partner with Ethiopian) booked my bag straight through to Addis with the connection. Ethiopian even upgraded me to Business. All was well.
Your Flight is Cancelled
Then the fun started. A few days into the trip, and right before I would be heading to the Omo Valley for five nights with no internet or cell coverage, Ethiopian cancelled my flight to Oman. This was ten full days before the September 27th flight. No matter that they had accepted my payment for a ticket to Oman on September 27th – they simply removed the flight from their schedule. My assumption is that this was for business reasons – i.e. not enough people had purchased tickets, so it didn’t make economic sense to fly. It’s a nice, flexible way to run an airline. Except if you’re the customer holding a ticket.
Ethiopian booked me on their next flight to Muscat – on September 29th. The only problem is that it would have gotten me to Muscat four hours after my flight to Frankfurt departed. If this had been on one reservation, it would have been easy – Ethiopian would have been obligated to work with Lufthansa to rebook the entire thing. But with two tickets, things were different. From the Omo Valley with no communications, I relied on my local tour operator to call the airline. Would Ethiopian book me on another airline to Muscat on the 27th or 28th? Nope. Would they work with Lufthansa to rebook me directly back to Los Angeles from Addis? Nope. Would they at least refund the unused portion of the Muscat-Addis round-trip ticket if I changed my routing due to their flight cancellation? Nope. They said that I could fly to Muscat on any flight that they operated, and actually emphasized how great it was that I could choose the day that I wanted to fly. Nice and flexible! Except that there were no Ethiopian flights that would meet my date requirements. In the end I paid a large change fee to rebook back to LA from Addis on the 27th.
Rerouting? Why Not?
But Ethiopian Airlines kept surprising me. From Arba Minch on the 24th we were supposed to fly to Addis. The original reservation showed an arrival into Addis at 2:25pm, on flight ET135. But they decided to switch it up. They changed the flight number to ET133 and added a stop…in Asosa, near the border with Sudan. Now look at the map below from the in-flight magazine. Arba Minch to Asosa isn’t even a route that they fly. Nice and flexible! This is the equivalent of having a plane ticket from Albuquerque to Denver and the airline unexpectedly making a detour to Los Angeles to pick up a few passengers. We arrived after 6pm.
Dates? Not Important.
Ah, but the best was yet to come. My rebooked flight from Addis to LA was scheduled to depart at 11:59pm on September 27th – the first leg being on Ethiopian Air to Frankfurt. Ethiopian changed the departure to 12:10am on September 28th. No problem – it’s only 11 minutes later. But when I arrived at the airport to check in, I was told that I had been booked on the flight 24 hours earlier and therefore missed my flight! Yes, they changed their departure from late on the 27th to early on the 28th, but their system left me on the 27th – at 12:10am that morning. Nice! Luckily I had a copy of my reservation (from the amazing folks at Cranky Concierge) showing that I was definitely scheduled on their flight arriving into Frankfurt at 6am on the 28th. After roughly 20 minutes they agreed to rebook me (!) on that night’s flight, and all went smoothly after that.
So what did I take away from my experiences with Ethiopian?
1) Avoid booking separate tickets on international itineraries if at all possible. I thought I was being smart, saving money flying to Oman on Lufthansa and then to Addis on Ethiopian. But when Ethiopian cancelled their flight, even though I had given myself a window of almost two days, it still wasn’t enough, and the $1000+ change fee completely wiped out the money I had saved by routing through Muscat, and then some.
2) Be flexible with your plans in Ethiopia! A noon arrival can easily turn into 4pm or later depending on the exact route that Ethiopian decides to fly that day based on business conditions.
3) Don’t get more than you need to out of the ATM. When passing through Muscat mid-month, I took out the equivalent of $200 in Omani Rials. Smart, right? I would need money for taxis, meals and shopping on my two-day layover, so I got it in advance to avoid any hassles on arrival. Then Ethiopian cancelled my flight and I rerouted away from Oman and…I still have a lot of Rials that I have no idea if I’ll ever spend. Anyone heading to Oman soon?