Ethiopian Airlines Will Rearrange Hong Kong Fifth-Freedom Routes In June 2018

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My dream is to be able to travel with my parents for pennies on the dollar. Obviously I can’t redeem miles for every single flight I take, so I’ll need to learn to take advantage of cheap deals, especially when traveling alone. One way to find cheap deals is to fly fifth-freedom flights from Hong Kong, and a primary airline that offers fifth-freedom flights from Hong Kong is Ethiopian, which offers flights from Hong Kong to a couple of northeast Asian destinations.

airplanes on a runwayEthiopian Boeing 787 Hong Kong Airport

Why fly Ethiopian between Hong Kong and North Asia? Let’s take the airline’s fifth-freedom route from Hong Kong to Tokyo Narita. Few know that Ethiopian offers a reasonably competitive seat for the shorthaul flight from Hong Kong to Tokyo, so demand for the route will be lower. So Ethiopian offers an angled flat or fully flat seat (depending on aircraft) between Hong Kong and Tokyo Narita for sub-HK$6,000 fares, whereas for around 2.5 times the price you could fly Cathay Pacific regional business class, which offers a seat that isn’t nearly as good. (Hong Kong Airlines offers a pretty good seat too for only marginally more, but they’re a rather new player that’s hella inconsistent, so that’s a different story altogether.)

Ethiopian has long offered the route, and has even contemplated switching to an A350, which means that a fully flat seat on the route would be guaranteed. However, it seems like they’re making a few switch-ups.

Ethiopian is switching routes for fifth-freedom flights

So far, Ethiopian’s been offering a flight from Addis Ababa to Hong Kong to Seoul Incheon, and a separate flight from Addis Ababa to Hong Kong to Tokyo (it seems like the operating days for these two flights are mutually exclusive, so overall the Addis Ababa to Hong Kong segment operates daily). Meanwhile, Ethiopian offers a separate flight from Addis Ababa from Manila through Bangkok.

Apparently this wasn’t meant to be, so from June 2, 2018, Ethiopian will offer a daily flight through Seoul to Tokyo Narita, and through Hong Kong to Manila. These flights aren’t bookable yet, though I’m expecting rates to be decent.

a group of people in a mallManila Airport Departures Hall

While Ethiopian originally announced that they’d be using their brand-new A350, they’ve switched back to 787s operating all these legs, which means that a fully-flat seat on these flights will still be a gamble.

Why this is bad news for us

There’s one thing that Seoul Incheon and Tokyo Narita both have in common: they’re crazy popular tourist destinations. While I’ve seen the occasional decent fare pop up between Hong Kong and Seoul (and have taken advantage of that accordingly), flights between Hong Kong and Tokyo Narita have often cost insane prices. The average flight between Hong Kong and Tokyo Narita costs HK$15,000, while Ethiopian was bringing sub-HK$6,000 roundtrip fares to the market. So Ethiopian was great value for business class seats between two high-yield destinations.

Meanwhile, Manila isn’t as much of a high-yield market, as it’s less popular of a tourist destination. While it’s still a pretty attractive destination (and I love the country), Philippine Airlines consistently offers ~HK$4,800 business class roundtrip fares between the two destinations. That’s not amazing, but certainly much better value than what’s offered between Hong Kong and Tokyo Narita, and in many cases Philippine Airlines offers a better seat.

img_1880Philippine Airlines’ business class product offered between Manila and Hong Kong is in most cases similar to Swiss’ 777 business class

So Ethiopian presents itself as a competitive option for business class seating between Hong Kong and Manila, but is unattractive compared to the value it previously offered between Hong Kong and Seoul or Tokyo Narita.

Bottom Line

I’m sure the economics work out better for Ethiopian this way, though two valuable fifth-freedom routes between Hong Kong and Northeast Asia are going to be lost in June. I won’t be able to fly the route between now and then – from June until the next change is announced, the most attractive fifth-freedom route between Hong Kong and Northeast Asia will be operated by Air India, who operates flights from Hong Kong to Seoul Incheon and Osaka. Meanwhile the most famed shorthaul fifth-freedom route in Hong Kong continues to be Emirates’ between Hong Kong and Bangkok.

Have you flown Ethiopian between Hong Kong and a Northeast Asian city before? How was it?

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