Ethiopian Airlines: Three years after the Boeing 737 Max crash, is it time to turn the page?

By Nelly Fualdes
Posted on Tuesday, 15 March 2022 11:14

Ethiopian Airlines' Boeing 737 Max aircraft grounded at Addis Ababa Bole International Airport on 23 March 2019. © Mulugeta Ayene/AP/SIPA.

Aircraft of this model have returned to African skies, including those flown by Ethiopian Airlines. However, the families who lost loved ones on 10 March 2019 when the ET 302 crashed may not view this return favourably.

On 10 March 2019, an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max crashed shortly after take-off near Ejere, Ethiopia, killing all 157 passengers and crew on board. Even though Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde GebreMariam told us in November 2019 that the national carrier would be “the last airline to fly the 737 Max”, one of its four 737 Maxes took off on 1 February this year. Onboard these 100%-state-owned airlines were company and manufacturer representatives as well as government officials.

Commercial flights are due to resume soon – it was announced for 1 March – but no such aircraft has been on the airline’s flight plans for the past 10 days. We reached out to Ethiopian officials to enquire about the delay, but they did not respond.

New orders from Boeing

Despite this tragedy and the US justice system pointing out Boeing’s responsibility (a problem in the piloting software that would have been knowingly dissimulated by two employees), the US manufacturer remains the main supplier of the Ethiopian company, to which it must still deliver 25 Boeing 737 Max. On 4 March, Ethiopian Airlines also placed an order for four 777-8 Freighters.

Accused of “conspiracy to commit fraud”, Boeing initialled a “deferred prosecution agreement” (DPA) in January 2021, accepting liability and ending criminal proceedings at a cost of more than $2.5bn. This included a $243.6m fine in the US, providing $1.77bn in compensation to airlines that ordered the 737 Max, and $500m for a fund to compensate relatives of victims of the Ethiopian Airlines crash in 2019 and the Lion Air crash in Malaysia in 2018, which killed 189 people, including crew members.

The manufacturer’s communication service told us that these payments are to be spread over three years.

From Dakar to Djibouti, the 737 Max back in the African sky

Alongside these procedures, the manufacturer has been working to repair the flaws of its aircraft, which took off again in November 2020, first in the US and South America. On the African continent, Royal Air Maroc and Mauritania Airlines have relaunched this single-aisle aircraft with 172 to 230 seats – depending on the model – both for internal routes, such as Casablanca-Agadir for the first company and Nouakchott-Nouhadhibou for the second, and regional flights, from Nouakchott to Bamako, Casablanca, Cotonou, Dakar and Tunis.

Other international airlines have also taken the plunge and flown the 737 Max between their main hub and the continent, such as Turkish Airlines, which uses them for its services to Ouagadougou, Mogadishu, Djibouti, Bamako, Libreville and Marrakech; Fly Dubai, to Entebbe, Khartoum, Juba and Zanzibar; as well as the charter company TUI to Banjul, Sharm el-Sheikh and Boa Vista (Cape Verde).

“As of 28 February 2022, African airlines have placed orders for 50 737 Maxes with us, not including aircraft that leasing companies may have requested,” says the manufacturer.

Families still up in arms against Boeing

Catherine Berthet, the French spokeswoman for the crash victims’ families, who belong to the ET 302 association (the flight number of the plane that crashed), described the DPA that Boeing signed as a “shameful agreement”. The compensation has been paid to the victims’ relatives “and equitably shared” (which, according to our calculations, represents $1.44m per victim). However, the families, who have hired a group of lawyers and are still engaged in civil proceedings against Boeing, have also mandated a criminal lawyer to try to appeal against this agreement, which was “signed during the very last days of the Trump administration by a Texas attorney general, who has since joined a law firm working with Boeing”.

The spokeswoman – who lost her daughter Camille Geoffroy, a 28-year-old humanitarian on her way to Kenya, in the crash – says it is “outrageous” that the 737 Max is being flown again, as it is “still dangerous and the cause of dozens of in-flight incidents in the US”.

However, she salutes the work of Ethiopian Airlines, which is supporting the victims’ families and has plans to build a memorial at the site of the accident, where it held a ceremony on 10 March, alongside a virtual tribute dedicated to the families. Supported by the Chicago Activist Coalition for Justice, relatives of the victims also held a demonstration that same day in front of the US manufacturer’s headquarters in Chicago.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options