Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde Gebremariam speaks at the Africa CEO Forum in Kigali, Rwanda, March 25 2019. Picture: REUTERS/JEAN BIZIMANA
Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde Gebremariam speaks at the Africa CEO Forum in Kigali, Rwanda, March 25 2019. Picture: REUTERS/JEAN BIZIMANA

Addis Ababa/Seattle — A preliminary report on an Ethiopian Airlines crash will likely be released this week, the country’s transport ministry said on Tuesday, as Boeing prepares to brief more airlines on software and training updates on the 737 MAX.

The aviation industry and grieving families of victims of the March 10 crash are anxiously awaiting details from the Ethiopia-led investigation.

Boeing has come under intense scrutiny since the crash, the second in five months involving its new 737 MAX 8 model.

The MAX software is among the leading areas of focus for investigations into the two crashes — in Ethiopia this month and in Indonesia in 2018 — in which 346 lives were lost.

Boeing is this week briefing airlines on software and training updates for the MAX, with more than 200 global airline pilots, technical experts and regulators due in Renton, Washington, where the plane is built.

Any fixes to the MAX software must still get approval from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and eventually from governments around the world, a process that could take months.

The 737 MAX is Boeing’s best-selling aircraft, with orders worth more than $500bn at list prices. Within less than a week after the Ethiopian crash, the jets were grounded globally.

China’s civil aviation regulator has stopped taking applications for MAX 8 airworthiness certification, an official from the regulator said on Tuesday.

High stakes

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for Ethiopia’s transport ministry, which is leading the investigation in Addis Ababa, said the report will very likely be released this week, though he cautioned that there could be unpredictable issues and declined to give further details.

The statement came a day after Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde Gebremariam said he expected the preliminary report to be released this week or next week.

The stakes are high for the global aviation industry.

The initial report from the investigation will begin to paint a more detailed picture of what went wrong during ET 302’s six minutes in the air, likely with huge consequences for the plane’s manufacturer, the airline, or both.

Ethiopian Airlines is a symbol of immense national pride for the country of more than 100-million people.

Its success over the past decade in particular, as it has grown its Boeing-dominated fleet substantially, is emblematic of Ethiopia’s ambitions: to be a regional powerhouse with an Asia-style economic development model.

Foreign investment

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who took office a year ago and announced sweeping economic and political reforms, has said he wants to open Ethiopian Airlines up to foreign investment as part of a partial privatisation scheme for state-owned enterprises.

All of that could hinge on what the investigation reveals. Most crash investigations end up pinpointing a combination of factors.

Boeing’s software fix for the grounded 737 MAX will prevent repeated operation of an anti-stall system at the centre of safety concerns, and deactivate it altogether if two sensors disagree widely, two people familiar with pilot briefings said on Monday.

Upgrading an individual 737 MAX with Boeing’s new software only takes about an hour per plane, though the overall process could stretch on far longer as it is rolled out across the global fleet due to stringent testing and documentation requirements by engineers and regulators, according to a senior FAA official with knowledge of the process.

Ethiopian and French investigators have pointed to “clear similarities” between the two crashes, putting pressure on Boeing and US regulators to come up with an adequate fix.

Boeing shares closed on Monday 2.3% higher at $370.46 on hopes that a fix is nearing completion, but have lost about 12% and $29bn in market value since the March 10 crash.

In another potential blow to Boeing, France announced on Monday that Airbus has agreed to sell 300 aircraft to China in a deal worth about €30bn ($33.8bn).

Such headline figures surrounding state visits typically mask a mixture of old and new business, but the deal signals China’s return to the global aircraft market after a pause of about a year due to trade tensions, industry sources said.

Reuters