Serious shortcomings: A review of Ethiopian Airlines in economy on the 787-8 from Newark to Lome and back

Feb 1, 2020

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TPG Rating

56 100

Pros

Ample and appealing meals, relatively comfortable seats, amenity kit, large blanket

Cons

No AC power outlets, no Wi-Fi, messy bathrooms, chaotic ground experience, inconsistent seats and MIA flight attendants who consistently ignored call buttons

2/5 Ground Experience
19/30 Cabin + Seat
21/40 Amenities + IFE
12/15 Food + Beverage
2/10 Service

The first long-haul flight my husband JT and I took when we gave up our apartment in Austin and became digital nomads was on Ethiopian Airlines. It should have been a memorable flight, and it was, but for the wrong reasons.

We flew from Newark to Addis Ababa via Lome, and it was easily the worst flight we’d taken at the time. It still is among the worst, even after we’ve flown many hundreds of thousands of miles since then. JT even wrote a post titled “20 reasons I wouldn’t fly Ethiopian Airlines again” after the flight.

So, when editors assigned flight reviews to five staff members traveling to represent TPG at a PeaceJam conference in Liberia, I wasn’t excited to learn I’d be reviewing Ethiopian Airlines on the way there — and on that same route too, between Newark (EWR) and Lome (LFW). I’d also be on the same flight on the return to the U.S., so I could review it both ways. Ethiopian has so-called fifth-freedom rights to carry passengers between the U.S. and the capital of the West African nation of Togo, even though it’s based in neither country.

In This Post

Booking

TPG Travel Analyst Zach Griff booked my round-trip from Newark to Monrovia, Liberia, and back, via Lome. The booking was made through American Express Travel for $1,051 (about £802).

After booking, I tried to enter my Asiana Airlines loyalty number on Ethiopian’s website — since I have Star Alliance Gold status through Asiana, and Ethiopian is a Star Alliance member — but repeatedly got an error. I was eventually able to enter my number using Ethiopian’s app. Doing so ended up being very useful; Ethiopian blocked the seat next to me on both trans-Atlantic flights, as a courtesy for my elite status.

If you’re looking to use points, there are better ways to get to Monrovia than the circuitous route I took via Lome and Accra. For example, multiple PeaceJam staff used 40,000 United miles plus $28 (about £21) to book economy saver award tickets through United, for travel on United and Brussels Airlines. The PeaceJam staff I spoke to recommended this routing, which can also be booked in business class for 80,000 United miles plus $28 (about £21) if you’re able to find business saver availability.

Ground Experience

TPG Rating

2/5
ET-AOV

Tail

5yr

Age

21:44

Departure

9h 12m

Duration

I was able to check-in online for my outbound and inbound flights, but was told after checking in that I’d need to obtain my boarding pass at the airport. There weren’t check-in kiosks in Newark or in Monrovia, and I didn’t have time to clear immigration and visit the check-in area in Lome.

(Note that the airplane’s tail number, departure time and flight duration in the table above refer to the Newark – Lome flight. On the way back, the 10 hour, 41 minute flight was operated by another 787, also five years old.)

Ground experience in Newark

The economy check-in line was about 15 minutes long in Newark. The security line then took about 30 minutes because Ethiopian Airlines doesn’t participate in TSA PreCheck.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

The Art & Lounge participates in Priority Pass, but is located before security at EWR Terminal B. Once past security in the section of Terminal B that Ethiopian uses, there isn’t much to see or do. There is a sit-down restaurant and a quick service shop, as well as some power outlets near the restroom.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)
The boarding queues were roped off to prevent passengers from lining up before boarding began.

I didn’t have to wait long after clearing security though, as boarding began abruptly about 20 minutes ahead of schedule. Ethiopian attempted to use a color-coded boarding process, but didn’t clearly indicate to passengers their group. So, passengers boarded at will and ground staff didn’t stop them from doing so.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Ground experience in Lome

For my flight to Newark, I checked my luggage with Ethiopian’s partner ASKY Airlines in Monrovia.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)
Check-in for ASKY in Monrovia

I received handwritten baggage tags and boarding card for my ASKY flight and was told to pick up a boarding pass for my Ethiopian flight once I got to Lome.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Once in Lome, I arrived at a packed transfer desk. With just 34 minutes until the scheduled departure of my Ethiopian flight, I heard an airport worker yelling “Newark!” I got out of the line and headed toward the man, who demanded to see my boarding pass. I explained I didn’t have one, so he waved me through. Security was lax for passengers who claimed they were going to Newark; we were allowed to completely bypass the primary security check.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)
The transfer desk in Lome

I then found a long line for a secondary security check. This screening required a baggage X-ray scan, backscatter X-ray scan for each passenger and a pat-down, so the process was slow. Before reaching the gate, there was a passport and boarding pass check with additional questioning for select passengers, but I was allowed to bypass this step since I still didn’t have a boarding pass.

