ETI, Ethiopia’s only airline, brings the country to life

Written by By With Achish Kapadia, CNN

When you listen to travel advisor Aziz LeGarai, you’re invited into a quiet, almost hidden world, one where it’s not just political and economic hardship but also the absence of many things that make life a little simpler and cushier.

This includes food, a normal daily routine, and much-needed physical activity.

“The problem for me is that I can’t find those things everywhere,” he says. “It’s very hard to cope with that lack of time because I like to see things.”

LeGarai is chair of MTN-Ethiopia, an airline whose sole aircraft is the Boeing 737 NG (New Generation).

However, he couldn’t get to travel all the way from the west coast of the country to Addis Ababa in Addis Ababa to run a passenger service.

One of Ethiopia’s largest challenges is certainly transportation. Rural areas of the country, especially in the east, have no decent road networks.

ETI has planes available, but it would be a long, arduous journey to reach the main urban centers of the country. By contrast, planes land in Addis Ababa and take off again, turning a mile or so away, much like a taxi.

“Even if you’re having dinner in a restaurant, you have to wait for another plane to come in from Addis Ababa,” explains LeGarai.

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There’s also a fundamental difference in socio-economic status of all these services. Those who can afford to fly are more likely to be overseas.

“From the plane, you get much more experience, which is good for me, so I’m able to see a more rural area.”

He compares his experience to that of being a tourist, spending his days in a comfortable environment.

“When I go to a very busy place like Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, it’s very hard. I have to drive and my family is sick because it’s like leaving home and being away, which is just too far.

“When I’m flying, it gives me the travel experience. It’s nicer.”

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Death by selfie

Vietnam’s Bejing’s notorious Dead Sea is well-known as one of the hottest spots for death-by-selfie, but it is also an urban phenomenon that seems to have spread across the continent.

In Ethiopia, there are no known reports of such ‘Kumburma,’ however, even if the city of Addis Ababa is situated at the city’s highest point, and a traveler is prone to assume the view of the Nile below is the same, no matter the weather.

LeGarai often keeps one foot in the city and one in the country. His commentary on Ethiopian life is often filled with anecdotal stories of human endeavor. In typical Ethiopia style, he describes how a farmer’s friend wanted to look for a hitchhiker but ended up losing his footing, and broke a leg.

View of the Nile River Delta, Bira, Wollo Region from the pilot’s seat

A lot of travel in Africa today is by motorbike, and by the time the rider is finished his round, passengers find themselves in a taxi in another city, somewhere else in Africa.

LeGarai has never had that problem. He is based in Addis Ababa because he is able to see places that are otherwise just not accessible to normal Ethiopians.

“The biggest dream of MTN is to have more passengers and employees doing business on the ground and in the air, not just sending money for someone,” he says.

The people of Ethiopia have not been immune to disaster, the most recent one a torrential rains that caused flooding in many cities and towns in the country. At least 600 people were killed, and travel routes were cut off.

Any attempt to lay blame on the government for the state of Ethiopian infrastructure is likely to fall on deaf ears, with the government committed to building more roads and dealing with major problems such as poor water supplies and lack of electricity.

It’s a long way off from adding a low-cost airline to an overloaded one like ETI, but there are signs of change. Not only are the cities becoming more accessible, people are starting to visit them on their own terms.

On a visit to the team earlier this year, some were watching at the monitor reading the latest border crossing numbers.

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