Ethiopian Signals Renewed Confidence in 737 Max

 - February 2, 2022, 8:35 AM
Ethiopian Airlines Group acting CEO Esayas Woldemariam (left) and airline v-p of flight operations Yohannes Hailemariam (center) prepare to greet passengers invited to fly aboard a 737 Max demonstration flight on February 1. (Photo: Kaleyesus Bekele)

Nearly three years after the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 outside Addis Ababa killed all 157 on board, the airline marked the jet’s imminent resumption of service with a four-hour demonstration flight from the Ethiopian capital on Tuesday. Flight ET9301 carried 50 passengers, including Ethiopian Airlines senior managers and board members, the general director of the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority (ECAA), representatives from Boeing and GE Aviation, and members of the press. After landing, Captain Nathan Elias reported a smooth and quiet flight. “We tried all kinds of maneuvers and they were all perfect,” he said.     

Esayas Woldemariam, Ethiopian Airlines acting group CEO, told AIN that the flag carrier delivered on its vow to be one of the last airlines to return the Max to service following the model’s grounding in March 2019. “We wanted to make sure that the aircraft is tested, tried, and trusted,” he said.

Following recertification work by civil aviation authorities from the U.S., Europe, Canada, and China, 187 countries have opened their airspace to Max jets and 36 airlines resumed operations with the aircraft. In the past year, the model has accumulated more than 350,000 flight hours.

Ethiopian Airlines had ordered 30 Max 8s and taken delivery of five when the March 9 accident occurred. The remaining four airplanes stayed grounded for close to three years at the airline's hub at Addis Ababa Bole International Airport.

Woldemariam said the cockpit crew, mechanics, and engineers had undergone rigorous training to resume operations, adding that the ECAA has investigated and approved all modifications to the airplane—including to its MCAS flight-control system—and changes to related documentation.

“The product is now perfect,” he proclaimed, adding that the airline would take delivery of the 25 remaining Maxes in its order book, but under a timeline adjusted for Covid-19 economic realities. “We would consider taking delivery of the aircraft with some kinds of adjustments,” he noted.

Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice president of marketing Darren Hulst said the collaboration between the manufacturer and Ethiopian Airlines centered on new training procedures and de-preservation of stored aircraft. “We worked with Ethiopian MRO on…implementing small changes to the aircraft to bring it back to where we are today,” he explained. “The software changes took a few days.    

“The system activates only when both [angle of attack] sensors agree,” added Hulst. “The MCAS system only activates one time instead of continuously. It is a very small change but obviously significant from the pilots’ perspective because it is a much simpler way to manage any potential non-normal situation. The system is changed not to activate repeatedly and erroneously. Redundancy is built-in.”  

Ethiopian Airlines vice president of flight operations Yohannes Hailemariam explained that the original MCAS system took input from only one AoA sensor. “Now the MCAS is made to take inputs from the two AoA sensors, compare them, and if it is within the margin it will use the input," he said. "Otherwise, it will dump it and the MCAS will not activate. Hailemariam further noted that the pilots can now override the MCAS system and that, once they do that, it cannot re-engage.  

Hailemariam said Ethiopian has trained its flight crew and instructor pilots in accordance with the associated airworthiness directive. “A more elaborate training was introduced and then after having that approved by local regulators—in our case ECAA—we updated our simulators to the new version,” he explained. “After the MCAS was modified, we have done many simulator flights and trained our instructors who train our line pilots. Right now, almost all our Max pilots are trained. We are now ready to start regular commercial operation.”  

Plans call for Ethiopian’s Max fleet to start operating scheduled flights on regional routes within a week. “I am now 100 percent confident in the safety of our MAX fleet,” Hailemariam concluded.