Just 11 minutes before departure, I finally reached the gate. The gate agents initially looked confused when I asked for a boarding pass, but then remembered they had a stack of printed boarding passes for connecting passengers. When I finally boarded the aircraft seven minutes before scheduled departure, most passengers were already on board.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Cabin and Seat

TPG Rating

19/30
3-3-3

Configuration

17.25

Width

32.5

Pitch

16.75in X 9.5in

Tray

6

Lavs

Economy class on Ethiopian’s 787-8s is arranged in two large cabins, each with 3-3-3 seating. The airline also flies the larger 787-9.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

My seat on the flight to Lome was 17.25 inches wide while my seat on the flight to Newark was 17 inches wide. Based on my measurement of multiple seats, seats range in width from 17 inches to 17.5 inches.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

The seat pitch also varies, ranging from 30 inches of legroom to 32.5 for the seats I measured.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

The seat recline also varies. My seat on the flight to Newark had a 6.5 inch recline, although it wouldn’t stay reclined on its own. This seemingly wasn’t the intended design though, as most nearby seats were able to remain reclined on their own.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

The fabric seats were relatively comfortable, although I could feel when the passenger behind me put items in the seat pocket.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

There aren’t any obstructions under the seats that restrict legroom or storage space. As is true for most economy products, there’s no leg rest or foot rest.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

The headrest is adjustable, and has bendable wings on each side to support your head and neck while sleeping.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Some seats have an extra storage net attached to the main storage  pocket. My seat on my flight to Lome had this net, but most seats don’t have this feature.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

There is a fold-down cup holder attached to the bottom of each tray table.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

The tray table folds down from each seat back.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

The table is 16.75 inches by 9.5 inches, but it does not extend. Although most tray tables appeared to be flat, the one on my flight to Newark was slanted so much that drinks and food would slide toward me if I wasn’t careful. I was able to work comfortably on my laptop on the tray table as long as the passenger ahead of me didn’t recline.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

There are six bathrooms in the economy cabin: two at the front of the first cabin, two between the economy cabins and two at the rear of the second economy cabin. These bathrooms generally weren’t kept clean or well stocked during the flight.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

On my flight to Lome, the soap disappeared from multiple lavatories mid-flight. And, when I visited a lavatory shortly after the departure meal service on my flight to Newark, the small room already smelled terrible.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

There are large screens at the front of the cabin that normally show the air show during flight. But, they strangely remained dark throughout my entire flight to Newark.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Amenities and IFE

TPG Rating

21/40
9in

Screen

123

Movies

259

TV Shows

No

Live TV

No

Tailcam

Yes

Headphones

There’s an IFE screen that measures 9 inches along its diagonal on each seat back. It’s a touch screen, but on the flight to Newark it responded to presses only about one in four times. The screen can tilt so that you can still see it if the passenger ahead of you reclines.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

There’s a remote on most arm rests that can also control the IFE screen. Unfortunately, the placement of these remotes means your neighbor may unintentionally press buttons. Likewise, it may be impossible to use the remote if you neighbor has their arm on top of your remote.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

The IFE system is organized poorly. This means that regardless of whether you use the touchscreen or the remote, you’ll need to tap though multiple screens before you get to what you want.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

There are 123 movies that are divided into five categories: 20 Blockbuster, 77 Classic, 14 Asian, 10 African and two Arabic.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

259 television programs are listed under the “Movies” heading, but in their own categories: 18 Kids, 38 Comedy, 38 Drama, 23 Discovery, 38 Lifestyle, two Brazilian, 48 Box Sets, eight Indian, 10 European, 10 Short Movies, 16 Marvel Universe, eight Star Wars and two Russian.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Unfortunately, you have to sit through a 2.5 minute ad for Ethiopia and Ethiopian Airlines before each movie or show. Plus, there’s a one minute ad at the end of each movie or show. You can skip the final ad by simply going back to the home page and selecting another show, but you can’t skip or fast forward through the longer ad.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)
An ad for the Addis Ababa airport.

