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Business : Ethiopia Turmoil Threatens Unlikeliest Airline Success Story

by Liezel Hill
Published on December 11, 2016, 10:00 PM EST December 12, 2016, 3:09 AM EST

CEO sees ‘business as usual’ amid state of emergency
Hub model has forged African champion in one of poorest states

Ethiopia, indelibly linked with images of grinding poverty and famine, has quietly built one of Africa’s rare corporate success stories with the continent’s only consistently profitable airline shuttling passengers from around the world through its hub in Addis Ababa.

Yet just as state-owned Ethiopian Airlines starts to vie with the likes of Dubai-based Emirates, outbreaks of violence around ethnic and human-rights protests have claimed an estimated 500 lives since June, threatening to deter travelers and undermining the political stability that helped it flourish. It’s also grappling with the challenges of doing business in the region, with more than $200 million in ticket payments tied up in countries including Nigeria and Angola, which the airline says is putting pressure on its liquidity.

Chief Executive Officer Tewolde GebreMariam insists the unrest and a subsequent state of emergency imposed Oct. 8 is a “non-issue” for the airline, which links almost 70 African cities to destinations in Europe, North and South America, the Middle East and Asia. The executive, who has run Ethiopian since 2011, is determined to push ahead with an expansion for a company that could be the last hope for a viable African aviation industry.

“The reality on the ground is peaceful. It’s business as usual,” the CEO said in an interview at the airline’s headquarters at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa days after the start of restrictions. That remains the case still, he said by e-mail on Thursday, citing an 18 percent year-on-year increase in October passenger traffic. “We have not seen measurable changes.”

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