Pride and Prejudice: The Crash of Ethiopian Airlines 302 [By Worku Aberra (PhD)]

Pride and Prejudice: The Crash of Ethiopian Airlines 302

By Worku Aberra


When I took my daughter, who was born and raised in Canada, to Ethiopia for her first time, we flew Ethiopian Airlines (EAL) from Frankfurt to Addis Ababa.  As the plane was about to take off, the captain came on the speaker and announced in accented English that we were about to take off.  When she heard him, she fearfully grabbed my arm and asked, “Daddy, can he drive the airplane?” I assured her there was nothing to worry about. We arrived in Addis Ababa on schedule after a relaxed, pleasant, and memorable flight.  We still joke about her concern in the family.

Ethiopians are proud of their culture, history, long distance runners, and the national flag carrier, EAL. Established in 1945 by Emperor Haile Selassie with the technical assistance of the TWA, EAL today is the largest and most profitable airline in Africa.  To Ethiopians, it demonstrates how they can run an internationally competitive, reputable, and successful company.  It is the pride of all Ethiopians.  When EAL flight 302 crashed on March 10 killing all 157 people aboard, I felt sorry for the families and their loved ones.  Like most Ethiopians, I also started worrying about how the accident may reinforce negative stereotypes.  For some, the accident could be a stereotype-confirming event.

Beyond the tragic loss of life, the accident has financial implications for Boeing and EAL.  The potential for financial losses raises the probability of inaccurate information, biased comments, and speculative analysis. The possibility of bias also exists because of the conscious or unconscious prejudice that analysts, experts, and reporters may harbor towards pilots from developing countries.

The media reports have been by and large fair and balanced, but there are cases of biased reporting.  Justifiably, some media outlets have questioned the effectiveness of the EAL’s pilot training program.  Two of the most influential newspapers in the US, The York Times and the Washington Post wrote long articles that focused on pilot training at EAL.  On March 21, The New York Times article reported that the pilot and the co-pilot of EAL did not practice with the 737 Max 8 simulator, but EAL denies the accusation, adding that, “The B-737 MAX full flight simulators is not designed to simulate the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) problems”.

On March 22, The Washington Post had a long article that suggested the training of the pilots at EAL was inadequate.    The sources of its information were two pilots, most probably two of the current or past American pilots working for EAL, who had anonymously contacted the FAA in 2015 complaining that the training of pilots at EAL was unsatisfactory.  The Post quoted one pilot as saying, “Overall, [Ethiopian Airlines] offers substandard training compared to industry norms”. Once again, the EAL management dismissed the allegations as baseless.

It was also reported that while the pilot had 8000 hours of flying experience the co-pilot had only 300 hours.  An expert contacted by the Post concentrated on the low number of hours flown by the co-pilot, concluding that human error may have been the main cause of the accident.  (The Post under reported the number of hours flown by the co-pilot as 200 others, instead of the actual 350 hours). He said, “There is no way [Ethiopian Airlines] can claim they had a qualified crew on that flight”, and went on to say, “That is not inconsequential and it’s a scandal that, instead of investigating the fact that we have an airline such as [Ethiopian Airlines] flying into the U.S., we have Congress running off into the weeds chasing Boeing/FAA issues.” The expert made these comments before the preliminary report was released.

Although the number of hours flown by the co-pilot is low, the cause of the accident has now been identified as a malfunctioning sensor.  EAL maintains that the co-pilots low number of hours is consistent with ICAO regulations.  Even if we assume EAL made a mistake in putting someone with low flying hours in the cockpit, just as Lufthansa made a mistake in hiring a mentally disturbed co-pilot who intentionally crashed a Germanwings airplane into the French Alps on March 24, 2015, the attitude of some experts towards the two airlines is different.  Lufthansa’s mistake was considered unique while the EAL mistake was treated as typical.  I don’t remember any expert demanding that Congress investigate whether Lufthansa should continue flying into the US because of its accident in France.

Since EAL employs U.S. pilots, both the York Times and the Washington Post could have contacted American pilots currently working or have previously worked for EAL for an American perspective on the training of pilots by EAL. Their views could have been illuminating.

Some people have questioned the competence of the EAL pilots by pointing out that American Airlines and Southwest Airlines which fly the largest fleet of 737 Max 8 aircraft haven’t had any accident.  This fact proves, they conclude, that the cause of the accident must be improper pilot training; pilots from third world countries are not sufficiently trained to fly a complicated aircraft such as 737 Max 8.  This is a fallacious argument, known as the gamblers of fallacy in statistics.  The absence of accidents with these two airlines so far doesn’t preclude future accidents.

Some of the reporting was outright prejudiced towards EAL.  In a  discussion with an aerospace expert about the accident, a British television anchorwoman in Turkey alleged that EAL has a “poor safety record”, and when the expert corrected her, she went on to say that the airline has a history of hijacking. He again corrected her by pointing out there was one hijacking in 1996, and that the EAL has an excellent safety record.

A New York Times article, quoting unnamed sources, raised doubts about the competence of the pilot. It reported that initially the pilot was calm when communicating with the air controllers but started panicking as he lost control of the aircraft.   Now, even if the story were true, is this newsworthy?  Interestingly, the article was written by a woman of Ethiopian heritage.

The preliminary report issued by Ethiopian authorities indicates that the pilots followed the procedure issued by Boeing and approved by FAA, but doubts about the skills of the pilots persist.  A news report by Reuters on April 5 says that the pilots maintained high speed after take-off which contributed to their inability to control the plane.  Since the investigation is incomplete, this speculative conclusion is premature.

To the collective sigh of all Ethiopians, the preliminary report and more importantly the apology from the CEO of Boeing on April confirm that the cause of the accident was a faulty sensor.  Even after the Boeing CEO  admitted that, “we own it and we know how to do it.”,  some reports still doubt the qualification and experience of the pilots.  If a child conflates a pilot’s accent with his/her ability to fly a plane, it is understandable, but when a commentator questions the skill of the pilots, contrary to the facts, it is objectionable.

Worku Aberra (PhD) is a professor of economics at Dawson college, Montreal, Canada.

Filed in: Current Affairs / News