Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde GebreMariam was in church when he was alerted that Flight 302 had disappeared from radar. It was around 9 a.m. local time. By noon, he made the decision to ground the rest of the airline’s fleet of the Boeing 737 Max, the model that went down just outside of Addis Ababa that morning. Within two days, much of the world’s airlines and regulators followed suit, noticing a disturbing similarity between Flight 302 and Indonesia’s Lion Air Flight 610—another Boeing 737 Max that went down five months earlier. A total of 346 people died between the two crashes.
The aircraft has remained grounded virtually worldwide since the Ethiopian incident, though deliveries are poised to resume early next year. GebreMariam is currently weighing whether to accept more of the models from Boeing, which has revamped the aircraft with new software and alert systems. The airline has more of the planes on order. On Tuesday, speaking at Fortune’s Global Forum in Paris, he said the company is still mulling the decision; it wants to see the plane’s modifications first.
“We will not be the first one to fly this plane, but the last one,” he said, speaking to Fortune moderator Nina Easton. “We have to make sure by 110%. We have to convince our pilots, our customers.”
The CEO, appointed to the role in 2011, said the use of artificial intelligence in flight software needs to allow human operators to maintain control. Investigators of the Lion Air crash recently concluded that an automated feature played a role in the accident. “When these things are empowered more than human beings, when they manage or override people’s actions, it’s a disaster,” GebreMariam said.
He was cautious in talking of Boeing, saying his company had a long relationship with the plane manufacturer. “[Boeing] could have moved faster than they did,” he said, on the topic of outreach to victims, “but they have recognized the problem and are working with us, visiting the victims’ families.” He said Ethiopian Airlines and Boeing are currently in discussion to build a memorial at the crash site.
Amidst the victim outreach and challenges of rebuilding customer trust in his airline, GebreMariam was asked how, on an individual and human level, he was affected by the accident. “The first thing is shock beyond an unimaginable level,” he said. “Then, sort’ve denial, and reasoning to figure out why, and how, and so on. But quickly I had to return back to reality and handle the situation. It was extremely difficult.”
“This accident came to us as a matter of bad luck,” he added. “The airline has grown in the last decade by fivefold, so it was a big surprise for us—a shock. But it could have happened to any other airline. It’s bad luck that it happened to us.”
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