Lambasted for maintaining its flights to China at the height of the pandemic, Ethiopian Airlines has stood its ground and currently operates flights to and from Europe, the new epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. By Rémy Darras







Tewolde Gebremariam, Chief Executive Officer of Ethiopian Airlines, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Saturday, March 23, 2019. . (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

Lambasted for maintaining its flights to China at the height of the pandemic, Ethiopian Airlines has stood its ground and currently operates flights to and from Europe, the new epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. This makes the carrier one of the last companies still operating intercontinental flights. 

After being loaded onto a cargo plane on the evening of 21 March in Guangzhou, 108 tonnes of medical supplies donated by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma arrived at Addis Ababa airport on Sunday, 22 March via an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 777 Freighter.

The boss of e-commerce site Alibaba pledged on 17 March via his foundation to send every African country 100,000 masks, 20,000 test kits and 1,000 medical protective suits.

And it is thanks to Ethiopian Airlines –  which boasts the top network on the continent – that these supplies began to be redistributed on Monday.

After inking an agreement in November 2019 with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Alibaba is looking to transform Addis Ababa into an African global e-commerce hub, particularly for Ethiopian coffee, as the conglomerate has already done with Kigali.

Pan-Africanism of the skies

This is a powerful symbol for a company that has in recent years been the flag bearer of a certain pan-Africanism of the skies, arousing suspicions of hegemony from a number of critics.

However, on 20 March, Ethiopian Airlines suspended 30 international routes, including Angola, Cameroon, Chad, Congo, DR Congo, Madagascar and Nigeria, some of which remain so indefinitely.

Addis Ababa’s giant of the skies could no longer operate passenger flights to some 20 airports due to bans on entry, border closures, passenger quarantines and decreased traffic.

It was forced to slash its operations by 25%, grounding around 20 jumbo jets according to Group CEO Tewolde GebreMariam, who on 20 March said that the company had lost $190m in revenue since February.

Although the country’s official count of coronavirus cases stands at 12 (at time of publication) and all passengers arriving on its territory must submit to a 14-day quarantine, Ethiopia’s flagship carrier has not suspended its flights to China, where the epidemic originated.

Despite Gulf State carriers and Turkish Airlines, which are also used by African travellers to reach China, having suspended their Chinese routes, the Addis Ababa giant remains the last major international carrier to touch down on Chinese soil.

The only other major carriers that continue to fly to mainland China are Japan Airlines, Korean Air and Russia’s Aeroflot, but their schedules have been significantly reduced.

The pandemic has not kept Chinese airliners from maintaining their routes to cities like San Francisco, Melbourne and Frankfurt. British Airways and Turkish Airlines continue to fly to Hong Kong.

Daily flights to China

This week Ethiopian Airlines will operate a daily flight to Beijing and Shanghai, two flights a day to Guangzhou, a city supplying African importers (Guangzhou and Hong Kong flights in particular have substantial cargo capacity, most of which are Nigerian and Kenyan, which go there to stock up on clothing and electronics), and three flights a week to Chengdu, a city producing machine tools for Africa and boasting a university which hosts a number of African students.

In addition, the carrier operates cargo flights to Liège, Belgium every day for DHL which then goes on to Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

In early February, the company’s decision to maintain its flights to China sparked a controversy against a backdrop of anti-Chinese sentiment expressed by some in the West and Africa.  Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta himself urged his big neighbour to suspend its operations to avoid bringing already vulnerable health systems to their knees.

 ‘Chinese brothers and sisters’

Falling into line with the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO), headed by Ethiopian-born Tedros Ghebreyesus, which called on the international community to refrain from cutting off trade and to demonstrate its solidarity with its “Chinese brothers and sisters,” Ethiopian Airlines defied the shower of criticism, which has since been quelled.

One argument is increasingly making a case for Ethiopian Airlines’ decision: a month and a half later, the situation has changed. The epicentre of the virus has shifted to Europe, whereas China has managed to contain the outbreak.

The same policy has prevailed for Europe as for China.