Addis Ababa’s Airport: Lost in Transition

The Ethiopian Airport Enterprise announced last July that a new, larger international airport was to be built in Mojo, about 70km south-east of Addis Ababa. The new structure, expected to be operational by 2017, would take over international flights and the current Bole International Airport would operate national and regional flights. The project, initiated under late PM Meles, was later validated by new PM Hailemariam and should soon be presented to the relevant authorities.

In the meantime, Bole Airport, which was supposed to reach its maximum capacity by 2017, is already overwhelmed by the amount of flights and passengers, having reached its limits in 2010.  With about 150 movements reported a day, and a growing number of scheduled flights for Ethiopia’s national company, Ethiopian Airlines, week-end evenings at Bole Airport have something of a science fiction work of art. Queues of people coming to welcome arriving passengers and queues of people coming to bid farewell to departing ones are adding up to yet more queues of people trying to reach check-in counters.  After which some more security check and queuing is required to access the plane which often seems literally out of one’s reach. As airports around the world come up with ways to diminish check-in time by rationalising procedures, it is advised to come at least 3 hours ahead to Bole Airport on a week-end or holiday evening.

The national company itself is not exempt from malfunctions. Currently one of the top companies (with Kenyan Airways) of the African continent, the state-owned firm counts 54 aircrafts (including 4 prestigious brand-new-but-now-grounded Boeing 787 Dreamliner), and 41 planes on order. Operating on 70 international and 17 domestic destinations, it is also, since 2011, a member of the Star Alliance consortium.

It is therefore surprising that such a blossoming company, which invests in smaller African companies and expends its own destinations and flights frequency, could behave so negligently towards its costumers. The list of blunders and inconveniences seems literally endless. Anecdotes from angry passengers can be found here, here and here. They include 12 hours delays due to technical issues, passengers downgraded from first to economic class for overbooking, others stranded for days while transiting due to overbooking, 30+ passengers overbooked on flights, and so on.

The reaction from the company’s staff on the ground is even more discouraging. Most probably wary of passengers’ reactions, they dare ask you if you think they are the only company to overbook tens of people per flight. Then they disappear, and leave you wondering, really, if this ordeal will ever end.

It further raises the question of whether Addis is ready to assume the position of regional hub that it is currently building itself. Indeed, does no one see how counter-productive it is, when passengers feel relieved to have managed to board their plane and comforted to have left Ethiopia’s international airport. Won’t they have those memories in mind when deciding when to schedule their next trip?

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