Boeing 737-MAX Incident Won’t Thwart Ethiopian Airlines’ Ambitions.

The Addis Ababa – Nairobi route, it’s often a necessary ‘rite of passage’ for those heading for a variety of African destinations. And so it was for the 157 people who boarded the tragic flight of an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX, flight ET302, which crashed at 08.44 on the morning of Sunday March 10, 2019.

Since 1948, when Ethiopian Airlines (then called ‘Ethiopian Air Lines’), the carrier had amassed an enviable safety record. Until the March 10 crash, the company’s deadliest, the only comparable accident in numbers of casualties took place in November 1996. And that was because hijackers forced the pilots to fly a 737 toward Australia, causing the aircraft (not made for such long-haul flights) to run out of fuel. Indeed, Ethiopian Airlines, unbeknownst to the average ‘westerner’ is not only one of Africa’s best airlines. It’s one of the world’s best airlines. It boasts experienced and well-trained professional pilots, modern fleets featuring the latest equipment and highly respected maintenance facilities and practices

The combination of Boeing 787 and ‘Ethiopia’ may come as a surprise to most people. The Boeing 787 is the most highly advanced airliner in the world. Long before airlines in Boeing’s own United States had even ordered them, Ethiopian Airlines started operating them to Paris in June 2012, making it the second airline in the world to do so after launch carrier All-Nippon Airways (ANA) – earlier than any U.S. or European carriers. But, Ethiopian Airlines has achieved a number of ‘firsts’. It was the first African airline to use jets in 1962; it was the first to adopt the Boeing 767 in 1984, the first to use the Boeing 777-200LR in 2010, the first B777-800, the first A350 in 2016 and the first B787-9 in 2017.That’s not surprising, given that the African airline is one of the most advanced, safest and admired airlines in the world, let alone in Africa, where the aviation sector is growing and expected to continue doing so very quickly. Such is the 787’s range, 14,000 km plus, that Ethiopian will start direct services to major South American and Asian cities from Sao Paulo to Kuala Lumpur.

Anticipating a veritable boom in the number of passengers as Addis Abeba positions itself as Africa’s main air transportation hub, the airport has been renovated. The airport and airline’s progress reflect Ethiopia’s own progress and economic growth. Ethiopian currently has 25 latest-generation Boeing 737s: 16 from the 800 series and 9 from the smallest 700. But, it has 30 of the brand new Boeing 737 MAX, all of which have been grounded. The company also deploys Airbus A350, Boeing 777 (as well as the Boeing 787) for its long-haul routes. In 2018, Ethiopian carried 10.6 million passengers.
Now, the high number of 737-Max in Ethiopian’s fleet does raise a number of concerns. Will the airline make a sudden shift toward Airbus or other B-737 competitors as many Chinese carriers have done? For the time being, Ethiopian’s CEO, Tewolde GebreMariam, stated that the airline will maintain a close relationship with Boeing and other airlines to make air travel even safer, even as he conceded that many the B-737 MAX aircraft does present a number of perplexing issues. GebreMariam stressed that his airline exceeded Boeing and FAA recommendations regarding pilot training on the differences between the B-737 NG and the B-737 MAX after the Lion Air accident in October 2018. Ethiopian 737 Max pilots underwent special training on the B-837 MAX simulators. And Ethiopian is among the very few airlines in the world, operating the complete B-737 MAX simulator.

Urbanization to Stimulate Transportation

Africa, has been experiencing an intense urbanization involving some 500 million people, driven by strong economic reasons to move from rural areas toward cities. African cities with more than a million people will increase. This large and rapid shift in the concentration of population will necessarily bring a shift in social and consumption habits especially in such areas as services and food.

The consulting firm, McKinsey estimated that the urban consumer economy in Africa surpassed the USD$ 1.0 trillion mark a few years ago. And that’s more than twice the $400 billion by 2020 value the same famous consultancy projected in 2012. Clearly, Africa has become the “new frontier of global economic growth”. McKinsey said that the consumption sector alone, dominated by food, in the next seven years will grow at a rate of 45%. The drivers and main beneficiaries of this growth phenomenon include Ethiopia, which has been one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. Long term observers expect this continent to become one of the biggest attractors of foreign capital and investment of the next decade.
Africa has the potential to vastly increase food production to feed itself and to become a major supplier of food for the world. Africa has as many as 600 million hectares of unused yet arable land. The Ethiopian Airlines flights to destinations using some of the most advanced airplanes in the world is a serendipitous development in relation to this promising agricultural future for Africa. The transportation links, development efforts and African continental growth prospects are joining to create an image of Africa that has long been hoped for, one that suggests that a prosperous Africa is within reach.

In this context, Ethiopian Airlines and Ethiopia will become even bigger protagonists of Africa’s expansion of air travel. Addis Ababa is expanding its Bole airport passenger terminal, investing $363 million project to this effect. But, and this is a sign of the optimism, Ethiopia’s largest international airport and airline cannot keep up with the increase in passenger and aircraft traffic demand. Bole airport’s main terminal, built to process six million passengers a year, actually handled about ten million in 2018. Ethiopia, as many other African countries, suffers from insufficient infrastructure, which puts the strategically located country (excellent for stopovers from Europe to Indian Ocean destinations) at a disadvantage compared to the growing hubs of Istanbul, Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Doha. The target now will be to expand the terminals to handle as many as 22 million passengers a year. The project is on its way to completion and the new terminal could become operational by the end of 2019.  In the context of African airlines, Ethiopian has outperformed Egypt air and South African Airways and now boasts 100 planes in its fleet – the grounded Boeing 737 Max notwithstanding – with an enviable average age of five years (that’s literally a baby fleet in airline terms). The fact that other East African countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi are also investing in airport expansion can only mean that African governments have decided air transport links are essential aspects of development of their continent.

Alessandro Bruno




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