The head of Ethiopian Airlines has said his company may or may not attend Boeing’s upcoming global meeting for regulators and pilots, in what will be seen in some quarters as a rebuke as the aircraft manufacturer tries to salvage its reputation and get the grounded 737 Max back in the sky.
The carrier’s attendance of the information session will depend on the “time schedule that we have,” Tewolde GebreMariam told Quartz on the sidelines of the Africa CEO Forum in Kigali. The briefing, due to take place on Wednesday (Mar. 27) in Renton, Washington, was set up to keep apprise over 200 global airline pilots, authorities, and technical experts.
Last week, Boeing said it developed a software patch and pilot training program to address issues with the 737 Max, a best-selling jet that has been involved in two deadly crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia that left almost 350 people dead.
The hesitation from Ethiopian Airlines to attend the meeting is surprising given the Ethiopian air crash led to both the grounding of the plane model worldwide and necessitated the software update from Boeing. It is also the strongest sign yet that there may be a fissure forming in the relationship between Boeing and Ethiopian.
Tewolde’s assertions came just hours after releasing a statement in which he expressed confidence with Boeing, saying their six-decade partnership will continue “well into the future.” 79 of Ethiopian’s fleet of 113 has been supplied by Boeing, but as queries about safety have swirled, the CEO had previously said warning and training requirements provided for the now-grounded model may have not been enough.
“As you can imagine, we have a lot of things to do,” Tewolde said. “We have to take care of the families of the victims; that is our priority number one. We have to cooperate fully with the investigation. We have to run the day-to-day business of the airline.”
The preliminary report of the crash is expected this week or next, he said, but there was no concrete information uncovered so far. Questions have, nevertheless, swirled around the plane’s automated anti-stalling system known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, incorporated to direct the nose of the plane downwards if it faced imminent stall. Tewolde had told the Wall Street Journal the MCAS feature was on in the ill-fated plane but again said he couldn’t “disclose information” since it was part of an ongoing investigation.
He also wouldn’t confirm to Quartz if the pilots on the doomed ET 302 flight were trained on the 737 Max simulator, which the airline had purchased months before. Tewolde also drew similarities of the crash and the current investigation with the Concorde quandary, the supersonic jet that was taken out of service in 2003 following a deadly crash in France in 2003 along with a series of technical issues.
“This is perhaps a very rare occasion, maybe the second in aviation history where an investigation is being conducted while the airplanes are grounded,” he noted, adding “I hope Boeing will come with the right fix.”
Calling the airline “robust,” he noted they operated more than 300 flights without “delay or cancellation” even on the day of the Ethiopian Airlines crash on March 10. That accident, he said, has now deeply impacted families, his company, and the global aviation sector as a whole: “We have to work together. We have to stay together to come out of this challenge together.”