Ethiopian flight 302 inquest

By Andrej Sagaidak

Safety & security compromises at the interface between human and artificial intelligence

The crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 from Addis Ababa to Nairobi is a tragedy that not only raises fresh questions to the kingpin aircraft manufacturer Boeing, but it also shames Africa’s largest and best airline. While Africa’s overall aviation safety record has yet to achieve the highest marks, the Ethiopian Airline firm is an exception.  It is essential, therefore, to properly analyse the accumulated details that surround the most recent fatal crash before reaching conclusions.

African airlines industry image implications

On March 10, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 was an international passenger flight scheduled from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia to Jomo Kenyatta in Nairobi. The flight crashed six minutes after take-off near the town of Bishoftu killing all 157 on board from more than 30 countries. The plane had a particularly high concentration of United Nations employees. A day after the crash, the UN said that at least 22 of its staff members were on board of the Flight 302. The employees were largely humanitarian workers and international experts, many of whom were bound for a major UN environmental summit in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

Ethiopian Airline was voted Best Airline in Africa in 2018. The firm’s triumphs are arguably due to its low prices, efficient service delivery, a good safety record, and a wide network of flights.

Whilst it is widely seen as one of the best airline on the continent, it has had a previous record of four deadly accidents or incidents involving the carrier. The first disasters happened in 1988 when an Ethiopian Airplane ingested pigeon and the aircraft caught fire during landing at Dahil Bar airport killing 35 people. In 1996, Ethiopian Boeing 767 was infamously hijacked, and it ran out of fuel while flying from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa crash-landing in Nairobi, Kenya killing 125 out of 175 passengers. The latest before Flight 302, was back in 2010 when flight ET409 caught fire five minutes after a take-off from Beirut and plummeted into the Mediterranean Sea two miles off the Lebanese coast killing 89 passengers and crew.

There is ongoing expansion works at Ethiopia’s main airport, the Bole International airport, which will further enhance the Ethiopian aviator’s presence in Africa. Once completed, it will be able to accommodate at least 22 million passengers per year, that will overtake South Africa’s O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. The airline has also been helping other African national carriers. For example, it revived and owns 48 per cent stake in Malawi Airlines and a 45 per cent stake in Zambia Airways. It recently announced plans to help re-launch a new airline in Mozambique. In addition, Ethiopian is also in talks to establish smaller regional bases in Djibouti, Chad, and Equatorial Guinea.

Flight 302 was a massive shock to both the Ethiopian airline and also the aircraft producer Boeing. Liabilities associated with the accident could mean lower prices, higher costs, and significant PR management costs in an effort to restore the companies’ relationship with customers who have threatened to cancel orders. Analysts said that Flight 302 was unlikely to damage Ethiopian’s existing partnership with African carriers that helped increase passenger numbers from 2.5 million a decade ago to 10.6 million last year. “Ethiopian’s accident has not affected out partnership in any way,” said Lionel Tsoto, the airline’s head of public relations. He added that “we continue just as before.”

On the other hand, stock performances are already plummeting for Boeing. Yahoo Finance shows that the close of trading, days before the crash, stood at $422.54 (£320.22) but shares declined 14 per cent of $363.33 (£275.5) on March 13, 2019, representing over $33 (£25) billion in market cap value.

Image source: Seeking Alpha

The new Boeing 737 MAX 8

On the day of the crash, the brand-new Boeing 737 MAX 8 disappeared from radar six minutes into the flight. This caused immediate comparisons to the ‘Lion Air’ plane crash of the same ultra-modern model that happened four months earlier. More than 30 countries and airlines have already banned 737 MAX jets from their skies because of concerns that the two crashes may have both been caused by new software Boeing added to the modern version of its workhorse jet.

However, there are important differences between the two air disasters.  The CEO of Ethiopian Airlines Tewolde Gebre Mariam affirmed that the plane did not have any known technical difficulties, and that there were no previous reports of potential malfunctions. He told CNN reporters that “the routine maintenance check didn’t reveal any problems.” In spite of the plane’s clean technical issues book, the Ethiopian Airline’s Flight 302 pilot who has had an excellent flying record reported difficulties, asking to turn back within minutes of his last flight.

In contrast, the November 2018 Lion Air 610 Flight, which killed 189 people crashing into the Java Sea, hadexperienced previous technical problems. Specifically, the plane detected out-of-control conditions on its second-to-last flight, leaving passengers vomiting and panicking. Nurcahyo Utomo, the aviation head of Indonesia’s National transport Safety Committee, confirmed that there was a preliminary report into the disaster. He went further to reiterate that although the maintenance team carried out some fixing procedures on the airplane, “in our opinion, the plane was no longer airworthy and it should not have been continued.”  In other words, the technicians knew that the plane was faulty, yet, it was still allowed to fly.

The crash of the brand-new Boeing 737 MAX 8 caused an immediate look-back at the Lion Air plane crash of the same ultra-modern model that happened four months earlier. More than 30 countries and airlines had banned 737 MAX jets from their skies as the two crashes may have both been caused by software Boeing added to the modern version of its workhorse jet. However, there are important differences between the two air disasters.

What the world of aviation had to say about the safety measures?

Worldwide, pilots were deeply angered by the sequence of plane crashes and have demanded subtle modifications to the MAX 8 model’s autopilot software. Principally, the autopilot feature of the MAX 8 plane automatically compensates if it believes the plane’s angle of tilt puts it at risk of stalling. This is a safety feature that worked in a slightly different way to that which 737 pilots were used to.

Indeed, Lion Air 610 Flight’s black box revealed that the pilots struggled with this automated feature. These fatal incidents have ignited an important debate on software versus pilots’ role in crashes. It is perhaps debatable that if the pilots had been adequately trained to manoeuvre the newly installed systems, the Lion and Ethiopian airline crashes would not have happened.

A similar debate was sparked back in 2009, when Air France Flight 447 crashed in the South Atlantic. The consensus then was that, sensors on aircraft computer systems can malfunction freely. Therefore, it appears that pilots overtime have become highly reliant on technology, hence, becoming rapidly befuddled when off-the-book problems occur.  With the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies driving global aviation systems, the interface between man and machine is becoming rather more contentious. These advances relegate human judgement and intuition to the back seat.

Whilst the Ethiopia Airlines and Lion Air crashes may indicate causes that are somewhat unrelated, confidence that a newer, technologically advanced plane automatically means a safer plane in under a gigantic question mark.


Andrej Sagaidak
National Institute for African Studies