Before I booked my round-trip flight to Nairobi, Kenya, in November, the longest flight I’d taken was a 12-hour nonstop trip from New York to Israel.
This was a different beast: a two-connection flight beginning Sunday night and ending in the wee hours of Tuesday, then the same thing all over again a week later. The total flying time was about 17 hours each way, excluding layovers.
My saving grace was that I was flying Ethiopian Airlines, which was rated the best airline in Africa by Skytrax passenger surveys. Seated in coach for the duration of my trip, I found out why Ethiopian had earned that honour.
Here’s what my return journey was like.
I knew my journey with the airline was off to a great start when the Ethiopian website informed me I could opt for a “bland meal” — among 15 other options.
A week later, I found myself in the departures terminal of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. Even though it was 4 a.m., the Ethiopian Airlines staff members were cordial and pleasant. I’m sure I failed at matching their warmth.
Around 6:30 a.m., we walked on the tarmac to the Boeing 737 that would ship us to Addis Ababa, located about two hours away in Ethiopia.
Entering the cabin, I was immediately struck by the smell of rubbing alcohol. I assumed it meant the plane was freshly sanitised.
I’m between 5’10” and 5’11” depending on how good my posture is that day, but the legroom was surprisingly spacious. Even in coach, I had plenty of room to slouch.
After we hit altitude, a PA announcement informed us we could finally turn on our electronic devices, such as “calculators, CD players, and laptop computers.”
Breakfast was served not long after: a carb-happy combination of potatoes, scrambled eggs, a cranberry bar, a muffin, a roll, and butter and jam. There was also a mysteriously white-looking sausage. I ate everything else.
Welcome to Ethiopia! Here I switched to another Ethiopian Airlines flight, this time on a brand-new Dreamliner 787, which would eventually carry me to Togo and then back to the US.
The legroom was about the same on this flight, which was good since I was stuck in this seat for the next 15 hours of flying time.
The seat came with some nice in-flight amenities, including a bright green pillow and a teal, Ethiopian-branded throw blanket. The pillow seemed to be made of paper and air. The blanket was surprisingly cosy.
And there were socks! These ended up being the highlight of my long-haul flight. I don’t know what it says about my sock collection at home, but these were softer than anything in my closet.
The seat also included a pair of earbuds, but I ended up using my own pair. Even though I only got audio in one ear, my pair was more comfortable. Flying coach is all about sacrifices.
A small delight: The tray table had a cupholder on the outside that could freely spin if you flicked it.
This provided many minutes of enjoyment.
We had five hours ahead of us on this flight, and before lunch the flight crew passed around tiny ham sandwiches, which were dressed with a touch too much mayonnaise. But make no mistake: I wanted six of these things.
Still, I wanted to see what other snacks were available. The flight attendant brought me these Italian crackers which were coated in salt and olive oil. They certainly beat peanuts and pretzels. And they paired nicely with apple juice.
A short while later was lunch. There were the usual suspects: a cranberry bar, crackers, a roll, and butter. But the beef option was punching above its weight. Spicy and succulent, I actually forgot I was on a plane. (The beans were unwelcome.)
The nice thing about coach: A cheaper ticket still buys you the same gorgeous view.
By far the coolest feature of the Dreamliner was the window. In place of a normal plastic shade, the 787 comes with tinting capabilities.
The button beneath each window comes with five settings. The top button makes the window clear; the bottom makes it more tinted.
This is the window upon arrival in Lomé, Togo. It was so blue, you could look directly into the sun and only feel pain after a few seconds. (I do not recommend this experiment.)
This view from inside the plane would be my only glimpse of the West African country, since I didn’t need to transfer planes.
You learn a lot about your fellow travellers when you stick around between flights. My respect for flight cleaning crews increased dramatically.
As we waited about an hour on the tarmac, the Ethiopian crew picked up garbage, vacuumed, and straightened messy seats. One detail I appreciated: Even while clad in neon vests, the men all wore ties.
Soon we were wheels up and headed for the US, leaving the stunning West African coast behind.
Partway through the flight, the captains automatically changed the lighting and tinted everyone’s windows. I pretended our plane had turned into a submarine. No one else seemed to care.
It lent my viewing of “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” an eerie feel during certain scenes. (Other movies included: “The Big Sick,” “Any Given Sunday,” “127 Hours,” and “500 Days of Summer.”)
By dinner, I was sick of aeroplane food. But when you know it’s your only shot at sustenance, you eat the chicken and rice anyway. I did, however, avoid the oddly sour custard. Even with sprinkles, one bite was enough.
The rest of the flight I spent asleep, since my body clock was well into the nighttime.
For once in my life, I woke up upon arrival. After nearly a full day of flying, it was time to disembark and enjoy the creature comforts of life on the ground. Oh, and customs.
The verdict: On balance, a flight from New York to Nairobi is hard to recommend if you’re flying coach. The trip can wreck your joints and is sure to disrupt your internal clock for days, if not weeks to come.
But none of that is Ethiopian’s fault, of course, which is why I have to say the airline did a spectacular job making a terrible journey actually rather pleasant. The flights were all on time, even the late-night ones, and the flight staff was tirelessly friendly (not to mention generous with the extra snacks).
I can’t exactly say I wish the flights were longer, but at least the 17 hours didn’t feel like more. For someone who expects only misery from air travel, that is Ethiopian’s shining achievement.
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