An Ethiopian Airlines passenger jet bound for Nairobi crashed minutes after take-off on Sunday, killing all 157 people on board and raising questions about the safety of the Boeing 737 MAX 8, a new model that also crashed in Indonesia in October. Sunday’s flight left Bole airport in Addis Ababa at 8.38 am (0538 GMT), before losing contact with the control tower just a few minutes later at 8.44 am.
“The pilot mentioned that he had difficulties and that he wanted to return,” Ethiopian Airlines chief executive Tewolde GebreMariam told a news conference. “There are no survivors,” the airline tweeted alongside a picture of Tewolde holding up a piece of debris inside a large crater at the crash site. Passengers from 33 countries were aboard, said Tewolde.
The dead included Kenyan, Ethiopian, American, Canadian, French, Chinese, Egyptian, Swedish, British, Dutch, Indian, Slovakian, Austrian, Swedish, Russian, Moroccan, Spanish, Polish, and Israeli citizens. At least four worked for the United Nations, the airline said, and the UN’s World Food Program director confirmed his organisation had lost staff in the accident.
Weeping relatives begged for information at airports in Nairobi and Addis Ababa. “We’re just waiting for my mum. We’re just hoping she took a different flight or was delayed. She’s not picking up her phone,” said Wendy Otieno, clutching her phone and weeping.
The aircraft, a 737 MAX 8, is the same model that crashed into the Java Sea shortly after take-off from Jakarta on 29 October, killing all 189 people on board the Lion Air flight. The cause of that crash is still under investigation.
A senior US government official said it was too early to tell if there was any direct connection between the two accidents, but that reviewing the issue would be among the top priorities for investigators. The 737 is the world’s best-selling modern passenger aircraft and is seen as one of the industry’s most reliable.
A preliminary report into the October crash focused on airline maintenance and training and the technical response of a Boeing anti-stall system to a recently replaced sensor. Boeing is working on a software patch, while insisting cockpit procedures were already in place to deal with problems that the Lion Air jet experienced.
Ethiopian’s new aircraft had no recorded technical problems and the pilot had an “excellent” flying record, Tewolde said. “We received the airplane on 15 November, 2018. It has flown more than 1,200 hours. It had flown from Johannesburg earlier this morning,” he said.