Cargo proved a lifeline for Ethiopian Airlines during the pandemic, but with passenger demand returning, the carrier is reconverting its fleet of converted freighters back to passenger flights.
During the depths of the pandemic, Ethiopian converted four Boeing 777-200s into freighters — known since the pandemic began as “preighters” — to fly personal protective equipment, and later, vaccines between China and Africa and onto Brazil. These preighters joined the carrier’s 10 777-200Fs and three Boeing 737-800Fs. But with passenger demand returning, Ethiopian has re-converted three of the planes back to passenger operations, with the fourth to follow in the next few weeks, said Nigusu Worku, Ethiopian’s regional director for North America.
Ethiopian is not alone in returning preighters back to passenger operations. Iberia last month returned its preighters back to their original fittings.
Passenger traffic is back to about 65 percent of 2019 levels and, based on advance bookings, Ethiopian expects traffic to be about 80 percent of 2019 levels by the end of the year. Business travel and tourism has all but dried up, but visiting friends and relatives — particularly by the African diaspora in North America and Europe — has remained strong. About 65 percent of the carrier’s traffic connects over Addis Ababa to other points in subsaharan Africa, with the Ethiopian capital being the final destination for the balance, Worku said.
Demand within Africa remained strong throughout the pandemic. Although rates of vaccination in most African countries remain low, the pandemic didn’t bring life on the continent to a halt, and its spread was less severe than in other regions of the world, Worku said. “Considering the poor infrastructure, the continent’s socio-economic levels, and its hospital facilities, the pandemic could have been worse and wasn’t as affected as Europe and North America.”
According to World Health Organization (WHO) data from August 18, there have been 6 million cases reported in Africa since the pandemic began, and 129,000 deaths, out of a population of more than 1 billion. About 2 percent of the continent’s population has been vaccinated. By contrast, the U.S., with a population of about 300 million, has reported more than 600,000 deaths.
When the pandemic first began, Ethiopian reduced frequencies to most of its destinations, halting flights only to those countries that had banned air travel. But now, most of the network’s pre-pandemic frequencies have been restored, Worku said. Charter and repatriation flights have all but stopped, and the carrier is focused on bringing its pre-pandemic capacity back by year’s end.
The carrier has taken delivery of nine aircraft since the beginning of the pandemic, bringing its total to 130 aircraft. Its fleet plans remain unchanged, with eight Airbus A350-900s, two Boeing 787-9s, one 737F, 27 737-8s, and three Q400s on order.
The carrier is keeping its Max orders but has not flown the type since the fatal accident of an Ethiopian 737-8 in March 2019, which led to the worldwide grounding of the aircraft. Worku said Ethiopian’s four remaining Maxes will remain grounded for the foreseeable future. “Our CEO made clear we will be the last airline to operate the Max.”