Ethiopian Airlines Challenges the West and Soars in Africa

Ethiopian Airlines (Shutterstock) On June 1, Boeing responded to new questions about the safety of its 737 Max aircraft. These questions were spurred by the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines flight in March. In the aftermath, Ethiopian Airlines, along with its international supporters, stood up to Boeing to pursue answers regarding this crash, as well as an earlier Lion Air crash, and to strengthen future plane safety protocols. The crash of Ethiopian Airlines 302 is a lens by which to view the airline’s global influence.

This saga began on the morning of Sunday, March 10, 2019, shortly after Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 departed Addis Ababa for Nairobi, Kenya. This route is one of the airlines’ most popular destinations and a few nonstop flights are offered daily. The crash of ET 302 shows Addis Ababa plays a central role in global travel and how US global influence has adapted in recent years.

As much of the world has recently learned, Ethiopia is closely connected to the world. Passengers on flight 302, hailed from Canada and Kenya but also from Ethiopia, Russia, China, Egypt, Rwanda, and the United States. In all, victims in the crash came from thirty-five different countries from around the world.

Ethiopian Airlines has grown tremendously in the past three decades and has surpassed South African Airways to become the largest air carrier on the African continent.

Currently, it serves over 125 destinations with international flights to destinations as varied as Shenzhen, Washington, DC, Chicago, Sâo Paulo, Dublin, Dubai, and Frankfurt. Domestically, Ethiopian Airlines provides passenger service for businesses and customers throughout the country.

Ethiopia is mountainous, and land travel can sometimes be long and arduous with winding roads and deep ravines. Cars and buses can face additional delays while traversing remote areas and small towns. As a result, for those who have the means, air travel is efficient and quick. Domestic air travel connects Addis Ababa to Bahir Dar, Gondar, Dire Dawa, and Hawassa. In addition, there are connections to and from some of these cities and to other cities in Ethiopia.

The aftermath of this plane crash illuminated Ethiopia’s rising global status and the diminution of the United States’ global influence, with Ethiopia as a critical player in the politics of the Horn of Africa and regularly engaging with countries from the region, the Gulf States, Europe, North America, and Asia. It has also highlighted growing concerns over Boeing’s airline production and certification processes. For instance, within 48 hours after the crash, with China taking the lead, countries throughout the world began grounding Boeing Max airplanes. Ethiopia, Indonesia, and much of Western Europe followed suit. Not only did most European countries support this measure, but they included additional measures. For instance, France, Germany, and later the European Union banned the take off, landing, and even use of their sovereign airspace to support flights using Boeing 737 Max planes. They put pressure on other countries, including the United States and Canada, who were two of the last major countries to ground this aircraft.

One of the boldest decisions by Ethiopia was to send the black box for analysis in France and not to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in the United States. NTSB often investigates airline crashes and analyzes black box data both in the US and internationally. It appears that the Ethiopian government, without the technology to conduct the tests, wanted to ensure objectivity in the black box analysis. As a result, a team of Ethiopian officials personally took the black box to France to the Le Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses pour la Sécurité de l'Aviation civile est l'autorité responsable des enquêtes de sécurité dans l'aviation civile — the Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety (BEA). Black box analysis showed similarities between the 2018 Lion Air crash in Indonesia and the 2019 Ethiopian Airlines crash.

Both planes ascended and descended erratically at high speeds. In addition, both flights had great difficulty ascending properly. Cockpit recordings also support the great effort that Captain Yared Getachew, 29, and his co-pilot, Ahmed Nur Mohammed, 25, used to try and stabilize the plane. After a few minutes in the air, they understood the risks and called air control to return to Addis Ababa Bole International Airport. They were unable to stabilize the plane and return. Ethiopian Air flight 302 crashed within six minutes. The plane’s software provoked the uncontrolled nosedive and increased speeds resulting in a crash so strong that the impact caused a crater ten meters deep; the force of the impact caused the plane to burrow underground. After the preliminary report, Boeing issued an apology but there were continued calls for more action.

In this case, it looks like with the strong and principled fight for the truth and the support of many international players, Ethiopian Airlines is the proverbial David that beats Goliath.

Initial reports placed the blame on Boeing, particularly given the initial black box reporting and the similarities with Lion Air plane crash. It seems that the software flaw will remain the center of all future resolutions. Boeing has since admitted that it was aware of the flaw on the 737 Max planes. Now the courts will determine the long process of how families will be compensated and if Boeing will be fully liable or if Ethiopian Airlines shares some of the blame.

Whatever happens, this saga with an East African airline and a large US multinational company will shape future airplane regulations and perceptions on non-western airline companies. The initial reverberations are clear as Boeing 737 Max 8 planes are set to remain grounded globally until successful updates to the software are approved.

Ethiopian Airlines' entanglement with Boeing shows that it is more than Africa’s biggest airline — it is a global player.

The crash of ET 302 put a spotlight on Boeing’s practices in the production of 737 Max 8 planes and illuminated problems with the plane’s anti-stall software. The backlash from this seemingly preventable plane crash renewed how air safety is viewed worldwide and underscored the global reach of Ethiopian Airlines.

About the Author

Donna A. Patterson is the author of Pharmacy in Senegal: Gender, Healing and Entrepreneurship (IUP, 2015). Dr. Patterson is Chair of the Department of History, Political Science and Philosophy at Delaware State University. She has an ongoing research project in Ethiopia and most recently visited in February 2019.