My Experience Flying The Doomed Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX

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Just a few weeks ago I flew the exact same model of a B737 MAX from Antananarivo (Madagascar) to Addis Abeba. The plane that had such a tragic accident was registered under ET-AVJ. I flew the exact same model delivered just a few weeks earlier from Boeing in Seattle with registration ET – AVI (yes just one letter difference!).

Crazy similarities between the Lion Air JT610 crash

Just a few days before my flight, Lion Air JT610 crashed into the Java Sea (on October 29th) shortly after takeoff so I felt quite uneasy about my flight, especially at takeoff. From the preliminary findings it seemed the pilots ‘fought’ the plane’s computer during takeoff. What exactly happened isn’t yet clear but as with most air crash accidents, there are multiple factors at play. However, I had the feeling that the 737MAX was too automated for the pilots, during the critical first minutes of a flight, and they simply could not override the autopilot to enable the plane to behave sensibly.

Boeing had issued a ‘safety bulletin’ just before my flight that asked airlines to review their safety procedures regarding the 737 MAX, also concerning, but I had booked and paid for my flight so on I went!

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My general impression of Ethiopian Airlines

I have been on Ethiopian Airlines at least a dozen times and always felt the airline does a good job adhering to regulations, sometimes a bit too much. The ground operations and crew operate more like a Chinese airline with a complete adherence to rules. This is very different from most airlines in Sub-Saharan Africa. However (justified or not) I never felt that the crew had an enormous amount of experience. I always felt they were eager and disciplined but might not possess the years of knowledge that, say, a British Airways pilot has in flying a plane.

Here is a good Youtube clip that shows young Ethiopian Airlines pilots at work:

B737 MAX from Antananarivo to Addis Abeba: Ground Experience

Ethiopian Airlines is new to Antananarivo and has been moving their 737MAX to service the destination as they couldn’t fill their 787’s with passengers for the 5x weekly flight.

Since I was a Business Class passenger, I used the airport lounge, which can only be described as a ‘dungeon’. This isn’t Ethiopian Airlines’ fault necessarily but I was hoping for something that is closer to an international standard lounge. No such luck at ‘Tana airport. There is a new terminal being built which will hopefully feature a better lounge experience as well.

Once boarding was announced it was quick and well organized (you actually walk along the apron area to your plane even for big planes as there are no jet bridges).

B737 MAX from Antananarivo to Addis Abeba: Business Class

This plane had just been delivered a few weeks before my flight and was in mint condition without any scrapes or paint issues (Ethiopian Airlines’ planes age rapidly typically). I was hoping that Ethiopian would add a ‘lie-flat’ Business Class, but the company decided to install a ‘standard’ regional Business Class outfit despite this rather long flight at almost 5 hours.

Ethiopian Airlines uses the Thales inflight entertainment system that provides (just a few) movies and shows on your tablet. There is no satellite WiFi installed (yet).

The flight attendants spoke fluent English and were quite warm and helpful. It helped that the Business Class cabin was just 40% full (Economy was 100% full).

Take-off was towards the East and we made an immediate steep turn to the West. Nothing wrong with that, but I felt we flew very slow despite the usually high takeoffs speed required at high altitude airports (like Antananarivo). The fate of Lion Air JT610 crash was something I definitely had in mind during takeoff making me grip the edges of the seat. Nothing happened though and our flight was fine and comfortable, despite a few takeoff bumps.

After takeoff, I was surprised by how good the catering and drinks menu and service has become on Ethiopian Airlines. The food and the ‘airplane coffee’ were downright delicious (and I’m definitely a picky eater and coffee drinker).

Just south of Mogadishu we hit the African mainland (after circling around one too may thunderstorms earlier). The landing was perfectly normal from a (typical) south-westerly direction.

B737 MAX from Antananarivo to Addis Abeba: My Conclusion

I have to admit I was pretty worried flying that plane that day because of the Lion Air news just in. I felt there is something wrong with this plane and inexperienced pilots would have had a harder time handling it than others.

It is very tragic that indeed an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX has crashed now and 159 people have been killed.

Nothing happened during my flight (and this plane has been flying ever since without an accident), but I will definitely avoid this plane now and at any cost, until there is proof that what happened in two such similar aeroplane crashes has been fixed. If it happens once, a crash isn’t such a big deal but twice in a very similar fashion, is a huge anomaly within the (rather) safe world of aviation. Let’s hope these lives have not been lost in vain.

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