THE Ethiopian Airlines crash last Sunday was the second involving a brand-new Boeing 737, just three months after 189 passengers were killed in a tragedy in Indonesia.
The deaths of 157 passengers and crew, when the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft crashed within minutes of take-off in Addis Ababa, raise serious questions about the safety record of both aircraft and airline.
Another crash by a brand-new Boeing 737 Max 8, in Indonesia, under five months ago, saw 189 people lose their lives in the Java Sea when Lion Air Flight 610 plummeted out of the skies, minutes after taking off from Jakarta.
This latest horror brings the African carrier’s death toll to 482, spanning 22 fatal incidents, since its inception in 1965, and nearly 500 more people have been injured in EA crashes and incidents, according to information from the Flight Safety Foundation.
In comparison, just one British Airways flight has ever been involved in a fatal incident: the 1976 Zagreb runway crash, when all 176 people aboard two planes died after BA Flight 476 collided with another aircraft on take-off, through an error by air-traffic control.
As a safeguard, airspace in Spain and the rest of the EU has now been closed to all Boeing 737 MAX aircraft by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), after 31 airlines and 15 countries had already banned the Boeing model.
The temporary suspension of the aircraft from European airspace was effective from Tuesday evening.
The United Nations believes there were 19 staff members of UN-affiliated organisations on board the flight.
Tewolde GebreMarium, who runs Ethiopian Airlines, visited the crash scene, 60km south-east of Addis Ababa, and “regrets to confirm that there are no survivors”.
And the country’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, offered condolences to the victims’ families.
The passengers came from 33 countries, according to Ethiopia’s Fana Broadcasting Corporate.
The victims included 32 Kenyans, 18 Canadians, nine Ethiopians, eight Italians, eight Chinese citizens, eight Americans, seven British citizens, seven French citizens, six Egyptians, five Dutch citizens, four Indians, four people from Slovakia, three Austrians, three Swedes, three Russians, two Moroccans, two Spaniards, two Poles and two Israelis.
One person, from each of these countries, Belgium, Indonesia, Somalia, Norway, Serbia, Togo, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sudan, Uganda and Yemen, also perished, while four people onboard were listed as using United Nations passports, and their nationalities were not immediately clear.
The plane took off at 8.38am from Bole International Airport and “lost contact” six minutes later, near Bishoftu, a town some 60km from Addis Ababa by road.
“The pilot mentioned that he had difficulties and that he wanted to return,” said GebreMarium during a press conference. “He was given the clearance to return back.”
The airline chief said the aircraft involved had flown from Johannesburg that morning, while the pilot was senior with more than 8,000 hours of flying experience.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office tweeted: “It would like to express its deepest condolences to the families of those who have lost their loved ones on Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 on a regular, scheduled flight to Nairobi, Kenya this morning.”
Initial reports showed considerable similarities between the Ethiopian and Indonesian disasters, which involved the same make of plane.
Last year, Lion Air 610 also went down, minutes after take-off, having requested permission to return to base.
Telemetry shows the tragic plane’s vertical airspeed fluctuated rapidly in the minutes and second before its crash on Sunday, including the final moments, when it seems to have been locked in a terrifyingly-accelerating nosedive.
Investigations so far by the Indonesian and American aviation authorities have concluded that the Lion Air plane also hit the sea after a violent nosedive.
The New York Times reported that investigators were considering whether that dive might have been caused by updated Boeing software, which was meant to prevent a stall. But it could send the plane into a fatal descent if the altitude and angle information being fed into the computer system was incorrect.
The change in the flight-control system, which can over-ride manual motions in the MAX model, was not explained to pilots, according to some pilots’ unions.
After that crash, Boeing said that it was “continuing to evaluate the need for software, or other changes, as we learn more from the ongoing investigation”.
But it was unclear whether the company had made any changes. In a statement on Sunday, Boeing said it was “deeply saddened” to learn of the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.
The company added: “A Boeing technical team is prepared to provide technical assistance at the request, and under the direction, of the US National Transportation Safety Board.”
The state-owned Ethiopian Airlines calls itself Africa’s largest carrier and has ambitions of becoming the gateway to the continent.
The airline does have a better safety rating, and a newer fleet, than some neighbouring operators. In fact, a number of African airlines are banned outright from EU airspace, including the flag-carrier of neighbouring Eritrea.
But in addition to 16 fatal incidents, costing 102 lives in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the airline has now suffered six fatal incidents in the last 30 years, including other two huge tragedies.
In 1996, after a hijacking and a failed water landing, 125 people died on Flight 961 in Moroni, the capital of the Union of the Comoros, in the Indian Ocean.
And in January 2010, 82 passengers and eight crew died when EA flight 409, from Beirut to Addis Ababa, slammed into the Mediterranean shortly after take-off.
The MAX 8 is the latest version of the aircraft, which Boeing rolled out in 2017 as an update to the already-redesigned 50-year-old 737.