Ethiopian Airlines today became the first airline in the world outside Japan to fly paying passengers on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
The carrier entered the aviation history books today at 12:50 p.m. ET, inaugurating passenger service on the jet around 1:30 p.m. with a special flight from Washington Dulles to the carrier's hub in Addis Ababa. Today's flight comes just two days after Ethiopian officially took delivery of the first commercial jet to be made from carbon fiber construction instead of more-traditional aluminum and steel.
"I think it's an historic milestone for an African airline," Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde Gebremariam said Wednesday while aboard a special "delivery flight" from Boeing's factory in Everett, Wash., that positioned it in Washington Dulles for today's inaugural flight. (See above video for more from the delivery flight.)
Gebremariam said it was hard to overstate the significance of Ethiopian's status as one of the first airlines in the world to put the Dreamliner into service. With today's flight, Ethiopian has beaten all of the big global carriers from the United States and Europe in deploying the revolutionary jet. Only Japanese carriers All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines have flown the jet earlier.
Ethiopian's early admission to the Dreamliner club reflects a growing optimism for aviation in Africa, Gebremariam said while chatting from a coach seat about two-thirds of the way through Wednesday's delivery flight.
"By being the first airline in the world outside Japan to take delivery to take this wonderful flying machine, we are setting the standard in the continent," he said. "A continent which was known in the past for all the doom and gloom news reports. Now Africa is growing. Ethiopia is growing. Ethiopian Airlines is growing. Today you have witnessed yourself with your own eyes that you have success with global brands coming out of Africa … competing with the global mega carriers of the world with the same standard of aircraft … with the same standard of products and services. I think it is an historic milestone. "
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Though Ethiopian launched its commercial Dreamliner service from Washington today, the carrier's first 787 will be deployed on routes within Africa. The airline has ordered a total of 10 Dreamliners, four of which are expected to be delivered by the year's end.
In Washington, Ethiopian will continue to fly Boeing 777s on its route to Addis Ababa. But that will change in September, when the airline takes delivery of its second 787, which it will then deploy on its Washington Dulles flights, Gebremariam said.
For now, Washington is Ethiopian's only destination in the Americas. But it is an important one, according to Gebremariam, who notes that the D.C. metro area is home to "the highest concentration of Ethiopians living outside Ethiopia."
Going forward, Gebremariam hinted new U.S. destinations could be in the mix for the African carrier.
"In our strategic roadmap, we have the West Coast on our radar screen," he said. "Somewhere around the Bay Area, maybe San Francisco."
Gebremariam noted Los Angeles has the biggest Ethiopian population on the West Coast. But he suggested San Francisco could get the nod because of its location -- "between L.A. in the south and Seattle in the north" -- and its status as a hub for Star Alliance partner United, which would help facilitate connections to and from its network.
Talk of a possible second U.S. market comes as Gebremariam says Ethiopian is increasing its strategic focus on "the mainstream American market, "whether it is corporate America traveling to Africa for business or tourists."
"The United States is the largest source of tourists in the world," he added, mentioning Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kenya as destinations that attract American visitors.
When asked who he viewed as Ethiopian's biggest competition for the U.S. market, he replied: "I would say SkyTeam and Emirates. "
SkyTeam, of course, refers to a frequent-flier alliance that counts Delta, Kenya Airways and Alitalia among its more than a dozen members.
For now, though, Gebremariam appear satisfied with the prestige Ethiopian is enjoying with its new Dreamliner.
"We are going to compete," he said, "with the latest technology in the world."