Ethiopian Airlines Flt. 501, Washington-Dulles to Addis Ababa, “Cloud Nine” Business Class
Dep. IAD 10:15am Arr. ADD 6:35am +1
Our trip to the Seychelles started out unglamorously early on a Sunday morning. Dulles is not a great airport for those living in downtown Washington, with taxi fares easily hitting $70 plus tip. Originally, I had found us a one-way car rental from a location near our apartment to Dulles for only $22, which was an obviously better choice for the 35 mile trip (public transit would have cost at least $7 each person). We ended up needing a rental car the day before, so we lengthened the reservation and found street parking for the night. Leaving DC at 7am on a Sunday morning meant the drive to Dulles was quick and painless, and we got to the Avis return in about 30 minutes, where a shuttle bus was just arriving, and whisked us off to the terminal – about a five minute drive.
Once we got to the terminal, a little over two hours prior to departure, we saw a huge line at the Ethiopian counter. The business class line had about five passengers on it ahead of us, and only one agent checking in business class passengers. There was an agent theoretically directing traffic from the line, but she mostly seemed overwhelmed. I am not sure why, but each passenger, including business class passengers, was taking forever to check in – perhaps due to baggage issues (each seemed to have at least four pieces), or issues with ticketing.
After 10 minutes with no movement, and a business line continuing to grow, the director finally directed some business class passengers to coach counters. Once we got to the counter, check-in was pretty quick, so it wasn’t an issue of agent efficiency. Our bags were checked through to the Seychelles, and we got boarding passes for both legs. I thought it was funny that our bags were given a “quick connection in Addis” tag, as we were scheduled to have a 2.5 hour connection.
We headed through main security at Dulles, which I hadn’t done in a long time due to PreCheck. Alas, Ethiopian does not participate. There was a separate line for premium cabin passengers, but that just provided a shorter line for ID/boarding pass check, and dumped you into one of the two lines for x-rays, with only one metal detector, despite several large departing flights, including one to Japan. But we made it through and then headed on the underground airport train to Dulles’ B Gates.
Although Ethiopian departs out of an “A” gate at Dulles, it uses the Lufthansa lounge at the “B” gates, which are just a short walk away. I’ve talked about Lufthansa’s Business Lounges before here and here. With three levels of lounges (Business, Senator, and First), Lufthansa’s lounge is about the same level as a domestic lounge, maybe worse. Through the doors at the lounge, we were directed to the basement Business Lounge, which was pretty much what I expected. There were low ceilings, and two seating areas – one that reminded me of an office lunchroom and the other with lounge chairs. It was pretty small, and was already crowded with passengers from our flight and the ANA Tokyo flight. It would definitely be rough in the evening when Europe-bound flights are boarding.
Since we’d left the house pretty early, we hadn’t had breakfast. There were pastries, turkey, yogurt, and cereal, as well as ANA-labeled instant ramen. There were juices and a coffee machine, along with draft beer, and a sign saying other booze was available on request. Of note, there were shower facilities available, which we didn’t need. There were no screens in the lounge showing departures, so we decided to head to the gates a bit early.
About twenty minutes after scheduled departure time, business class passengers were invited to board, and we were greeted on our 777 by a flight attendant dressed in traditional Ethiopian garb. The cabin was laid out in a 2-3-2 configuration, and we had two seats on the side together. The flight has Ethiopian’s newest business class seat, which is also on its 787, and is a angled-flat product. There is a decent seatback in-flight entertainment screen, and USB and regular plugs at the seat – though not a lot of storage, which became a problem later in the flight.
French and English magazines and the Sunday Washington Post were distributed during boarding. For beverages, there was an offer of orange juice, water, or champagne. The champagne was poured in the aisle for each passenger, something I’d never seen with a pre-departure beverage before, and ended up being the standard on each of our four Ethiopian flights.
Next came amenity kits, which I now have three of (for a total of six in our house!). The bright yellow bag was very similar to the Aeroflot bag we got last summer, though lacking the whimsical lining. It had no designer or boutique cosmetics provider involved, but had the basics: socks, eyemask, brush/comb, off-brand lip balm, toothpaste and small toothbrush, earplugs, a pen and a flossing pick. There was cologne and moisturizer in the bathroom, as well as freshening wipes. As a last delivery pre-departure, hot towels were distributed.
Once we hit our cruising altitude, I headed to the lavatory and changed into my Lufthansa First Class pajamas and slippers for the 13 hour flight. Menus were then distributed, and the options surpassed my expectations.
While I waited for the meal service to begin, I figured I would check out the in-flight entertainment system, which was pretty good and had a range of recent Hollywood films, as well as European and African films. I started out watching “The Butler” and catching up on some blogging.
Soon drink service began, served via cart. The Flight Attendant (who was stunning, as was every other flight attendant on the flight) addressed me by name, and I started with just a Diet Coke and water, served along side a dish of kolo, a traditional grain, roasted and lightly salted. I didn’t find it particularly tasty, but it was good to have something different from nuts.
A bit later, dinner service began. It wasn’t particularly elegant, as instead of taking orders, the flight attendants wheeled carts with all of the options down the aisle. Strangely, the courses were oddly not served in the order listed in the menu, but actually a more standard order.
