Reuters When news of the Ethiopian Airlines plane crash broke this morning my heart sank at the thought of covering yet another negative story about Ethiopia.
It’s particularly galling for Ethiopians that the airline is one of the few international success stories for a country known mostly for famine and war.
When the news emerged I also immediately knew how hard the company’s staff would take it. I’ve been to the sprawling campus that serves as headquarters to Africa’s arguably flagship airline many times. The last time was just last week to interview CEO Girma Wake and I left with a gift of Ethiopian coffee and the impression that I’d rarely seen people so passionate or proud about their work and what it does for their country.
Ethiopian Airlines is a company that Ethiopians are proud of. It has consistently expanded and remained profitable through tough times for other airlines and all manner of global economic strife. It has prioritized safety in a continent with a lamentable record and it is aggressively expanding into China and India.
It had an impressive safety record before today, last suffering a disaster in 1996 when Somali hijackers demanded to be flown to Australia, causing the plane to run out of fuel and ditch off the Comoros, killing 123 of its 175 passengers.
Ethiopians I spoke to this morning said they didn’t think people outside of the country would be surprised that an Ethiopian Airlines plane had crashed, so negative are foreign perceptions of the country. But the fact is: it is a surprise.
The airline is a symbol of hope for Ethiopia. And Ethiopia is a truly unique and propitious country of 80 million people — albeit with a desperate history.
Democracy is now — debatably — slowly emerging, a middle class has appeared, the economy is growing, more Ethiopians than ever before are being educated, and ambitious and fiercely patriotic Ethiopians are taking control of the future of one of Africa’s most exciting prospects. Ethiopia is not just bad news anymore.
The cause of the crash is still unknown. But it would be a shame if this one incident damages perceptions of an emerging airline and a promising country.