Despite Recent Crash, Ethiopian Airlines Has Strong Safety Record

Mar 12, 2019

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In the wake of Sunday’s fatal crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, with a Boeing 737 MAX 8 nose-diving into the ground minutes after takeoff and killing all 157 people on board, Ethiopian’s safety record is under heightened scrutiny.

But both the airline, and the nation as a whole, have a history of excellent safety on a continent where aviation practices can sometimes be dicey. The US Federal Aviation Administration gives Ethiopia a Category 1 safety rating, the organization’s highest, which means it can operate flights to the US, which it does. The nation also passes muster with the EU’s European Aviation Safety Agency regulations.

Ethiopian Airlines, the national flag carrier, also has a trustworthy safety report card, and a large fleet — the biggest in Africa — of modern Boeing and Airbus airplanes. It flies among others the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, for which it was one of the earliest customers, and the Airbus A350. It’s also a leading member of Star Alliance, the largest airline alliance in the world, along with names such as Lufthansa, United and Singapore Airlines. As an alliance member, it must maintain stringent safety protocols.

The airline has a safety rating of six stars out of a possible seven on respected aviation site AirlineRating.com. Those ratings are based on safety rankings from international regulatory bodies and how often airlines have fatalities.

Still, Sunday’s crash was one of the worst accidents for the airline and the nation.

“People hear ‘Ethiopia’ and are bound to make certain, unfortunate associations,” Patrick Smith, a pilot and aviation expert, told TPG in an email. But, Smith said, “Ethiopian Airlines is the largest carrier in Africa, with a proud history and a very good safety record. It flies a state-of-the art fleet. Prior to Sunday’s crash, its most high-profile incident was the 1996 hijacking of flight ET961 near the Comoros.” That plane, a Boeing 767, crashed into the Indian Ocean after running out of fuel, killing 125 people, including the three hijackers, but 50 people survived.

Statistically, passenger air travel in Africa as a whole poses a greater safety threat than other places in the world, though that is improving.

“We continue to progress in the region toward world-class levels of safety,” Alexandre de Juniac, the International Air Transport Association’s director and CEO, said in the group’s 2018 Airline Safety Performance report. “African governments must accelerate the implementation of [international] safety-related standards and recommended practices. As of year-end 2017, only 26 African countries had at least 60% [of these practices] implementation.”

But Ethiopia has historically been at the forefront of air safety in the region.

According to Air Safety Network, an international database of aviation accidents by Flight Safety Foundation, there have been a total of 18 fatal accidents with 242 fatalities within Ethiopia since 1919. That includes the crash of ET302. Two other incidents occurred on Ethiopian Airlines but happened outside of the country — the 1996 hijacking and a crash in Lebanon that killed 90 people in 2010 — and bring the total to 479 fatalities and 20 accidents in a century.

Furthermore, Ethiopian CEO Tewolde Gebremariam, who has been leading the airline since 2011, is famously attentive to details. “One day at the Addis Ababa airport, I was doing my walk-around check of the airplane before departure, and I feel this tap on my shoulder,” a Boeing 787 captain with Ethiopian told TPG. “I turn around and it’s a guy in suit and tie — none other than the CEO in person, asking me how things were going.”

According to the captain, who requested anonymity to discuss internal matters, Gebremariam is known to “periodically, at random” check on-the-ground operations for himself.

Featured photo by Wallace Cotton/TPG.

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