in Air Transport / Features

Ethiopian – managing the MAX crisis

Posted 25 July 2019 · Add Comment

Kaleyesus Bekele meets Tewolde Gebremariam, the CEO coping with the aftermath of the Ethiopian airliner crash that killed 157 people.

Ethiopian Airlines Group CEO, Tewolde GebreMariam, goes to church with his family every Sunday morning.
Sunday March 10, 2019, was no different.
But, while he was attending Bole Holy Trinity Church in Addis Ababa, not far from his home, he received an emergency call from his office informing him that an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing B737-8MAX aircraft had lost contact with air traffic control a few minutes after take-off.
Flight number ET302 departed Addis Ababa Bole International Airport at 8:38am en route to Nairobi, Kenya, and was lost from radar six minutes later. The crew reported that they had encountered a flight control problem and asked for clearance to return to base. The ATC granted that clearance but the aircraft failed to make it back.
One minute later, all the Ethiopian Airlines senior executive management team were informed of the situation. With a short search, the debris of the aircraft was found 60kms south east of Addis Ababa on a farm. All 157 passengers and crew perished in the accident.
The CEO of Africa’s largest airline and his executive management team have had a tough time managing the crisis. Comforting victims’ families, ensuring the smooth operation of the airline, and following up the aircraft accident investigation process has been hectic.
Gebremariam, who has 34 years’ experience in the aviation industry, has demonstrated his management skill at this trying time. The airline, which has a commendable safety record, continues serving its 120 international destinations without hiccups and the initial accident investigation process went well in accordance with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) regulations.
Ethiopia’s Ministry of Transport and the Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) released the preliminary accident investigation report on April 4, 2019. This indicated that the crew encountered problems with the flight control shortly after take-off. The angle of attack (AoA) sensor was feeding erroneous data soon after lift-off, according to AIB.
The report revealed that, though the pilots applied all the emergency procedures recommended by Boeing and approved by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), they could not control the aircraft.
Gebremariam said that Ethiopian Airlines management is satisfied with the factual events displayed in the preliminary report, which are subject to further analysis in the main investigation. “We were not surprised because the factual events were obviously known to us. This was the second accident, next to the Lion Air crash, in less than five months for a brand new aircraft. Although the investigation has to go through due process, we grounded our MAX fleet and China followed us, then the European Union, then Canada, and finally the US.”
The investigation is being conducted in the midst of a situation where more than 370 B737MAX aircraft are grounded globally. Gebremariam believes that this makes it challenging. “Perhaps, in the history of aviation, this is the second investigation where the aircraft involved in the accident is grounded globally, next to the Concord crash decades ago,” he said.
American airframer, Boeing, is being criticised for not providing adequate information about the controversial B737MAX aircraft flight control software for its customers.
In the wake of Indonesian Lion Air B737MAX aircraft crash in October 2018, Boeing issued a service bulletin and the FAA sent out an air worthiness directive on the flight control software dubbed manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system (MCAS).
Gebremariam noted that the issue with MCAS was not clear. “The MCAS was not clarified. The impact of the MCAS on the flight control system was not clearly explained. It was not clarified adequately.”
Ethiopian Airlines had distributed the service bulletin and air worthiness directive to its pilots. “We briefed our pilots and we included it in our training manual and flight operations manual but, as it was later revealed and understood by the entire global aviation community, there was no adequate disclosure.”
Africa’s fastest-growing airline made a repeat order for 30 B737-8MAX jetliners and received its first aircraft in June 2018. Before ordering the aircraft in 2014, Ethiopian had evaluated various regional jets, including the rival Airbus A320neo.
Gebremariam is unapologetic about acquiring the MAX. “We do not regret our decision because it was a right one. It is still the right one,” he said.
Ethiopian compared the B737-8MAX with the A320neo. “These aircraft were replacing their predecessors. MAX was replacing the B737NG and A320neo was replacing the A320ceo. We made a very thorough analysis on commercial terms – technical, operational and financial,” he explained. “The decision was not difficult because the aircraft are by-and-large similar – they were both coming with 15% fuel efficiency.”
After analysing the benefits and the additional work needed to phase-in the aircraft, Ethiopian found it logical to continue with the B737 since the airline had already been operating the B737NGs.
“When we compared it with the A320neo, the additional training of pilots and technicians required, and spares holding for maintenance, it was a natural transition from NG to MAX. That was how we chose the MAX and it is still a very good aircraft in terms of performance, economics, and maintenance. So we have no regrets,” said Gebremariam.
Ethiopian had a MAX fleet of five. In the aftermath of the accident, it grounded the remaining four. Would pulling five aircraft out of operation compel it to lease B737-800NGs to replace the MAX fleet?
Gebremariam said that the airline has not yet leased additional aircraft. “February and March is a slack period in our operation. With April and May, we shouldered it. So we are managing with the available capacity.
“We have more than 110 aircraft. We are swapping capacity whenever it is needed. So far, we are managing with the available aircraft within our fleet. But, going forward to the summer, if the MAX is not returned to flight, then we may consider leasing additional aircraft.”
Ethiopian has 25 B737MAX aircraft on its order book. Many wonder what the airline is going to do with the remaining MAX aircraft?
Gebremariam says the fate of the MAXes on order depends on the solution being worked on by Boeing. “Boeing is in the final stage of a software upgrade and better training. We will see if the FAA certifies it. Then we will also monitor the reaction of global aviation regulators, like the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the Chinese and and Canadian aviation regulatory bodies.
“We will not be the first airline to return the aircraft back to the air; we will definitely be the last.
“Right now, our decision is to wait and see the progress of Boeing’s solution and also the certification by the FAA. We will also see the global aviation community reaction.”
Currently, a lot of investigations are being conducted – on the aircraft, on Boeing, on the FAA, and on how the aircraft was certified. Ethiopian is monitoring the developments.
Boeing has completed flight-testing on the MCAS software upgrade. Industry observers are now asking whether the software fix will restore customer airlines’ confidence on the aircraft?
Gebremariam said: “We still believe in Boeing. We believe in the FAA. Boeing is more than 100 years old and is a successful engineering company with high standards of quality. We definitely have confidence in Boeing. We believe that they would do the right thing.
“We also have strong confidence in the FAA. We hope that they will go through a rigorous recertification process. But, again, as one of the two fatal accidents occurred in our airline, unfortunately we will be seriously considering our analysis.”
He added: “While we still follow what Boeing and the FAA are going to do with full confidence, at the same time we will do our own analysis as an airline to build our internal confidence. We need to build confidence in our service, in our pilots and in our travelling public to make sure that the aircraft is safe back to the air.”

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