Ethiopian Airlines says pilots got appropriate training

Tewolde Gebremariam, Chief Executive Officer of Ethiopian Airlines, says the warning and training requirements set for the now-grounded 737 Max aircraft may not have been enough following the Ethiopian Airlines plane crash that killed 157 people. | AP Photo

By Elias Meseret | AP

Ethiopian Airlines’ CEO says the pilots who flew the plane that crashed on March 10 had trained on “all appropriate simulators,” rejecting reports that they had not been adequately prepared to handle the new aircraft.

Tewolde Gebremariam said in a statement Monday that the airline owns simulators to help pilots train on the Boeing 737 Max, which has software installed that requires new training. The software can pitch the plane’s nose down in some cases to keep it from stalling.

There is speculation that the software could have contributed to the crash, which killed 157 people, as well as to the crash of another Boeing 737 Max, a Lion Air flight, in October.

Regulators say both planes had similar erratic flight paths shortly after take-off, an important part of their decision to ground the roughly 370 Max planes around the world.

Boeing Co. is likely facing heavy costs to update the flight-control software on the Max and compensate airlines that have lost use of now-parked Max jets.

Separately, Boeing’s European rival Airbus announced a deal to sell 300 planes to Chinese airlines, which are also major operators of the Max. The deal — signed before Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron — includes 290 Airbus A320 jets, which compete with the Boeing 737. The number that are A320neo jets, the chief competitor to the Boeing Max, will be determined later, an Airbus spokeswoman said.

China’s demand for airliners is huge, and it could still order plenty more Boeing jets, but the announcement highlighted the peril Boeing faces in restoring airline and passenger confidence in its best-selling jet.

After the Lion Air crash off the coast of Indonesia, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing issued new training material for pilots. Questions lingered, however, whether the required training was sufficient and whether airlines like Ethiopian had access to simulators to give pilots thorough experience handling the software.

Gebremariam said Ethiopian Airlines owns and operates a Boeing 737 Max simulator.

“Contrary to some media reports, our pilots who fly the new model were trained on all appropriate simulators,” Gebremariam said. “The crews were well trained on this aircraft.”

The CEO, however, had told The Associated Press this weekend that he thinks the warnings and extra training material from Boeing and U.S. regulators “might not have been enough.”

He said in a subsequent interview to The Wall Street Journal on Monday that it appeared that the anti-stall software had been activated on the Ethiopian Airlines flight that crashed, though it was still too early to be sure.

Ethiopian Airlines is widely seen as Africa’s best-managed airline. It had been using five of the Max planes and was awaiting delivery of 25 more.

Boeing is updating the plane’s anti-stall software and has invited more than 200 pilots, technical experts and regulators to its factory in Renton, Washington, for a briefing.

The Federal Aviation Administration expects Boeing’s update this week.

As part of the update, Boeing said it is tweaking the anti-stall software. After the update, the system will rely on data from more than one sensor before it automatically pushes the plane’s nose lower. The system won’t repeatedly push the nose down, and it will reduce the magnitude of the change.

Boeing said it will pay to train airline pilots. Additional training — to be done on computers, not on a plane or in a flight simulator — is designed to drill home for pilots how they can override the software if it engages unnecessarily.

A Boeing spokesman on Monday said the company was continuing to determine the cost of updating the flight-control software and related changes. He declined to comment on whether the company would compensate airlines whose jets have been grounded.

Boeing has not said what it expects to pay to relatives of the people who died in the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes. In filings, Boeing has not disclosed a charge for potential costs related to the Oct. 29 Lion Air accident.

An aviation analyst for financial-services firm Cowen estimated the cost of the software fix at $400 million to $500 million, or roughly $1 million for each of the nearly 400 Max jets delivered or in the process of being delivered. Analyst Cai von Rumohr said Boeing may have little contractual obligation to compensate the airlines, but it will have to give them something to limit its loss of goodwill, and that is likely to be Boeing’s biggest direct cost from the accidents.

Von Rumohr estimated that Boeing’s compensation to the families of Ethiopian Airlines victims could be $150 million — around $1 million for each of the people who died — and less after insurance.

The worldwide grounding of the Max fleet will eat into Boeing’s cash flow because aircraft manufacturers get most of the purchase price only when the plane is delivered — Boeing has suspended Max deliveries.

However, the Chicago company would receive that cash eventually if airlines don’t cancel orders. So far, Garuda Indonesia has said it plans to scrap a $4.9 billion order for 49 planes, but no other major Max customers — of which Southwest Airlines, with 249 orders, is the biggest — have indicated they plan to cancel. Boeing has about 4,600 unfilled orders for the plane’s various configurations.

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