Tewolde GebreMariam: The Traffic Officer Who Became CEO of ...
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African CEOs - June 9, 2023

Tewolde GebreMariam: The Traffic Officer Who Became CEO of Africa’s Biggest Airline

Tewolde GebreMariam, the former CEO of Ethiopian Airlines, is a true embodiment of the adage “despise not little beginnings.” With a humble start as a traffic controller, Tewolde’s journey to the top of Africa’s most successful airline is an inspiring testament to perseverance and determination. 

Awarded the African CEO of the Year award by Jeune Afrique and the African Development Bank in Geneva in 2012, Tewolde was present to discuss a proposal on the sale of national carrier Kenya Airways to US Delta Airlines. The deal however failed to come through as Kenya Airways defaulted on its repayment obligation of an $841.6 million loan from the US Export-Import Bank in 2017.

With over 37 years of experience in African Aviation, Tewolde’s exploits spotlight his adventurous and interesting sail in the industry. During his leadership, Ethiopian Airlines overtook Emirates to become the biggest connector between Asia and Africa, as well as within Africa. Reports say the airline became Africa’s top airline in both passenger volumes and fleet size.

How Ethiopian airline overtook Emirates under Gebremariam

According to reports, Ethiopian Airlines quadrupled in size growing from a fleet of 33 aircraft carrying three million passengers to one with a fleet of 130 aircraft carrying 13 million passengers. Under Gebremariam, the airline also grew its Addis Ababa hub and made investments in smaller operators in countries such as Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia.

High profits Ethiopian Airlines recorded

Notably, Ethiopian Airlines experienced exponential growth from one Billion USD annual turnover to 4.5 Billion. The airline also built more than USD 700 million worth of vital infrastructure like Africa’s biggest hotel, Cargo terminal, MRO hangars and shops, Aviation Academy and Full Flight Simulators under Gebremariam.

His performance made him the first African Airline CEO to receive “The Airline Strategy Award for Regional Leadership” in the award’s 12-year history. The Award is annually given out by Airline Business Magazine, a publication of Flight Global, the world’s leading aviation media brand.

Tewolde has been celebrated for his pan-African scope of the strategy; his modern governance and financial transparency; and the quality of social, human and environmental policy. These honours not only acknowledge his outstanding leadership but also underscore the transformative impact he has had on the aviation industry and the continent as a whole. While we celebrate his exploits at the Airline, let’s look at how he grew through the ranks.

How he grew from a traffic officer to CEO

GebreMariam began his career at Ethiopian Airlines as a traffic officer in 1985. From being a traffic officer he became the Manager, Cargo Traffic Handling. Tewolde who was based in Addis Ababa was later appointed to serve as Area Manager and Regional Director for India based in Bombay, Saudi Arabia based in Jeddah. 

A few years later, he was appointed to oversee the Sales and Marketing Department of the airline. He was later appointed as the Chief Operations Officer, COO on the 1st of July, 2006. As COO, Tewolde managed the Airline’s operational divisions, including commercial, flight operations, customer service, maintenance, and engineering. 

His upward journey afforded him the opportunity to tour various sectors of the aviation industry. This led to his elevation to the role of Group Chief Executive Officer in 2011. As CEO, he participated in the High-level Advisory Group on Sustainable Transport (HLAG-ST), which is co-chaired by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

His health issues and retirement

Having worked with the airline for over 37 years, Tewolde resigned in 2022 to focus on his medical care. In a statement that announced his early retirement, the airline revealed that Tewolde has been under medical treatment in the USA for the last six months. 

The company also stated that Tewolde will not be able to continue leading the airline as a Group CEO, a duty which demands closer presence and full attention round the clock. Following his retirement, GebreMariam serves as the Senior Strategic Advisor at Delta Air Lines. Tewolde who owns and operates a consultancy company TGM Advisory Services LLC was given the 2022 Airline Strategy Awards in recognition of his achievements at the Ethiopian Airlines.

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