Ethiopian Airlines crash news: What we know so far and what investigators will be looking for

The crash involves the widely-used Boeing 737 aircraft and the airline has a good safety record

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Tuesday 12 March 2019 14:46 GMT
Ethiopian airlines crash news: What we know so far and what investigators will be looking for

All 157 passengers and crew aboard an Ethiopian Airlines flight died when the plane crashed shortly after take-off from Addis Ababa.

The Boeing 737 lost contact six minutes after departure from Bole International Airport in the Ethiopian capital, heading for Nairobi.

What do we know about the accident?

Flight ET302 was the first of four daily departures from Addis Ababa on the routine 721-mile, two-hour flight to Nairobi.

The Boeing 737 was due to depart from Addis Ababa at 8.15am local time (5.15am GMT). It actually took off at 8.38am and lost contact with controllers six minutes later.

The plane crashed at high speed about 30 miles southeast of the airport near the town of Bishoftu.

When the airline’s chief executive, Tewolde Gebremariam, reached the crash site, he confirmed there were no survivors.

“He expresses his profound sympathy and condolences to the families and loved ones of passengers and crew who lost their lives in this tragic accident,” said the airline.

What will investigators be looking for?

The two “black boxes” – the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder, have been recovered and are being analysed swiftly.

The air crash investigators will be looking at every possible aspect: weather, mechanical problems, and whether any criminal act was involved either by someone on the aircraft or elsewhere.

The fact that Addis Ababa is a high-altitude airport, above 7,500ft, will be taken into account.

Flight path: the intended link between Addis Ababa (ADD) and Nairobi (NBO), also showing the approximate crash site at Bishoftu (HAHM) (Great Circle Mapper)

What about the plane involved?

The Boeing 737, in terms of sheer numbers built, is the most successful aircraft of all time. The plane has an excellent safety record overall.

This particular aircraft, registration number ET-AVJ, was only four months old. It was the most up-to-date variant, the 737 MAX 8. This is the same as the aircraft involved in a Lion Air crash in October shortly after take-off from Jakarta airport in Indonesia with the loss of 189 lives.

What is different about the MAX variant?

Its engines are higher and further forward on the wing than earlier models. That shift has some aerodynamic consequences. So Boeing uses “Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System” software to increase safety.

If sensors detect a high “angle of attack” – the angle between the wing and the airflow – that could potentially cause the aircraft to stall, the software will automatically nudge the nose downwards, even if the pilots are flying manually rather than on autopilot.

Could the two crashes be connected?

Initial investigations into the Indonesian accident suggest pilots may have been struggling to overcome a nose-down deployment caused by a fault angle-of-attack sensor.

Shortly after the Indonesian accident, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an Emergency Airworthiness Directive describing a possible problem whereby if an incorrect “angle of attack” reading is received by the flight control system, it will respond by tilting the nose downwards.

This, said the FAA, “could cause the flight crew to have difficulty controlling the airplane, and lead to excessive nose-down attitude, significant altitude loss, and possible impact with terrain”.

What is the FAA saying now?

In a “Continued Airworthiness Notification to the International Community”, or CANIC, the FAA says: “External reports are drawing similarities between this accident and the Lion Air flight 610 accident on October 29, 2018. However, this investigation has just begun and to date we have not been provided data to draw any conclusions or take any actions.”

Who flies the 737 MAX?

More than 350 have been delivered to airlines around the world, with the biggest fleets belonging to Southwest and American of the US, and Air Canada.

Around 5,000 more are on order. Airlines are attracted by the improved fuel efficiency on an aircraft type that has proven to be popular with passengers.

Which British airlines fly the model?

Norwegian has been flying the 737 MAX for almost a year, including a busy summer shuttling across the Atlantic The plane was successfully deployed on routes from Belfast and Edinburgh to the northeast US.

TUI Airways was the first UK registered airline to take delivery of the new Boeing aircraft, at Manchester airport in December 2018. It has plans to fly 32 of the type. The carrier said at the time the move was “part of the airline’s investment and commitment to remain the most carbon-efficient operator”.

Ryanair, Europe’s biggest budget airline, has ordered 135 but none have been delivered yet.

Which countries have grounded the jet?

The list is growing: the UK just announced the aircraft is temporarily banned from its airspace, including all arrivals, departures and overflights.

A spokesperson for the CAA said: “As we do not currently have sufficient information from the flight data recorder we have, as a precautionary measure, issued instructions to stop any commercial passenger flights from any operator arriving, departing or overflying UK airspace.

“The UK Civil Aviation Authority’s safety directive will be in place until further notice.

“We remain in close contact with the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and industry regulators globally.”

China and Indonesia have also ordered their airlines to stop flying the aircraft.

Singapore has closed its airspace to the 737 MAX 8. Its Civil Aviation Authority (CAAS) says: “SilkAir, which operates 6 Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, will be affected by the temporary suspension.”

It said: “CAAS has been in regular contact with SilkAir on its MAX operations since last year, and has been satisfied that it has been taking appropriate measures to comply with the necessary safety requirements.”

The other airlines with Boeing 737 MAX operations to Singapore are China Southern Airlines, Garuda Indonesia, Shandong Airlines and Thai Lion Air – all but the last are currently grounded.

Australia has banned the jet; the only two airlines affected are Silk Air, whose planes were earlier grounded, and Fiji Airways.

Comair, which flies in the colours of British Airways in South Africa, has taken its 737 MAX 8 out of service, though it stressed neither regulatory authorities nor the manufacturer had required it to do so.

Grand Cayman Airways has also grounded the jet.

Ethiopian Airlines has voluntarily grounded its remaining fleet of four 737 MAX aircraft until more is known about the cause of the crash.

These groundings affect around one-third of the type flying worldwide.

Ethiopian Airlines has also “retired” the flight number of the departure that crashed. The daily 8.15am flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi was previously known as ET302.

It is shown in future schedules as ET318.

How is Ethiopian Airlines regarded in aviation circles?

The airline is Africa’s leading carrier, with a well-run and profitable network. The Independent reported a year ago: “If you want to fly on the continent’s best airline, with the world’s most modern aircraft, then it has to be Ethiopian.

“During traumas from famine to revolution, the airline has managed to deliver those two elusive qualities: customer service and profit.”

The business model is to connect Africa with Europe, North America and Asia, and to provide high-quality links through its hub in Addis Ababa.

Ethiopian Airlines’ maintenance standards are well regarded. It operates one of the most technologically advanced aircraft in the world, the Airbus A350, on the link between Heathrow and Addis Ababa.

It has recently expanded in the UK with a link from Manchester to the Ethiopian capital.

What about its safety record?

Compared with some other African airlines, Ethiopian has a good record. But since its foundation in 1945, Ethiopian Airlines has suffered a number of accidents and hijackings.

The worst event in recent decades was the hijacking of a Boeing 767 in 1996, when the aircraft ran out of fuel and ditched near a beach in the Comoro Islands.

An Ethiopian Airlines 737 also crashed shortly after take-off from Beirut in 2010 with the loss of 90 lives.

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