Ethiopian Airlines is looking to take a further seven Boeing 787-8s and additionally may order up to 10 787-9s, 777-200LRs or Airbus A350 XWBs this year as it looks to grow its fleet to around 70 jets by 2023.

The Addis Ababa-based carrier's 2023 fleet vision comprises 23 Boeing 737-700 and -800s, 17 787-8s and 28 aircraft in the 300-plus seat range - a new capacity segment for Ethiopian, which currently has 23 passenger jets: 10 Boeing 767-300ERs, eight 757-200ERs and five 737-700s.

Ethiopian has 10 787s on firm order, which will replace its 10 767s, and the initial seven have already been financed with ExIm Bank guarantees. The first 787 was slated to arrive last September, but programme delays and the Boeing strike pushed it back until 2010.

Speaking to ATI in Addis Ababa, Ethiopian Airlines fleet and equipment planning manager Beza Tesfaye said: "The 787 will represent the majority of our fleet composition by the end of the next 10 years. Over the next 10-15 years we will grow our 787 fleet to 17."

Ethiopian owns three of its 767s and leases the remaining seven. Tesfaye says the leased aircraft will be phased-out by 2018. In line with Ethiopian's aim to operate a young passenger fleet, its three owned 767s will ultimately either be placed with other airlines or converted into freighters.

Tesfaye says the 787 order comprises eight 787-8s and two -9s, which are due to arrive by 2014, although she adds that all 10 may be switched to -8s. She clarifies that the 17-strong 787 target does not include the -9s: "It would be on top of that. We intend to grow our fleet. We will start with five [more 787s] and can grow to up to 20 under our initial 15-year outlook, but that could change," she says.

The 787-9 forms part of Ethiopian's 300-seat evaluation, alongside the 777-200LR and Airbus A350-900. Tesfaye says the 2023 vision sees Ethiopian operating up to 28 of the chosen type, as it studies new long-haul services to three points in Asia, one in Russia, two in Latin America and three in North America.

Ethiopian Airlines CEO Girma Wake expects to order an initial tranche 350-seat aircraft this year: "If [one manufacturer] is not ready we will go with whoever is ready. It will be a maximum of 10."

Although Ethiopian has an all-Boeing jet fleet, Wake says Airbus could still win the order: "We are ready to look at their offer. Once you reach a certain size, you can afford to put your eggs in two baskets. We buy aircraft not because they belong to so-and-so, but because it does the job we want it to."

Ethiopian is planning to keep its 757 fleet at eight aircraft. Tesfaye says: "We own three and the leased ones will be returned. For up to the next five years we will maintain [the 757s]. After that we will phase them out under the current plan."

Over the next 15 years Ethiopian is strategically looking to expand its African network with the opening 22 of new stations and Tesfaye says four destinations are already under evaluation. She adds that over the 15-year timeframe Ethiopian is planning to double its five-strong 737-700 fleet and introduce up to 13 737-800s - a new variant for the carrier.

"We are trying to lease in two 737-800s. It is likely that we will have them this year and, over the next 15 years, go up to 13," says Tesfaye.

Kuwaiti lessor Aviation Lease and Finance Company (ALAFCO) is providing the two leased aircraft and Wake says the two sides signed a memorandum of understanding for the deal last week. He adds that Ethiopian's first two 737-800s should arrive in March and June.

Ethiopian operates five Fokker 50s on its regional network, but these will be replaced by eight Bombardier Q400s which are already on order and slated for delivery over the period 2010-13. Ethiopian was also evaluating a return to ATR operations, but Tesfaye says the Q400 won out because the ATR proved less robust for operations into unpaved airports.

The African carrier's dedicated freighter fleet comprises two 757s, two 747-400Fs and a recently-acquired Boeing MD-11, with another due to arrive in August.

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news