“Once bitten, twice shy,” doesn’t really apply to Africa’s biggest carrier, Ethiopian Airlines. Amid this year’s Dubai Air Show, the company has announced that it has ordered 20 planes of the Boeing 737-8 Max—the same model that killed 157 people six minutes after taking off from Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa in March 2019.
Five months earlier, a similar plane—the Lion Air 737 Max—crashed in Indonesia’s Java Sea, causing 189 instant fatalities. In both cases, investigators determined sensor malfunctions to be the cause.
Why is Ethiopian Airlines buying 737-8 Max planes?
Most airlines have since avoided purchasing the aircraft, with only 30 out of the world’s 5,000 airlines flying it. But Ethiopian Airlines thinks adding the model to its fleet makes business sense—despite travelers citing fears of flying in the 737 Max since the 2019 accident. “We have renewed our confidence in that aircraft,” CEO Mesfin Tasew told the press in Dubai. “We believe we have checked and confirmed that the design defect of that aircraft has been fully corrected by Boeing.”
Tasew also said Ethiopian Airlines would purchase 21 more 737 Max planes in the near future. It demonstrates, he added in a press release, the company’s commitment “to serve passengers with the latest technologically advanced airplanes.” The airline said in the release it is purchasing the model because it “reduces fuel use and emissions by 20%” while minimizing noise by 50% compared to the planes it will replace.” But returning to the plane hasn’t been without controversy for Ethiopian Airlines in the past, particularly among families of crash victims.
Ethiopian Airlines, Boeing, and the FAA have faced heavy criticism for their decisions: A timeline
March 10, 2019: Flight ET 302 en route from Addis Ababa to Nairobi crashes shortly after takeoff, killing everyone on board. Boeing releases a statement saying it is “deeply saddened” by the catastrophe and offers to travel to the crash site to provide technical assistance.
March 10, 2019: China becomes the first country in the world to ground Boeing’s 737-8 Max planes after the crash.
March 13, 2019: It’s reported that Boeing lost $26 billion in value two days after the Ethiopian crash.
March 18, 2019: US investigators establish that pilots were initially given only 56 minutes of training, conducted via iPad, about the differences between the new Boeing Max planes brought into service in 2017 and the older 737s.
March 24, 2019: Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde GebreMariam publishes a statement on the airline’s website saying “the heartbreak for the families of the passengers and crew who perished will be lasting” and that “Ethiopian Airlines will feel the pain forever.”
March 26, 2019: Boeing provides airlines that had bought the 737 Max with free software upgrades.
Dec. 11, 2019: A US House committee hearing offers evidence that the FAA had identified a high risk of crashes in the 737 Max, but let it continue flying.
Jan. 9, 2020: Emails Boeing shared with the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in December are submitted to Congress. They reveal that Boeing’s staffers pushed back on “stupid” airlines and regulators who kept requesting for more pilot training on the new planes.
July 14, 2020: A report says airlines canceled 355 orders of the 737 Max jets in the first half of 2020, a 71% decline in sales.
Nov. 18, 2020: FAA administrator Steve Dickson approves the Boeing 737 Max to return to commercial service following a “safety review process that took 20 months to complete.”
Feb. 23, 2021: The US Transportation Department reports (pdf) “weaknesses” in the FAA’s certification processes hurt the effectiveness of its oversight of the planes. It says the agency “did not have a complete understanding of Boeing’s safety assessments performed on MCAS [or the flight control software identified as contributing to the crashes] until after the first accident.”
November 11, 2021: Boeing accepts full responsibility for the crash of ET 302, and regrets to have “produced an airplane that had an unsafe condition.” This paves paves way for families of victims to seek compensation.
June 23, 2021: Families of victims start receiving compensation. Each eligible family will receive $1.45 million in total, paid on a rolling basis.
Feb. 1, 2022: Ethiopian Airlines conducts a demo flight in preparation for its official return to the skies, but kin of those who perished in the crashes are infuriated. “I will never fly in a Max and certainly if I find myself booked into a Max, I will have to cancel that flight,” Tom Kabau, a Kenyan lawyer who lost his brother in the crash, told Reuters.
July 2022: Ethiopian Airlines purchases a 737 Max from Boeing, a choice received controversially by families of the crash victims. Robert Clifford, an attorney representing some of the families, tells CNN that the decision was “really disappointing—a sad reminder for the crash victims’ families nearly three and a half years later, knowing that the Boeing Max will be flying again even in Ethiopia, where the crash happened.”
December 2022: The long-delayed Ethiopian government’s investigative report into the crash of flight ET 302 is released. It blames Boeing for its failure to “disclose early and attentively” problems with the aircraft’s MCAS. Meanwhile, the US National Transportation Safety Board and French aviation safety authorities criticizes the report, pointing to pilot error as a contributing factor.
Nov. 13, 2023: Ethiopian Airlines says a big part of its profitability and continued dominance in the African air transport market lies in the purchase of 41 more 737-8 Max jets.