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Ethiopian Airlines CEO Weighs In On Preliminary Investigation Of Deadly Crash


Earlier today on a fairly scratchy phone line, I spoke to Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde Gebremariam.

TEWOLDE GEBREMARIAM: Good afternoon, madam. And first let me express my condolences to the families of victims. And let me also thank you for giving me the opportunity to explain highlights of the preliminary report.

CORNISH: He told me that the preliminary report confirms what he expected - that the pilots did everything they could to have averted the crash, that they followed Boeing's recommended procedures, which he now questions.

GEBREMARIAM: It's not sufficient because if we confirmed it from the reports that they've correctly followed the emergency procedures but unfortunately they couldn't control the airplane, it means that there is more to be investigated as to why the system was behaving that way.

CORNISH: Did you have concerns when people implied that maybe it was pilot error? Did you feel like Ethiopian Airlines - that your pilots and crew were kind of being unfairly painted in the early days of this?

GEBREMARIAM: You know, we have always been confident on our pilots' training, on our pilots' exceptional performance and competency. If you come to Addis, you will see one of the best aviation academies in the world, the largest in Africa and the most modern. So we have always been confident. But today the preliminary report has confirmed that the pilots have done exactly what they're supposed to do as part of the procedure.

CORNISH: Earlier in our conversation, Gebremariam expressed confidence in Boeing. But as we dug into specifics, especially MCAS, the system in question in this crash, Gebremariam seemed less certain about the company.

GEBREMARIAM: Now we will have to continue investigating whether the procedures outlined by Boeing and approved by FAA were adequate enough to address the problem. Or is the problem so deep-rooted in the airplane that further investigation is required beyond the flight control system? A lot of investigation - a lot of studies have to be made.

CORNISH: But are you upset that you didn't know about the MCAS system, that this was something you're saying that you did not feel like the industry understood and that your airline did not understand?

GEBREMARIAM: No, no, no, no, it's not our airline. It's the industry. The MCAS system is not in neither training manuals or operation manuals of the 737 Max 8 airplane. So that means that the industry didn't know about it.

CORNISH: So my question is, are you upset with Boeing about that, that that was something you didn't know about?

GEBREMARIAM: Yes, we are not happy. We are not happy about that, yes. The industry should have known adequately enough about the performance of the MCAS, what it does and what it doesn't. Yes, we're not happy about that. And this is not unique to Ethiopia. It's the entire industry. As you know, close to 380 airplanes are grounded all over the world today. And I'm sure all of the operators and regulators throughout the world will be asking the same questions that I'm asking now.

CORNISH: Given what you've said, do you have faith that Boeing has told you everything you need to know now?

GEBREMARIAM: We will have to discuss in the - Boeing has started conducting operators on the software solution that they are developing, and we'll have to discuss that depend - when we are in that stage of discussion.

CORNISH: Will you continue your 29 Max order? I mean, you have 29 Max planes on order. Are you going to stick with that order?

GEBREMARIAM: We are undecided at this stage because we will have to know more. And I think the Boeing and the FAA will have to convince us all, not only Ethiopia Airlines but all the regulators, all the operators that have grounded the airplanes. So we will have to be convinced beyond reasonable doubt that the airplane is safe to be back in the air.

CORNISH: That's told Tewolde Gebremariam, the CEO of Ethiopian Airlines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.