I got a couple of sweet surprises when I flew Ethiopian Airlines recently on a trip to the Seychelles Islands off the east coast of Africa. My ticket was in economy, but Ethiopian Air has a nifty program where your can bid on a business class seat. If one is available at the time of departure, you get your upgrade to Cloud Nine for the price of the bid rather than the full business class fare which can triple or quadruple the price of a seat in coach.
Granted it’s a gamble, but if there’s no way you’re going to spring for it at full price, with Ethiopian you still have a shot at the upgrade at whatever you can afford. Cruise ships do this all the time but it is the first time I’ve seen an airline make the same kind of offer. And when you consider the flight to their hub in Addis Abbab is over 18 hours including a stop in Dublin, the difference is monumental.
Upgraded seats on domestic flights are not at all comparable to the value of an upgrade on an international flight. Stateside, you have more room and free booze. You get to board sooner and check an extra bag for free, perks like that. On international flights, however, business class means sleeping comfortably. The seats go nearly horizontal. It means you are less likely to get those dangerous blood clots in your legs or merely that you arrive groggy and out of sorts from nearly a day of discomfort and sleep deprivation.
Ethiopian Airlines is the leading African airline, serving the continent for over 70 years. It is a fast-growing international carrier with a young fleet that includes Dreamliners like the one I was on. The Dreamliner is capable of sustaining 20% more cabin pressure than most other planes, giving passengers the altitude equivalent of being at 6000 feet. This means less dehydration, less possibility of altitude sickness symptoms like fatigue and dizziness in flight, and less jet lag afterward. If you’re going to be flying long haul anywhere, you absolutely should find out what your plane will be. A quick google search of the model and the words cabin pressure” will tell you what you’ll be dealing with not just on the flight, but for days afterward. Their Dreamliners are another reason to choose Ethiopian if you’re flying from the US to the African continent in addition to their great safety record and their reach.
On boarding, business class passengers were offered champagne or orange juice. During the flight they fed us well, serving up from a trolley of offereings. And they served us so often that I ended up not even having the breakfast, I was still so full from the last meal. One meal was traditional Ethiopian fare served on theiir injera bread. Dessert included not only a choice of sweets but a serving of cheeses and fresh fruit that was a meal in itself.
The perks aren’t so bad when you remember how tiring the trip is. The buses that ferry folks between the terminal and the plane have one dedicated exclusively to business class. Security checks have separate lines. You are the first on, first off the plane. When deplaning, the attendants made the economy passengers all wait until everyone had left business class, something I was unaware of. There I was dawdling, figuring to take my time – it was an 18-hour+ flight after all – because I lose things when I hurry. I looked up and saw everybody watching me gather my belongings, got flustered, rushed out in embarassment. Sure enough, I left my brand new travel pillow behind on the plane. Next leg, I was ready to go as soon as we pulled up to the gate.
I mentioned a couple of pleasant surprises. The upgrade was the obvious one. But the other surprise was more subtle and just as powerful. By flying Ethiopian, it was as if my trip to Africa started at the departure gate. It wasn’t just the variety of people who, waiting to board near midnight, were not in the liveliest mood. But even with the late hour, there was a general air of friendliness. It wasn’t the manufactured friendliness of a store greeter at the mall, but of people who are open to others. The staff, I think if they had to choose between efficiency and kindness, would choose kindness.
Going to the Seychelles, I had a four-hour layover in the airline’s hub in Addis Ababa. The airpoirt is undergoing some renovations, so parts of it resemble the most modern of terminals and other older parts reminded me more of a marketplace than a terminal. I went straight to the lounge and rested. You should most definitely do the same because Addis Ababa is at nearly 8000 feet. (Denver, by comparison is at about 5300 feet.)
One thing that I hope they never modernize in Addis is the way they announce the departing flights. Instead of an incomprehensible loudspeaker system, someone walked through the lounge calling out the departing flights. I don’t know why I found it so lovely to have a live person doing it. Maybe it was knowing that even if I hadn’t understood, I could ask her to repeat it rather than worry and wonder in a strange land with flight exhaustion and altitude sickness draining me if it was time to go.
After the layover, the connecting flight to the Seychelles Islands took another 3-4 hours. The ariport was open to the ouside world as most island airports are. Live music was playing somewhere. Suddenly, I felt delivered to paradise.
I had expected to love the Seychelles Islands all along, but I had been imagining the trip to get there with dread. Instead, I enjoyed a pleasant and comfortable trip, arriving a bit weary but not worn out and frazzled.
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All photographs by Susan diRende
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