There’s an airshow that you can either loop or customize, as well as games and audio options. There’s no live TV, streaming IFE, tail camera, in-seat ordering or Wi-Fi.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Two-prong earbuds are provided, but they produced dull sound and weren’t comfortable. Unfortunately, the two-prong outlet means you’ll only get sound in one ear of your own headphones unless you happen to travel with an adapter.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

There’s no AC power outlet, but there is an USB outlet next to the IFE screen on each seat back. This outlet only provided a limited amount of power though, as my phone said it was charging slowly.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

While the aircraft was taxing for takeoff, a flight attendant provided a plastic-wrapped amenity kit with socks, an eye mask, tooth brush and tooth paste.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

A pillow and blanket should be on each seat at boarding, but the plane wasn’t properly restocked in Lome for my flight to Newark so a flight attendant distributed pillows and blankets to passengers who needed them shortly after take off. The blanket packaging clearly tells passengers they shouldn’t take the blanket when they leave the aircraft.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

The blanket is thin and not particularly soft, but it is large. So, you can double up the blanket before wrapping it around you if you are cold. The pillow consists of a cotton pillow case wrapped in a disposable paper wrapper that is presumably changed between uses.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Food and Beverage

TPG Rating

12/15
2

Comp Meal

Yes

Comp Alcohol

A departure meal and arrival meal were served in both directions. Although this review is generally focused on the daytime flight to Newark, I’ll describe all four meals I received on Ethiopian in this section.

On the flight to Lome, the departure meal was served 80 minutes after departure. Passengers were given a choice of chicken or fish, and I chose chicken. The chicken, which wasn’t breast meat and had some tough parts, was served with green peas and rice. My tray also included a pasta appetizer, cheese and crackers, a roll with butter and a chocolate mousse dessert.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

The arrival meal was served less than one hour before landing. For this meal, which came in the morning local time, there was a choice of an omelet or pancakes. I ordered the pancakes, which were surprisingly tasty due to a cinnamon apple filling. They were accompanied by two rolls as well as a fruit cup and a choice of tea or coffee.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

On the flight to Newark, the departure meal was served 51 minutes after departure. Passengers were given a choice of chicken or beef, so I opted for chicken. It was boneless, flavorful and served with rice. Regardless of whether you ordered chicken or beef, the main entree was served with a chickpea appetizer, cheese and crackers, a roll with butter and a cup of fruit.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

The arrival meal was served one hour and a half before landing. Passengers could choose from chicken and beef, so I ordered chicken. The chicken was white meat in a chicken dumpling broth, and was served with mustard-flavored beans, crackers and cheese, a roll and butter and a cranberry granola bar.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

A separate coffee and tea service was done after some, but not all, meals. No liquid milk or creamer was available, so creamer packets were provided instead.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

The following drinks were available on both flights: water, passion fruit juice, orange juice, apple juice, pineapple juice, tomato juice, tea, coffee, Coke, Sprite, Fanta, Indian tonic water, Barton Guestier Cuvée Spéciale red and white wines, Golden Lager Beer and Bavaria beer.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

A self-serve drink area with sodas, water and juices was set up in the galley at the rear of the aircraft. There was also a basket of vegan bread snacks and a lone orange up for grabs in the galley.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Service

TPG Rating

2/10

The flight attendants on this flight were not pleasant, generally ignored passengers and were completely absent for part of the flight.

I have modest expectations when it comes to service in economy, but the flight attendants on both of my Ethiopian flights did the bare minimum with no personality or friendliness. They even seemed to treat some passengers with contempt. Water was served in the cabin to passengers who were awake just once during my flight to Newark.

I noticed that call buttons weren’t answered at all, and instead were mass-reset every hour or so on both of my flights. When I visited the galley mid-flight to Newark, there were no flight attendants to be found. I waited around for about 15 minutes, but nobody appeared. If call buttons were answered, this wouldn’t be as troubling, but it’s unclear what passengers should do if they needed urgent assistance.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)
The galley and cabin didn’t have any flight attendants for at least 15 minutes during my flight to Newark.

Overall Impression

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

These flights were better than my bad experience from 2017, but Ethiopian Airlines still has many areas in which it could improve. On the positive side, the food was filling and the seats were comfortable enough for sleeping, relaxing or even working if the passenger ahead did’t recline. The IFE didn’t contain much that I was excited to watch, but there was definitely enough to keep me busy. However, the lack of AC power outlets and Wi-Fi, dirty bathrooms and poor service are all reasons I’d avoid flying Ethiopian Airlines coach class again.

All photos by the author.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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