Can Ethiopia’s Long Love Affair With Boeing Survive the 737 Max Crash?

By Selam Gebrekidan

Last week, a brand-new Boeing 737 Max 8 crashed shortly after takeoff in Ethiopia. Five months earlier, an identical Boeing model crashed in Indonesia. With investigators looking into the possibility that a design flaw played a role in both disasters, the company is in a harsh spotlight.

Like Boeing, Ethiopian Airlines has long been held in high regard. It maintains a young fleet, and it operates a respected aviation school.

The airline has been intertwined with Boeing for six decades. It was the first African airline to buy its jets, with a loan from the American government. And over the years, it has maintained such close ties with Boeing that it did not purchase planes from rival Airbus until three years ago.

“Ethiopians think of Boeing when they think of planes, the way people call all toothpaste Colgate,” said Yonathan Menkir Kassa, a pilot and aviation writer.

But many Ethiopians believe Boeing was to blame for the March 10 crash of Ethiopian Flight 302. And some have started to mistrust the manufacturer, worried that it may try to use its power to strong-arm a developing-world airline as the crash investigation continues.

Last week, there was a collective sigh of relief when news came that the plane’s “black boxes” — the cockpit voice and flight data recorders — would go to France for analysis, not to Boeing’s home country.

With its entire Max 8 fleet groundedaround the world, Boeing faces much bigger immediate problems than what Ethiopians think. But once the investigations are over and the dust has settled, the company may need to work hard to restore its image in a country where its reputation was once beyond challenge.

For now, public reaction in Ethiopia to the crash has largely been muted, perhaps not surprising in a country with a long history of repression. A week after the crash, Ethiopian Airlines has said very little about the early findings of the investigation. The local press has been excluded from the terse briefings of the Ministry of Transport.

Among this virtual blackout of information, a local paper ran an editorial last week imploring Ethiopians to withhold judgment against both the airline and the plane maker. Next to the text was an image of a middle-aged man “shushing” readers.

Many people here regard the investigation with suspicion. But in a deeply religious country often caught in the spasms of violent change, the public has become resigned to the commonplace of loss.

Abiy Yilma, 56, an accountant who lost a relative in the crash, believes a design flaw was responsible for the Boeing’s nose-dive. But he suspects relatives of the victims will not be inclined to go after the manufacturer.

“What can we possibly do?” Mr. Abiy asked. “We have to accept our fate.”

The ties between Ethiopian Airlines and Boeing began forming in the 1960s, just over a decade after the carrier was set up under the management of Trans World Airlines.

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