First, the table was set with a “tablecloth,” although the starters were served on a tray with its own white linen placemat and all of the table settings. For a starter, the choices were seared tuna, beef tenderloin, or grilled halloumi cheese. It’s the only course we did differently, and I went with the beef and my boyfriend with the tuna. He said the tuna was a little bland, but the accompanying slaw was good. The beef, on the other hand, was a bit over-peppercorned, and its vegetable accompaniment underseasoned. But a fine starter. There was also a bread basket, which tasted better than it looked. The starter cart was followed by a salad cart, where salad was doled out from large foil tins, with a choice of balsamic vinaigrette or ranch. Again, nothing amazing, but fresh and tasty.
Plates were cleared, and a bit later came the traditional Ethiopian course, a choice of four different stews, served out of foil tins off the cart, along with injera, a traditional Ethiopian spongy bread. Traditionally, Ethiopian food is eaten using fingers and this bread, though we had forks as well. I went with a sampling of all four dishes – chicken, lamb, lentil, and kale– though I knew I’m not a big injera fan. They were tasty, though spicy, but a nice kind of appetizer course. I think it’s a really nice way to bring Ethiopian food into the flight, knowing that many folks would skip the Ethiopian course if it was simply an option of several main courses. Side note, the menu indicates this course is not served on any flights to Addis Ababa, or flights under 3 hours, except Toronto and Washington – Ethiopian’s two North American markets. My thought is that they don’t have facilities to cater Ethiopian food in most other cities. DC has a very large Ethiopian population, though, and my research indicates Toronto does as well.
There was no taking of orders for main courses, and all options were brought down the aisle on a cart. The choices were a chicken stew, pasta, tuna, or braised veal cheeks. The veal sounded the most appetizing to us, and it was indeed pretty good, though a bit fatty (even for a veal cheek). It came with sides of vegetables and potatoes. Not haute cuisine, but perfectly fine.
Finally, dessert included a choice of fruit and cheese, cheesecake, or mocha mousse, again served off the cart. We both had the mocha mousse, which was good, and lighter than the cheesecake – needed in a fifth course. The dessert cart was followed by coffee, tea, and ports, and the decaf coffee was actually quite good (not totally surprising as Ethiopian touts the country’s coffee heritage in its menu). We ended up comparing all other coffee for the next two weeks with Ethiopian Airlines’ coffee.
Throughout meal service, the cabin crew was perfect, refilling drinks without prompting, clearing dishes, and asking if there was anything else we needed. After finishing my decaf and “The Butler” (a Forrest Gump-ization of civil rights in America in a cloying way, if you’re curious), I brushed my teeth and got ready for bed. Full-size water bottles were distributed in the meantime. It was only 2pm US East Coast time (about 3.5 hours into flight), and 11pm in the Seychelles, but between the fact I’d had only about four hours sleep and the decent red wine I had with dinner, it was time to check out the angled-flat seat.
Despite the hour, I slept for most of the rest of the flight, only waking up 2 or 3 times– once due to a pocket of turbulence. I did find myself “slipping down” a bit as a consequence of having my body at a 160 degree angle, but it was still better than the old angle-flat business class seats on Lufthansa.
I woke up just as the breakfast carts were coming down the aisle. (My boyfriend apparently did take advantage of the “snack” service mid-flight, and had an okay grilled vegetable sandwich.) I reached over to the center console for my glasses and put them on, only to be told by my boyfriend about 5 minutes later that I was wearing his glasses. I then realize that my computer power charger, glasses, and camera had fallen under the seat, from the small poorly designed storage compartment next to the seat. But don’t worry, my boyfriend’s blackberry and phone had also fallen under his seat, and he had already spoken to the flight attendant while I was sleeping. Apparently this happens all the time, and she said they’d have someone come take the seat apart when we landed. (On a previous flight of mine with a similar seat, another passenger’s passport had fallen under the seat.) I actually was able to reach into the seat and pull out the charger and the camera, but couldn’t find my glasses. The Flight Attendants came with a flashlight to help, but couldn’t see anything. So I spent the next hour and a half trying to read with a magazine about 4 inches from my face. Thus, please be forgiving as to the picture quality of breakfast.
There were two breakfast options, poached eggs or cherry blintzes. Although we were only in the third row and 1/3 of the cabin was empty, they only had egg plate left, so we ended up sharing one egg dish and one blintz dish. Both were fine for plane breakfast, and we had a choice of bread or croissant, cereal (granola or Cheerios) or yogurt, along with a fruit plate as accompaniment.
We landed over an hour early, and the flight attendants went to work trying to help us get our stuff from under the seats. They were able to grab my boyfriend’s phone and Blackberry, but to get my glasses required a maintenance man coming and taking the entire seat apart. Whoops. I’ll blame the design flaw and not me. (It could have been worse – I was once on a flight where a passenger’s passport fell under the seat.)
All in all, Ethiopian Business Class was a perfectly pleasant way of flying to Africa from DC. The soft product wasn’t that different from European or American airlines in business class (though presentation was lacking), and the seat itself wasn’t that bad. To those who have qualms about the flight, I would say they’re pretty misplaced – at least on the transatlantic journey. As discussed in later posts, though, the ground experience in Addis Ababa and connecting shorter flights are definitely more “African” than many flyers might be used to. If anyone’s thinking of booking Ethiopian flights using US Airways miles before US leaves Star Alliance (or theoretically United miles at their new obscene partner rates), feel free to ask any questions you may have in the comments or by email.