When the opportunity came to book a Business Class seat on Ethiopian Airlines from Chicago to Addis Ababa for under $1000, I couldn’t pass it up.
I had been waiting on something like this for years, especially considering I love to fly on international airlines. Take for example my recent flight in business class on Biman Airlines, which was surprisingly good.
Ethiopian Airlines is a quite admirable airline. As Africa’s largest international airline, Ethiopian has a deep and rich history dating back to 1946. They offer a huge fleet of widebody aircraft including Boeing 777s, 787s, and Airbus A350s, with destinations all over the world. It’s truly impressive.
However, though I honestly love Ethiopian Airlines (I’ve flown on them to Djibouti, South Sudan, and Madagascar), my experience flying with Ethiopian in business class internationally was quite mixed. Here’s why.
How I booked my 13 hour Cloud 9 business class ticket on Ethiopian Airlines for less than $1000
First, I’m sure you’re wondering how it’s possible to book a 13-hour Ethiopian Airlines flight from Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to Addis Ababa Bole International (ADD) in business class for less than $1000. This was even cheaper than an economy ticket – and included MCO-EWR-ORD segments on United.
I initially wanted to book my award tickets using points I’ve accrued with my Chase Sapphire Reserve. But then I ended up discovering an epic deal buying miles – which I otherwise would never do. I booked this ticket only several days before the flight, back in mid-December.
After hours of research, especially using United’s MileagePlus app (which I find the most useful for Star Alliance award flights), I ended up booking my award ticket via Avianca LifeMiles. Here’s how:
- I signed up for an Avianca LifeMiles account.
- I took advantage of one of Avianca’s frequent promotions: a 160% bonus on miles purchased. This bonus is still ongoing (until Feb 17, 2023).
- Since I found an Ethiopian award ticket from MCO-EWR-ORD-ADD for 70,190 miles +$55.09, I purchased 70,200 miles for $891.00. This is normally what you pay for only 27,000 miles!!
- I was able to select my seat on Ethiopian Airlines via the LifeMiles website (via “additional services”), and my seats on United via the United app.
The only downside was that my seats on United were in economy, which hardly matters for short domestic flights. All I was looking forward to was a lie-flat business class seat on the long overnight Ethiopian Airlines flight.
There were also a stressful couple moments – like when the miles I purchased initially did not show in my LifeMiles account. Upon doing research, I realized that this frequently occurs when purchasing or transferring miles with LifeMiles. My only worry was that the award ticket would disappear while I waited. Luckily, after a nail-biting 12 hours waiting, it didn’t!
A note about same-day standby on United flying on an Avianca LifeMiles award ticket
My itinerary originally had an 8 hour layover at EWR, which I was not a fan of. Even with an award ticket through LifeMiles, I was able to same-day standby on United for an earlier flight. Thankfully, it did not cause any downline issues.
I was not able to use the United app or website for same-day standby, so I went to the gate of the earlier MCO EWR flight to ask. Even though boarding had already started, the lovely gate agent was able to assist me. Great customer service on the United end.
There are no longer any fees for this kind of same-day standby.
The Ethiopian Airlines International Business Class Experience
Perhaps starting the Ethiopian Airlines segment on the wrong foot colored the experience the wrong way. But I ended up thankful for booking this flight in business class, especially for the incredible value it was.
I have flown Ethiopian Airlines many times before, but always in economy. I’ve generally been impressed with the product, service, on-time performance, and overall experience. Needless to say, I had even higher expectations for business class.
But I didn’t have the best first impression.
Connecting from United to Ethiopian Airlines at Chicago O’Hare (ORD): a true hassle
Even though I had over 3 hours to connect from my inbound United Airlines flight to the outbound Ethiopian Airlines flight, I ended up having barely enough time to enjoy the lounge.
That being said, the lounge you gain access to, the Club Aspire lounge, is not a club I’d ever aspire to visit again. More on that later.
The problem is that United domestic flights mostly land in Terminal 1, while Ethiopian Airlines departs out of Terminal 5. Compounding this problem is that there is currently no way to access Terminal 5 from other terminals without exiting the secure zone. This means you’ll have to exit Terminal 1, take a SkyTrain to Terminal 5, check in again (even if done electronically), and go through security again. ORD is quite large and inefficient – this took me over an hour in total.
It would have been much easier to fly inbound to ORD on Delta – as they use Terminal 5 in Chicago O’Hare. Good to know for next time. And Delta has an absolute astounding SkyClub there, even though ORD is not one of their hubs.
Ethiopian Airlines Cloud9 Check-in Process: Chicago O’Hare (ORD)
Though I was able to check-in online using the United App for both my United and Ethiopian flights, I was required to check-in via the counter once I arrived at Chicago O’Hare. This makes online checkin for Ethiopian Airlines totally unnecessary at ORD.
There is a dedicated Sheba Cloud9 business class counter at ORD, which slightly accelerated my checkin process, but it still took about 15 minutes of waiting in line. The check-in computers were deactivated – probably a remnant of stricter Covid-19 restrictions. At check-in, they verify your e-Visa if Ethiopia is your final destination.
Although I had successfully inserted my TSA PreCheck number for my United flights, it did not automatically transfer to my Ethiopian Airlines tickets. As I didn’t think to notice this on my printed ticket, I ended up going through normal security.
The only other complaint I would have was that they did not honor my selected seat online and ended up assigning me another one. This ended up working out fine, as I maintained my window seat and did not have a neighbor, but it could have ended much worse.
