Can Ethiopia’s Long Love Affair With Boeing Survive the 737 Max Crash?

By Selam Gebrekidan | New York Times

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — When Noelle Jalal was a child, her uncle used to take her to the international airport in Addis Ababa to watch the giant Ethiopian Airlines Boeings come and go.

For
years, the airport in Ethiopia’s capital was not just a hub for
travelers: It was also a weekend destination for families like Ms.
Noelle’s who came to see the first Boeings piloted by Africans.

Families
took out-of-town visitors to the airport tower. Parents bought their
children cotton candy and let them dash around the terminal’s corridors
to work off the sugar high.

“Everyone
I grew up with in Addis went to the airport,” said Ms. Noelle, a
30-year-old humanitarian aid worker who now lives in the Ivory Coast.
“It was very close to my heart,” she said.

Ethiopian Airlines is not just an airline. It is an emblem of a country whose self-esteem is high, whatever its daily struggles.

And for Ethiopians, Boeing is not just a plane manufacturer. Its name is synonymous with the jets roaring through the sky — and with Ethiopian Airlines, too.

Now, the long love affair between a country and its airplanes is being put to the test.

Last week, a brand-new Boeing 737 Max 8 crashed shortly after takeoff in
Ethiopia. Five months earlier, an identical Boeing model crashed in
Indonesia. With investigators looking into the possibility that a design
flaw played a role in both disasters, the company is in a harsh
spotlight.

Like Boeing, Ethiopian Airlines has long been held in high regard. It maintains a young fleet, and it operates a respected aviation school. But it, too, may have sustained a serious blow.

Ethiopian Airlines’ chief executive, Tewolde GebreMariam, inspecting the cabin of a newly arrived Max 8 in 2018.CreditEPA, via Shutterstock

The
airline has been intertwined with Boeing for six decades. It was the
first African airline to buy its jets, with a loan from the American
government. And over the years, it has maintained such close ties with
Boeing that it did not purchase planes from rival Airbus until three
years ago.

“Ethiopians think of
Boeing when they think of planes, the way people call all toothpaste
Colgate,” said Yonathan Menkir Kassa, a pilot and aviation writer.

But
many Ethiopians believe Boeing was to blame for the March 10 crash of
Ethiopian Flight 302. And some have started to mistrust the
manufacturer, worried that it may try to use its power to strong-arm a
developing-world airline as the crash investigation continues.

Last week, there was a collective sigh of relief when news came that the plane’s “black boxes” — the cockpit voice and flight data recorders — would go to France for analysis, not to Boeing’s home country.

With its entire Max 8 fleet grounded around the world, Boeing faces much bigger immediate problems than what Ethiopians think. But once the investigations are over and the dust has settled, the company may need to work hard to restore its image in a country where its reputation was once beyond challenge.

For
now, public reaction in Ethiopia to the crash has largely been muted,
perhaps not surprising in a country with a long history of repression. A
week after the crash, Ethiopian Airlines has said very little about the
early findings of the investigation. The local press has been excluded
from the terse briefings of the Ministry of Transport.

Among
this virtual blackout of information, a local paper ran an editorial
last week imploring Ethiopians to withhold judgment against both the
airline and the plane maker. Next to the text was an image of a
middle-aged man “shushing” readers.

Many
people here regard the investigation with suspicion. But in a deeply
religious country often caught in the spasms of violent change, the
public has become resigned to the commonplace of loss.

Abiy
Yilma, 56, an accountant who lost a relative in the crash, believes a
design flaw was responsible for the Boeing’s nose-dive. But he suspects
relatives of the victims will not be inclined to go after the
manufacturer.

“What can we possibly do?” Mr. Abiy asked. “We have to accept our fate.”

The
ties between Ethiopian Airlines and Boeing began forming in the 1960s,
just over a decade after the carrier was set up under the management of
Trans World Airlines.

At first, the airline’s fleet was made up of no-frills Douglas C-47 military planes, which were not known for their comfort.

But the carrier had ambitious plans. It wanted to operate jets that would connect Addis Ababa to Europe and beyond. With this in mind, Ethiopian dignitaries went to America to lobby Boeing to sell them its planes.

After
they signed the first $45 million deal for two Boeing jets, the
Ethiopians sent two pilots and six maintenance crew members to train
with the manufacturer in Seattle. When the planes arrived in the early
1960s, Ethiopian Airlines became the first African carrier that could
independently fly and maintain the jets.

In
the early 1970s, after a Marxist revolution in Ethiopia, relations
between Boeing and the airline became bumpy. It was a few years after
Ethiopians had taken full control of their carrier, and Moscow was
courting its new ally with discounted Aeroflot planes. But in a Cold War
victory for an American enterprise, the airline eventually decided to
stick with Boeing.

In the early
1980s, at a time when Ethiopia was best known for a famine that claimed a
million lives, the airline’s first Boeing 767 landed in Addis Ababa
after a 13-and-a-half hour flight from New York. Stickers advertising
that flight — “767 is coming” — can still be spotted in some homes in
the capital.

In the years since, Ethiopian Airlines has undergone a major expansion. It is a member of the Star Alliance group of airlines, and books passengers for major carriers like United and Lufthansa.

Even
with the addition of the Airbus jets, about three-quarters of Ethiopian
Airlines’ fleet of 108 is Boeing, according to its website.

And the Max 8 was shaping up to be a star player.

In
2014, the airline ordered 20 of the popular Boeing jets — the biggest
such order by an African carrier. It is among the few airlines in the
world that operate a simulator for the aircraft.

When the first Max 8 was delivered last July, the airline’s beaming chief executive, Tewolde GebreMariam, was there to welcome it.

“Today marks
another important milestone in our colorful history,” Mr. Tewolde said,
adding, “We have shown the world that Africa can own, operate and manage
successful global companies like Ethiopian Airlines.”

Ethiopians have long closed ranks around their national carrier.

The
airline is not just the polished face of a nation on the rise. For a
long while, it was also a critical link for ordinary Ethiopians to the
outside world.

Before Twitter and
Facebook, when the government had a monopoly over what information could
trickle in, Ethiopians read the airline’s in-flight magazine to learn
about its exotic destinations. Teenagers exchanged valued copies of the
magazine and made scrapbooks from pages that listed the latest movies
and pop hits.

As their purchasing
power grew, Ethiopians here and abroad have supported the national
carrier with their wallets. They have booked its flights even when they
are not the cheapest. They may complain about problems with its service
among themselves — but never in the company of foreigners.

And however damaged Boeing may be in the eyes of Ethiopians now, their loyalty to their airline remains unshaken.

And
so many Ethiopians were irked by early news coverage of the crash last
week. Some took their outrage to social media when a news show
questioned the airline’s safety record, even as aviation experts noted
that the opposite was true.

International headlines about a “jet crash in Africa” also rankled some seeing them in Addis Ababa.

“I was in shock,” said Ms. Noelle, the aid worker. “Did the jet crash in all 54 countries? That was too toxic for me.”

Source

Join the Conversation on Facebook and Twitter

AddisNews is not responsible for the contents or reliability of any other websites to which we get contents from and provide a link and do not necessarily endorse the views expressed by them.

Article first published here

Recommended For You

About the Author: EthioForum