Before the March 2019 tragedy, Ethiopian Airlines was the most profitable airline across the continent of Africa. They were strategically expanding their network and owners of one of the youngest fleet in the industry with aircraft an average age of 5 years.
At 8.38 a.m. local time, 10 March 2019, ET 302 took off from Addis Ababa Bole Airport heading to Nairobi. Six minutes later, the 3-month old aircraft, lost contact with ground control and crashed into a field near Bishoft, located 40 miles southeast of Ethiopia’s capital. There were no survivors, all 157 souls on board died.
Crisis Communication Management
First reports of the crash were seen on Twitter, posted by those closest to the crash site. In this digital age we now live in, many turn to social channels first when trying to find any kind of big ‘breaking news’ simply because social media and mobile phones provide on-the-spot instantaneous content. Also we know 25 per cent of verified users on Twitter are journalists or media outlets and they too are using the site for sourcing news stories (Medium/Haje Jan Kamps 2015).
It was at 11.00 a.m. local time on 10 March, that Ethiopian Airlines updated their website, Facebook and Twitter with the first of 5 ‘Accident Bulletins’ shared on that day, the first confirming details of the crash.
All Ethiopian offices (or stations as they’re known) also circulated press releases to the local media around the globe, announcing details of the crash.
Soon after, Ethiopian followed with another update across all online channels sharing emergency hotline telephone numbers that had been set up.
At 11.47 a.m. local time, Ethiopian’s Group CEO, held a press conference at the airline’s head office in Addis Ababa and it was shown live on Facebook.
At 1.46 p.m. local time 10 March, Ethiopian updated their social channels with an image of their CEO at the crash site and an accompanying post sharing his regret at the lack of survivors.
On 10 March, Ethiopian grounded their Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft and cancelled all advertising campaigns, promotions and events.
Follow up ‘Accident Bulletins’ subsequently released by the airline were shared on the Ethiopian Airlines global website, their social channels, Twitter and Facebook, and further distributed across localised Facebook pages around the world.
Crash Early Indicators
Within hours of the crash, initial reports suggested similarities with the Lion Air crash in Indonesia from the previous November 2018. The day after the tragedy, on 11 March 2019, China’s CAA announced all MAX8 aircraft were grounded. Over the next two days other airlines followed suit with the U.S. last to do so on 13 March. The grounding affected 59 airlines with 387 Boeing 737 MAX8 planes sitting on runways around the globe.
Cost to Ethiopian
Over the following weeks as the investigations continued, the finger pointing began in earnest with the Ethiopian pilot’s experience questioned, in particular by the U.S. media including the Washington Post and New York Times. As the blame game was going on, Ethiopian Airlines again took to their social channels to refute the accusation directed at the pilots who flew the ill-fated aircraft and defend their internal pilot training programmes.
Meanwhile, public confidence in the airline remained high in Africa; however across Europe and the U.S. the negative media reports saw Ethiopian experience a decline in ticket sales.
The Software Problem
As with all aircraft accidents, the black box is crucial in learning what happened. Once the ET 302 Black Box was retrieved, it was shipped to Paris for independent investigation. In Paris, those similarities with the Lion Air crash were confirmed. A possible problem with some software in the cockpit was reported, specifically the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System or MCAS for short.
The purpose of the MCAS system is to automatically push the aircraft’s nose down when there is a risk of the aircraft stalling. Further investigations confirmed in both the Ethiopian and Lion Air crashes, the MCAS system had erroneously kicked in, behaved more powerfully than expected and resulted in the pilots losing control of the aircraft as they fought to manually override it.
Soon after, the Boeing CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, made an official statement pointing to a feeding of erroneous Angle of Attack (AOA) data to the MCAS system and confirmed a common link in both the Ethiopian and Lion Air crashes.
What came as a shock to many was the revelation on 21 March 2019 that the 737 MAX planes were not equipped with an angle-of-attack indicator or angle-of-attack light. It meant pilots flying a 737 MAX8 had no warning when the MCAS system malfunctioned.
As more revelations surfaced, we learned the Angle of Attack sensors were not standard on the aircraft and in fact were considered as optional safety features. Moreover, airlines were not required by the airline regulators to buy and install them.
Further Tests Needed
While it was expected a software fix would have the 737MAX8 planes back in the air by August 2019 that date has been consistently pushed back.
In September 2019, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) stated Boeing had failed to consider how pilots would respond to cockpit emergencies and further tests were needed. Furthermore, the NTSB stated they would not be analysing pilot actions in either the Ethiopian or Lion Air crashes and that their recommendations (to Boeing) were not a reflection on the pilots.
On 13 October 2019, in a letter to the Editor of the New York Times from Captain Sully Sullenberger, an American retired airline captain, who landed the US flight 1549 in the Hudson River, he writes
“I know firsthand the challenges the pilots on the doomed accident flights faced, and how wrong it is to blame them for not being able to compensate for such a pernicious and deadly design. These emergencies did not present as a classic runaway stabilizer problem, but initially as ambiguous unreliable airspeed and altitude situations, masking MCAS. The MCAS design should never have been approved, not by Boeing, and not by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).”
In October 2019, the EU’s Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) told the FAA they wanted further tests completed on the flight-control system before the planes could re-enter service.
By late October, the aviation giant, Boeing recorded a slump in profits as the 737 MAX remained grounded.
In an age where the public expect their news instantaneously, some might consider the first announcement by the airline as slow at 2 hours 16 minutes after the crash. However, Ethiopian turned things around by taking control of the situation and the information flow. Incorporating their social channels into their overall crisis communication process helped to do that. It avoided potential accusations around a lack of information shared with the public or indeed the withholding of information, something other airlines have had to deal with in the past.
Overall the taking control of the message and the effective use of social media minimised any serious reputational damage to the Ethiopian brand. Proof of that came with Ethiopian announcing in October 2019 a 17% increase in passenger numbers and an operating revenue jump of 30% for the financial year July 2018 – June 2019.
At the time of writing this article, the 737 MAX8 is still grounded.