On March 9, 2020, the Interim Investigation Report (“Report”) into the March 10, 2019, crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, a Boeing 737-8 (MAX) was issued. The Ethiopian Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau’s (“Bureau”)138 page Report devotes approximately two pages to a description of the pilot’s/copilot’s experience, hours, etc., and one page to Ethiopian Airlines training program. There is virtually no analysis anywhere in the 138 pages of the crew’s performance. The Bureau’s discussion of the training program can only be described as self-serving and congratulatory and is sprinkled with words and phrases like “comprehensive and internationally acclaimed, ” “highly experienced instructors,” “well organized and logistically sequenced,” “seamlessly,” “train the trainees to combat” “continuing dominance of multi-crew human factors.”
Nowhere in the report is there any analysis of crew’s actual performance, mention of the fact that the aircraft crew reportedly received MCAS training and/or guidance following the Lion Air accident, or a discussion of how the crew applied, or didn’t apply, that guidance and training during the accident flight.
Bottom line, whatever one may want to say about the MAX aircraft, this interim report is a whitewash of the crew’s performance, the training program and virtually everything but the factors directly tied to the MAX aircraft. At least the Lion Air accident report addressed crew and airline performance. This report, however, represents a calculated decision by the Bureau to avoid implicating anyone or anything other than the MAX aircraft and the MCAS.
Among the many problems with this one-sided approach is that Ethiopian authorities not only compromise the credibility of the balance of their analysis, but compromise the entire ICAO Annex 13 process. Annex 13 gives sole authority to investigate to the country where the accident occurs. Other nations can only participate as an Accredited Representative.
In its role as an Accredited Representative to the Ethiopian accident investigation, the NTSB can neither lead, nor control, the accident investigation process. They can comment, advise, consult, and/or request. But it isn’t their investigation.
Ethiopian Airlines is wholly owned by the Government of Ethiopia. The Bureau is a part of the Ethiopian Ministry of Transport, and is also controlled by the Government of Ethiopia.
It’s been reported that the Bureau has a staff of three investigators and an annual budget equivalent to $89,000. By contrast, Ethiopian Airlines, the Ethiopian natural air carrier, owned by the Government and overseen by the Ministry of Transport, which oversees the Bureau, as of 2017, was reported to have almost 14,000 employees and revenue of $2.7 billion.
Given this disparity in resources and the obvious importance of Ethiopian Airlines to the government it wouldn’t be surprising if the airline had a “heavy” hand in writing this Interim Investigation Report. While we will never know for sure, the language used in the report to describe the airline’s training and the lack of serious focus on these issues is telling.
ICAO Annex 13 only works if the primary investigative authority has both the resources and the will to act independently. Did Annex 13 work here? At least judging more by what the Interim Report doesn’t address, the answer is no. While a final verdict will have to await the final report, we think it’s unlikely that the Ethiopian investigators will critically focus upon, much less criticize, their national airline.