My son and I purchased four tickets from Ethiopian Airlines, two each from Addis Ababa to Kilimanjaro and two from Nairobi back to Addis. We paid full price for those tickets; the airline had our money 3 months ahead of time, and we reconfirmed our flights a few days before starting on our trip.
When we arrived in Addis from Europe, we had a more than 4-hour layover. We had our luggage re-ticketed to Kilimanjaro, got our boarding passes, and proceeded to the gate area. We were some of the very first people there. We presented our boarding passes and the employee accepted them and told us to sit down, that our names would be called. After a while of waiting, I realized that there were two different methods used to treat passengers. Either part of the boarding pass was returned to the passenger or the whole thing was retained by the Ethiopian gate agent. When actual boarding started, only the passengers who had received a portion of their boarding pass were allowed to proceed. Meanwhile, the people who had not been called in 2 hours became quite agitated, my party amongst them. The agent kept saying: “Sit down. Trust me. I will call your name. Don’t worry! See all these boarding passes?” pointing to a stack of about 30, “You will be called. You are on standby, but you will be called.” The fact that we were on standby was already an aggravating slap in the face because we had not bought standby tickets and had reconfirmed our flight twice.
While still being told to wait, and assured that we would be called, the airplane had, in fact, already departed, leaving us and about 15 other passengers behind, all of them plenty upset. We were told not to worry, that there would be another plane the next day.
I did got boarding passes for the following day. We were then loaded into a bus and driven to some “hotel” nearby. This turned out to be a hotel with one communal bathroom, no toilet paper, and a broken door lock for both the toilet and the room we were assigned. When I looked at the sheets of the beds, there were black bugs walking between the sheets.
Our second attempt to get to Kilimanjaro with Ethiopian Airlines was even worse. We entered the airport confident that this time there would be no problem, since we had already been issued boarding passes with seat numbers.
Initially, this confidence seemed justified. Again, we were there very early, showed our boarding passes, had the larger part taken off by the gate agent, and were handed the remaining part. So far, so good. However, 5 minutes later, the gate agent approached us, called our name, and claimed he needed to check something on our boarding passes. We naively handed them to him. He walked away with them and then wouldn’t give them back to us. “Sit down. I’ll call your name. Trust me,” was the familiar refrain. I did not move from the agent’s side, demanded an explanation, and kept asking for our passes. He ignored me completely. My son tried several times. No success. When I insisted on being given an explanation, the agent said he had his own reasons his own benefit. The only sense I could make out of this answer was that, like the guy the night before, he was waiting to be given a bribe.
Meanwhile, a number of people were sitting there, having been told, "Don’t worry. We’ll call your name, just wait" – just as we had been the night before. In particular, the American lady next to me had been given this brush-off. She never made it onto the flight.
A second gate agent showed up, so my son tried his luck with him. This second agent, after hearing the story, consulted with the first agent and then told my son that his boarding pass was down stairs. My son said, “You are wrong. It is right here,” and snatched it off the desk. The one who had taken it from us, Mr. Gatamay Zametkan, grabbed the passes, and my son wouldn’t let go. The agent threatened to call security, and my son urged him to do so. Of course, security was not called. In the pulling contest, we ended up with one boarding pass, the agent with the other. Now he really wouldn’t let go of the second pass.
Once outside the gate, I was able to find an employee to ask for a supervisor. I showed her my one boarding pass. At first she couldn’t understand what I was talking about since I was in possession of a valid pass. It took several repetitions until she understood that even though we had had those valid passes, Mr. Gatamay Zametkan had taken them away from us and had not been willing during the last 2 hours to return them to us. She assured me that she would talk to him on the phone, and she did. She then sent me back in and said that everything would be okay. Back on the inside, Mr. Gatamay Zametkan still would not surrender our second pass. I figured that at this point his ego just had to show me who was in charge. Finally, after an additional 20 minutes, he surrendered. The American lady waiting next to us never made it, however.
Ethiopian Airlines has several separate problems:
1. The airline engages in completely sleazy, unethical business practices. It obviously oversells the seats, not just by a few, but by about 20 seats per flight.
2. They have no system in place for offering incentives for passengers to voluntarily give up their seats.
3. They keep lying to their customers, not divulging the sad truth that those customers will most likely be left behind, irrespective of the fact that the customer has paid the airline for transportation on a certain day.
4. There is no transparent system in place to have a numbered waiting list so that some degree of fairness is preserved.
5. Because the system is so arbitrary, it makes it easy for corruption, ie: “give me extra money and you’ll be one of the lucky ones.” We saw that corruption operative on both days.
Since we had so many hours to observe the system in operation, I noticed the following: when picking customers to give seats to, they prefer customers who had paid the maximum price, for the last destination. If nobody bound for Kilimanjaro is allowed on the plane, everybody goes all the way to Dar-es-Salam, which is a more expensive ticket, and the plane no longer even has to land in Kilimanjaro. The other people who don’t have problems getting onto the local flights are people who elected to buy a transatlantic ticket or one across the Indian Ocean.
Meanwhile, in the States, Ethiopian Airlines notified my other son that they had decided to cancel our return flights, again supposedly because we had not reconfirmed.
We had indeed reconfirmed, luckily by email. There was a copy of that email. After talking to the airline for 2 hours, Ethiopian Airlines graciously agreed to reinstate our flights.
When we got back to Addis, we spent 3 days at the Sheraton. There we met a group of Americans whose flight to Kilimanjaro on Ethiopian Airlines had just been cancelled. Only four people were able to fly (those with transatlantic tickets on Ethiopian Airlines). The others had to wait until the following day. The following day they were told to wait 2 more days. We left before we heard the final outcome.
I came away with the following lesson: whatever you do, do not buy a ticket on Ethiopian Airlines! If you do, you’ll be really sorry.