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Boeing 737 Max 8 Crash Puts Ethiopian Airlines In The Spotlight

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Before the crash last week of a Boeing 737 Max aircraft, we rarely heard much about Ethiopian Airlines. But in Africa, it is a behemoth, a success story from a country whose recent history is riddled with conflict. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: A couple of years ago when Ethiopian received its first Boeing Dreamliner, they produced a slick video.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).

PERALTA: It showed one of the world's most technologically advanced planes flying into Bole International Airport. The whole Ethiopian Airlines brass had gathered at the tarmac. And the all-Ethiopian crew that had just made the 15-hour, non-stop flight from Seattle are received like heroes.


PERALTA: Ethiopian is the only profitable airline on the African continent. And over the past decade, it has posted huge growth to become Africa's biggest. It connects Africa to the world, so those Ethiopian planes with their imperial seals and their green, yellow and red tails have become a symbol of something that has gone right on the continent.

TSEDALE LEMMA: Its success is something that's very rare to find in any Ethiopian stories.

PERALTA: Tsedale Lemma edits the Addis Standard, the country's big English-language newspaper. Ethiopia's recent history, she says, has been full of turmoil - an Italian invasion at the end of a centuries-old monarchy, communism, war with Eritrea, famine. And every time there has been regime change, says Tsedale, there is a complete destruction of what came before.

TSEDALE: But not with Ethiopian Airlines. It's sustained through different regime changes through the ups and downs.

PERALTA: It not only sustained. It thrived, becoming one of the few government-run entities Ethiopians trust. Maaza Mengiste is a critically acclaimed Ethiopian novelist. Her father worked for Ethiopian, and she still can't shake the pride. She says when she was a kid, her dad gave her an Ethiopian Airlines bag that she carried everywhere. She remembers a guy at an airport staring at it.

MAAZA MENGISTE: I hear him say, Ethiopian Airlines? I didn't even know they actually have planes? You know, and I wanted to turn around and punch (laughter).

PERALTA: But she also realized something about Ethiopian Airlines.

MAAZA: Ethiopian Airlines represented Ethiopia. And to be able to carry that bag, I do think it forced people to recognize something else about the country, especially during those, you know, years of famine and years of violence.

PERALTA: Ethiopian has come to represent the modern ambition of an ancient society. That's why, Tsedale says, when that plane crash happened, Ethiopians rallied around their airline. And suddenly, the whole world, she says, bucked the U.S. and backed Ethiopia in grounding the Boeing planes. It's as if they said...

TSEDALE: If this happens, then something must really be wrong with the plane than with the pilot. This is a moment of pride for us.

PERALTA: And it comes at a pivotal moment in Ethiopian history - just as Ethiopian society has retreated into ethnic corners. But here came Ethiopian, founded in 1945, survived war, famine and corruption and emerges as what she calls a rescuing symbol, something all Ethiopians can agree on. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is an international correspondent for NPR. He was named NPR's Mexico City correspondent in 2022. Before that, he was based in Cape Town, South Africa. He started his journalism career as a pop music critic and after a few newspaper stints, he joined NPR in 2008.