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The man who helped navigate Ethiopian Airlines through COVID

CM 14/08/2021

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He’s one of those people you wouldn’t look at twice if you passed him in the street. Unless you were returning one of his infectious grins. Diminutive, respectful and quietly spoken but when Tewolde GebreMariam says something, it carries weight, substance and direction.

It seems Ethiopian Airlines couldn’t have been in safer hands during the pandemic than those of its group chief executive officer.
Just a few hours after arriving from Addis Ababa, he’s already giving The Jerusalem Post an interview. 
“He’s a regular reader,” says his local PR man. His country manager for Israel, Bilen Arefaine, confirms, pointing to the deep connection between the countries.

Talking of dreams, that’s what most of the world’s media thought of Ethiopian’s ambitious plans a decade ago. But Tewolde is not only a dreamer. He’s a doer.
“I didn’t fly or make model airplanes when I was a kid,” he says. That smile again. “I just fell into working for Ethiopian. It was that or military service.”
He began his career in 1985 as a transportation agent. He worked his way through the ranks, until he landed the top job in 2011.
Ethiopian was a fairly small company for the first 60 years but over the last 15 it’s been revolutionized and has arguably proved itself the most adept airline in the world during coronavirus.ETHIOPIAN’S ISRAEL country manager Bilen Arefaine with CEO Tewolde Gebremariam. (Credit: SIVAN FEIJ)ETHIOPIAN’S ISRAEL country manager Bilen Arefaine with CEO Tewolde Gebremariam. (Credit: SIVAN FEIJ)
“We launched Vision 2025 in 2011,” says. “Then we had 34 airplanes, now we have 130. Our revenue was around $1.3 billion, it’s now more than $4.5b. We flew to fewer than 60 international destinations in 2011, now we have 127. This is not common in the industry.”
And all this was achieved against the odds – oil peaked at $120 per barrel, SARS, Ebola and now COVID all plagued the industry.
“Despite all these challenges we’ve not stopped growing.”
Industry insiders say multi-award-winning Tewolde is a visionary. He sees opportunities where others see pitfalls. COVID provides an excellent example. 
“Our starting point was survival. We had to survive. We had no choice. We had to generate cash.”
The problem was how to do that as a predominantly passenger-oriented airline. Europe, Africa, Israel and others had closed their borders early in 2020. More than 90% of Ethiopian’s passenger services were suspended. They needed to find a monthly minimum $200 million to survive, with no bailout in sight.
Back to Vision 2025.
That prophetic document said the company needed to diversify into hotels, catering, maintenance and most importantly cargo.
Ethiopian’s starting point was good. It was already the largest cargo carrier in Africa. Globally, there were fewer passenger aircraft in the skies, which meant there were fewer planes carrying cargo in their hold. Because there was less capacity, demand on Ethiopian was growing.
Tewolde decided to fill some of the void.
The company already had 10 777 freighter aircraft and two 737s. Ethiopian then began tying cargo to seats on empty passenger aircraft and flying them around the world. After a short while, they removed all the seats, converting the aircraft into cargo planes. Boeing and Airbus supported this move.
“We were the first airliner in the world to convert a new A350 to cargo,” he says.
Ethiopian converted 25 wide-bodied aircraft.
Tewolde and his team set up another operation that helped repatriate expats and foreign workers across Africa while bringing more cash into the coffers. Thousands of foreigners were stranded across Africa, nervous about coronavirus and longing for home but no flights were available. 
Ethiopian laid on flights that brought them to Addis. They stayed in Ethiopian’s 373-room hotel for the quarantine period before flying home – with Ethiopian Airlines, of course, and there was plenty of cargo in the hold for each flight.
While the data are not yet published, there is an expectancy withing the company that it will perhaps prove to have been the most profitable airline during the coronavirus period.
On the Israel front, Ethiopian offered two flights daily pre-COVID. The hope is to return to that, but for now, company executives point out that Ethiopian was one of just two airlines that kept running their service to Tel Aviv throughout the last 18 months.
Tewolde puts much of that down to the decades-old strong bond between the countries. 
“The relationship has been growing from strength to strength. Israel has helped Ethiopia many, many times, and Ethiopian has been flying to Israel for many, many years. For most Israelis working and visiting Africa, the most dependable route is Addis. It’s safe and secure for Israelis.”


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The host of Coffee Mouth Scare Crow Show and CEO of 452 Impact, Inc. Here is food for thought. Romans 6:23 "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." John 3:16 "For God so love ed the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall be saved."

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