The complimentary business class lounge: Club Aspire (ORD T5)
I’m not too picky when it comes to airport lounges. As a PriorityPass member, I’m happy with a quiet place to do work and have a bottle of water.
During the check-in process, I was given a voucher to enter the Club Aspire Lounge. When I entered and saw how small, cramped, and uncomfortable the lounge was, I turned around and left. That’s the first time I’ve done that for any lounge.
The food offerings appeared to be leftover package sandwiches, if that. There were only a couple tables and seats. The whole lounge appeared to have been put together that morning.
The boarding process
Overall, boarding seemed a little disjunct and slow, but not horrendous. There are zones, but single-file lines and order were not kept. This is nothing unusual in airports.
I found my business class seat and made myself comfortable. We ended up leaving a bit less than an hour late – due to cargo loading and normal traffic congestion at Chicago O’Hare.
Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 787-8 Business Class Seats: worth it or not?
I will say this: on a 13 hour flight, having seats that lie flat (or nearly flat) is invaluable. The ability to get some sleep during the long flight to Ethiopia not only helps adjust to jet lag, it seriously improves your health (or should I say, significantly reduces the damage from traveling). It’s crucial for people that travel often.
That being said, Ethiopians 2 by 2 by 2 layout in business class is not optimal. Though the width of the seat is fantastic, having to climb over your neighbor at night to go pee isn’t my cup of tea. Luckily, I ended up not having a neighbor.
The only other issue is that there’s only one lavatory for all of business class, so there’s often a wait.
I flew on ET-ARF, a Boeing 787-8 built in 2014. The routes it covers include IAD-ADD, ADD-ORD-IAD, ADD-GRU-EZE (and back), ORD-ADD, ADD-LAD, ADD-DOH, and more. Of course, these routes are subject to change as are the aircraft flying them.
On this configuration of B787-8, there are 24 Cloud9 Business Class seats and 246 seats in economy.
Boeing 787s are renowned for their lower cabin cruising altitude, increased humidity, and electronically dimming windows. All of these contribute to reduced travel fatigue over long haul flights.
I found the Ethiopian Airlines Cloud9 seat overall comfortable, more-so than the older Delta B767-300ER (the airplane I fly) Delta One product, but less than any other Delta One or newer United Polaris I’ve flown.
The cushioning was fair, the bolstering of cloth, the pillow slightly small, and the blanket a bit frayed. Still, all was just fine for a nap.
Unfortunately, these seats do not recline completely to laying flat. Also, the leg rest is more of a recliner-style than a bed, and my feet were dangling off the edge. On top of that, the edge of the seat consists of a footrest – basically a metal bar.
No leg-rest was provided as I’ve seen offered on other Ethiopian Airlines flights. This would have been nice, as I calves kept falling asleep on the metal footrest of the seat. And I’m 5’10”.
This was the biggest impediment to sleeping. That, and the spoiled kids yelling and screaming behind me.
The tray table was a little bit unstable, but large enough for a laptop. As I was sitting at a bulkhead seat, the IFE was located inside the seat, making things slightly more awkward for watching a movie while working. There is not much storage space at all.
Ethiopian Airlines service quality: yay or nay?
Whether flying in economy or business, I’ve always been impressed by the service provided by Ethiopian Airlines. I’m not sure if it’s because almost all employees are Ethiopians – who share a sense of pride for their nation’s flag – or simply because of exceptional training. Maybe it’s both.
I found the food quite good, but not mind blowing. I truly wish they served Ethiopian Shiro Wat instead of typical chicken/beef/pasta. They did offer decent wine, including honey wine, an Ethiopian delicacy.
Overall, service was very good, as usual. That being said, it wasn’t particularly special for business class.
Cloud9 Addis Ababa Arrival Experience
Dedicated Cloud9 / Sheba Platinum line makes getting through immigrations faster, but there is no dedicated line for customs, where they scan everyone’s baggage.
That being said, the dedicated Cloud9 line at immigrations is a lifesaver. I’ve seen the normal lines snake out for miles, with wait times upwards of 3 hours – very painful at a body clock time of 3AM after a 13 hour flight.
I did not check in baggage (I avoid doing it for this reason), so I’m not sure how the waiting time for that would be.
Conclusion: Ethiopian Airlines is a very impressive airline, but offers a somewhat disappointing business class product
As an airline pilot, I’ve always been absolutely impressed by Ethiopian Airlines. In a country marked by poverty, corruption, and war, Ethiopian Airlines has provided a remarkably consistent, safe, and efficient product. It’s truly world class.
Even though most of this review appears disappointing, if I could get a deal like that again on a flight I was going to take anyways, I would do it 100%. I always find Ethiopian Airlines dependable, and I know their hard product is much better on other widebody aircraft. Plus, their service is exceptional, and booking Cloud9 can save hours waiting on arrival at Addis Ababa. As they say, time is money.
Considering the resources available to Ethiopian Airlines, I am very pleased with their product in business class. It still has a way to go to compete with the Middle East 3 (Qatar, Etihad, Emirates), and even with the American legacies (Delta, United, AA), but if I worked for Ethiopian Airlines, I would be very proud of what they’ve accomplished so far.
I’m very much looking forward to watching the continued growth and success of this wonderful airline, and I’ll continue rooting for them – even if my experience wasn’t all I was expecting it to be.