A devastating plane crash in Ethiopia could renew safety questions about the newest version of Boeing’s popular 737 airliner.
The Boeing 737 Max 8 operated by Ethiopian Airlines crashed on Sunday shortly after taking off from the capital of Addis Ababa, killing all 157 people on board.
The tragedy follows the Lion Air flight that went down over the Java Sea in late October, killing all 189 people on board.
There is no suggestion yet as to what caused the latest disaster, and no evidence that the two crashes had the same cause.
William Waldock, an aviation-safety professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said suspicions will be raised because the same type of plane appeared to crash the same way – a fatal nosedive that left wreckage in tiny pieces.
“Investigators are not big believers in coincidence,” he said.
Travellers from at least 35 countries were among the passengers.
Along with 32 Kenyans, the toll included 18 people from Canada, nine from Ethiopia, eight from each China, Italy and the US, seven from each France and the UK, six from Egypt, five from Germany.
Four passengers from India and Slovakia were on board, as well as three from each Austria and Sweden, two from each Israel, Morocco, Poland and Spain and one from Belgium, Djibouti, Indonesia, Ireland, Mozambique, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Somalia, Serbia, Togo, Uganda, Yemen, Nepal and Nigeria.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said no Australians were known to have been among the passengers.
The airline issued a earlier statement saying the flight took off at 8.38am but lost contact at 8.44am.
The Boeing 737-8 MAX was the same model aircraft to the plane lost in last year’s Lion Air disaster that claimed the lives of 189 people.
The United Nations confirmed UN staff members were among the dead.
Alan Diehl, a former National Transportation Safety Board investigator, agreed there were similarities between the two incidents.
Both crews encountered a problem shortly after take-off, and there appeared to be large variations in vertical speed during ascent, “clearly suggesting a potential controllability problem” with the Ethiopian jetliner.
But there are many possible explanations, Diehl said, including engine problems, pilot error, weight load, sabotage or bird strikes.
Ethiopian has a good reputation, but investigators will look into the plane’s maintenance, especially since that may have been an issue in the Lion Air investigation.
Ethiopian Airlines CEO Harro Ranter told reporters a maintenance check-up did not find any problems with the plane before Sunday’s flight.
“So it is hard to see any parallels with the Lion Air crash yet,” said Ranter, founder of the Aviation Safety Network, which compiles information about accidents worldwide.
“I do hope though that people will wait for the first results of the investigation instead of jumping to conclusions based on the very little facts that we know so far.”
Boeing representatives did not immediately respond for comment. The company tweeted that it was “deeply saddened to learn of the passing of the passengers and crew” on the Ethiopian Airlines Max airplane.
The Chicago-based company said it would send a technician to the crash site to help Ethiopian and US investigators.
A spokesman for the NTSB said the US agency was sending a team of four to assist Ethiopian authorities.
The Office of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed tweeted its “deepest condolences to the families of those that have lost their loved ones on Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 on regular scheduled flight to Nairobi, Kenya this morning”.
Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde GebreMariam said at a media conference that the pilot of flight ET 302 “was given clearance” to return back to Addis Ababa after he had reported technical difficulties.
He said the pilot had previously flown more than 8000 hours and had an “excellent flying record”, adding that the jet “had no known technical problems”. The cause of the crash has not yet been determined.
“It is a brand new airplane with no technical remarks, flown by a senior pilot and there is no cause that we can attribute at this time,” Mr GebreMariam said.
The Secretary-General was deeply saddened at the tragic loss of lives in the airplane crash today near Addis Ababa.
“He conveys his heartfelt sympathies and solidarity to the victims’ families and loved ones, including those of United Nations staff members, as well as sincere condolences to the Government and people of Ethiopia,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres.Dujarric said in a statement.
The UN is working with Ethiopian officials to confirm the details of UN staff lost in the crash.
Slovakian National Council member Anton Hrnko announced Sunday on Facebook that his wife and two children were killed in the crash.
“With huge sadness I’m announcing that my beloved wife Blanka, son Martin and daughter Michala died earlier today when the plane crashed…if you had known them, please think of them in a quiet memory,” he posted.
Jonathan Seex, the CEO of pan-African hospitality company Tamarind Group, which owns and operates several restaurants in Africa, was also killed.
“It is with immense shock and grief to inform you of the tragic news that Tamarind CEO, Jonathan Seex, was on the ill-fated Ethiopian Airlines flight,” the Tamarind Group said in a statement.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends, the Tamarind community and all the others who have suffered unfathomable losses.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted about the “devastating news” that 18 Canadians who among those killed.
“Our thoughts are with all the victims on Flight ET302, including the Canadians who were on board, and everyone who lost friends, family, or loved ones,” he said.”
The state-owned Ethiopian Airlines calls itself Africa’s largest carrier and has ambitions of becoming the gateway to the continent.
The 2010 Ethiopian Airlines crash near Lebanon killed 90 people.
Sunday’s crash comes as Mr Ahmed vowed to open up the airline and other sectors to foreign investment in a major transformation of the state-centred economy.
Ethiopian Airlines has been expanding assertively, recently opening a route to Moscow and in January inaugurating a new passenger terminal at Addis Ababa to triple capacity.