Failure to ground Max 8s earlier rooted in prejudice

Picture: David Ryder/Reuters/African News Agency (ANA)

We’re all still reeling from Sunday’s tragedy when everyone on board perished after Ethiopian Airways Flight ET302 plummeted to the ground six minutes after take-off from Addis Ababa.

The same aircraft had just completed its scheduled Johannesburg-Addis route and was now doing the short haul to Nairobi.

It’s a popular flight; many South Africans use it as an alternative route to Nairobi, if they can’t get a direct flight. As it was, there were no South Africans among the 157 who died, but the diversity of nationalities that were on the flight speaks volumes for Ethiopian Airways’ inexorable rise to become one of the continent’s best carriers, if not the best, with the most modern fleet.

Flight ET302 was merely months old – and therein lies the rub.

There are two issues here: the alacrity with which the usual suspects tried to make the immediate narrative one about African aviation and its implied weak safety standards – and the second, that there is a software error unique to this model of 737, the Max 8.

At this stage, nobody knows exactly what happened. All we do know is that an airline running the latest aircraft, with a highly experienced captain at the controls, suffered a catastrophic loss of life. We also know that airlines which use this latest version of Boeing’s workhorse of the skies, including Comair which runs the British Airways franchise in southern Africa, have been almost falling over themselves to ground their fleets until they find out what’s going on.

There’s also been a number of countries this week actually banning these aircraft from even entering their airspace – obviously for fear of a repeat. None of this has anything to do with Ethiopian Airways – which until Sunday had been one of the few profitable airlines in Africa – but everything to do with the manufacturer.

What makes it even worse is the fact that this is not the first crash: Lion Air, the low-cost Indonesia airline, suffered the same fate five months ago. One hundred and eighty-nine people perished when Flight 610 plunged into the sea shortly after take-off.

Why weren’t the 737 Max 8s grounded then? There are a whole bunch of reasons, but much of it is probably rooted in the old cynicism that things that happen in the third world don’t have as much resonance as things that happen in the first world – until it’s too late to wish them away.

Try explaining that to John Quindos Karanja.

He was waiting to celebrate the return of his wife, Ann, from Canada. She had been there for a year helping their daughter, Caroline, after giving birth to her third child in North America. Now all five of them were coming home. There was a feast planned in their village in Kenya’s Nakuru County to introduce 9-month-old Ruby Paul to relatives.

None of them made it.

His loss, which must be unbearable, will be unimaginable if it emerges that they would still be with him if someone had found the courage to act on October 29 last year.

* Kevin Ritchie is a media consultant. He is a former journalist and newspaper editor.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Saturday Star