Ethiopian Airlines begins first Atlanta flights to and from Addis Ababa

Credit: Natrice Miller /

Credit: Natrice Miller /

Ethiopian Airlines launched its first flights in Atlanta on Wednesday, with the inaugural arrival carrying Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens on his return from a trade mission to the African nation.

A large crowd of officials and members of the Ethiopian community in metro Atlanta gathered in the Maynard H. Jackson Jr. International Terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to greet the first flight, which culminated with a water cannon salute on the tarmac. A celebration that filled the arrivals level of the terminal included remarks by officials from Ethiopia and Atlanta, dancing, music and an Ethiopian coffee ceremony.

Credit: Natrice Miller /

Credit: Natrice Miller /

The airline operates the new route four times a week on Boeing 787-9s between Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Ababa and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

“It’s amazing. This is a big opportunity,” said Tucker resident Takele Debele, a former chair of the Ethiopian Community Association in Atlanta. Many in Atlanta traveling to Addis Ababa formerly had to connect in Washington, D.C., so the direct flights from Hartsfield-Jackson are “very helpful,” he said.

The flights to Addis Ababa are nonstop, taking roughly 14 hours, while the flights to Atlanta must refuel in Dublin, Ireland, because the high altitude of the Addis Ababa airport requires a lower takeoff weight with less fuel. That makes for a nearly 18-hour journey.

Atlanta is the fifth city Ethiopian Airlines serves in the U.S., along with New York, Chicago, Newark and Washington, D.C.

“This is a long time coming,” said Elise Durham, an assistant general manager at Hartsfield-Jackson. The effort to attract Ethiopian Airlines started with a conversation eight years ago at a Routes aviation conference, she said. “This new service with Africa’s largest airline strategically enhances connectivity for those traveling to and through Atlanta and the rest of Africa and parts of Asia.”

Dickens called the new route one that goes “from the A to the AA, the A-town to the double-A.”

During his six-day trip to Ethiopia with other city and airport officials, Dickens said “we toured many, many places. We saw their palaces, their parks, their museums,” met with ambassadors and toured Ethiopian Airlines’ training and cargo facilities.

“I can’t tell you how much it meant to go to Ethiopia and have all of them call us family, too. They say I look like one of them,” Dickens said.

The mayor said Atlanta and Addis Ababa plan an exchange program for Atlanta youth to see what Addis Ababa is like, and vice versa. “Americans don’t always have the best idea of what Africa looks like,” Dickens said. “When you get there, it’s big buildings, it’s great parks, it’s great infrastructure.”

Ethiopian Airlines hopes to eventually increase to a daily flight schedule between Addis Ababa and Atlanta, and potentially add cargo flights, according to the company’s executives.

Ethiopian Airlines CEO Mesfin Tasew said he also plans to meet with Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines on Thursday, and would like to pursue a partnership with Delta, such as a code-share marketing agreement. Delta has flights to Lagos, Nigeria; Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa from Atlanta.

On Wednesday, the first flights on the 315-seat aircraft were not completely full — though they carried more than 200 passengers each way, according to Samson Arega Bekele, regional director at Ethiopian Airlines.

Getenet Fereje, who lives in Lilburn and took the first Ethiopian Airlines flight from Atlanta, said “It’s going to be a relief having a nonstop flight.” He moved from Ethiopia to the U.S. in 1996 and hasn’t been back since 2003. “It’s been a while since I’ve been back home,” Fereje said.

Credit: Natrice Miller /

Credit: Natrice Miller /

Hartsfield-Jackson is relaunching an incentive program to attract new international routes, focusing on Africa, South Asia and South America, with a budget of up to $1.2 million a year. The Atlanta City Council voted this month to approve the program.

The airport plans to grandfather into the incentive program airlines that have announced new routes this year, including Ethiopian Airlines, said Rebecca Francosky, director of air service development at Hartsfield-Jackson. Hartsfield-Jackson general manager Balram Bheodari said the Ethiopian Airlines route is expected to have an economic impact of an estimated $70 million annually.