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The e-mails arrive about once a week, mingling bravado with regret. “We are in it together,” reads the subject line of one. “In hopes for serving you in better days,” says another.

“We are living in very difficult times and there are many unknowns,” an April 19 message says. “What we do know is we have been around for 74 years since we made our maiden flight to Cairo on April 8, 1946. The strength of our culture and the loyalty of our customers are what have sustained us through tough times.”

Only three months ago, Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s biggest and boldest, was bubbling with confidence, planning to add routes and aircraft, and expecting to herd ever more passengers through its expanded yet austere international hub in Addis Ababa. Fast forward into the coronavirus pandemic and that business plan is up in the air, replaced by Plan B – fly stuff.

Replacing seats with stuff

Ethiopian has removed seats from the passenger cabins of four Boeing 777-300 aircraft, three Boeing 737-800s and two Boeing 767-300s to make way for more cargo.

“Ethiopian has 12 freighter aircraft operating in full capacity,” the airline said in an e-mail. “However, as the need for cargo shipment increases for timely delivery of medical supplies in the wake of the pandemic, additional cargo capacity has become essential.”

And essential to the airline’s revenue. “Normally cargo would make 15 percent of our revenue, but at this time when the passengers revenue is almost gone we are only surviving on cargo,” CEO Tewolde Gebremariam told Reuters on May 15.

The airline says it has transported test kits and other medical supplies donated by Alibaba e-commerce magnate Jack Ma from Guangzhou, China, to Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Tanzania and other African countries. An Ethiopian Airlines charter flight for the World Health Organization and World Food Program carried 1 million face masks, along with gloves, goggles, ventilators and other supplies, according to the United Nations.

In mid-April, with backing from the Ethiopian Government, the World Food Program set up a humanitarian air hub at Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport staffed with logistics specialists to provide a 24-hour air bridge for supplies. The hub supplements a similar operation in Dubai, home of Emirates. The first flight to Addis on April 13 from the United Arab Emirates carried aprons, face shields, gloves, goggles, masks and thermometers procured by the World Health Organization for distribution to 32 African nations.

“Despite the grim situation the world is grappling with, we feel heartened by the small contribution we are making to curb further loss of lives by carrying critical medical supplies where they are needed the most,” Ethiopian’s CEO Tewolde says.

The unprecedented drop in passenger flights has constricted global air cargo capacity, because in normal times as much as half of cargo volume flies in the bellies of passenger planes.

“Commercial flights are grounded and medical cargo is stuck,” WFP Executive Director David Beasley said in April as the coronavirus spread everywhere and Covid-19 cases and deaths soared. “We can stop this virus in its tracks, but we’ve got to work together.” 

Under a scenario of three months of severe travel restrictions, followed by a gradual easing up, the International Air Transport Association predicts African air traffic will drop 51 percent compared with 2019. Ethiopia alone will see 2.5 million fewer passengers, a possible $1.9 billion hit to the Ethiopian economy.

Bole hub in busier days

Worldwide, 4.5 million flights have vaporized through June 30, contributing to an estimated $314 billion revenue loss for the global industry this year, according to the IATA. A study issued May 13 by IATA’s chief economist predicts that global air travel demand won’t recover to 2019 levels until 2023.

Ethiopian is still flying to several international destinations. A spot check on flightstats.com showed flights to or from Sao Paulo, Brussels, Beirut, Hong Kong, Paris, Seoul, Shanghai, Dublin, Kinshasa and Entebbe, Uganda operating on May 16. However, passengers arriving in many destinations including Ethiopia (transit passengers excepted) are subject to 14 days of quarantine at the passenger’s expense.

Starting May 10, Ethiopian required all passengers to wear face masks, apart from infants, small children and individuals unable to remove a mask without help. The airline’s web site touts the meticulous surface cleaning of each aircraft and the advanced filters for cabin air.

In a sign that Ethiopian is buckling down for a long pandemic disruption, the airline advised its customers on May 12 that anyone holding a ticket with a travel date up to June 30, 2020 could change tickets at any time on open status until Dec. 31, 2021.

While the coronavirus disrupts Ethiopia’s aviation business, it has also scrambled the country’s political future as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the Nobel Peace laureate, tries to lock in his reform agenda. The planned August elections – intended to be a competitive democratic milestone in the opening up of rights and accountability – were cancelled, with no firm re-do date. Meantime, the five-year mandate of the parliament ends in October.

From political crises to famines to economic crashes, Ethiopian Air has flown onward, a strong streak of resilience as its hallmark. The prospective airline coped with tragedy even before its first flight took off.

The TWA executive en route to Addis Ababa in 1945 to close a deal to manage the startup died when his plane smashed into an uncharted mountain peak in northern Ethiopia, as the Emperor Haile Selassie’s longtime American lawyer and advisor John Spencer recounts in his memoir.

Spencer had the idea of starting an Ethiopian airline with American help and reached out to TWA, which had secured a postwar route from Cairo to New Delhi.

Back in the day: the DC-3

Ethiopian’s first planes were former American military C-47s (a version of the workhorse civilian DC-3) and its first pilots released from the U.S. Army Air Force in Cairo with the names Tex, Green and Moon among them. TWA management over time handed off to Ethiopian executives, pilots and mechanics.

A year ago, the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX jet, killing all aboard just minutes after takeoff from Addis, jolted the airline – and Boeing as authorities grounded the aircraft worldwide. Another e-mail from Ethiopian sums up the current dilemma, and grit.

“We have been inspired,” says the airline, “by the response that we are receiving from different parts of the world every day on our unreserved effort to serve the world during this extremely challenging situation.”

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