In a major volte-face that signals an image-shifting re-endorsement of Boeing, Ethiopian Airlines this week said it would resume B737-8 flights in July 2021 after analysing changes to the model that crashed in the country almost two years ago, killing all 157 people on board.

In reconciliatory tones ahead of reaching an “amicable settlement” on compensation from Boeing, Ethiopian Airlines will retain orders for the new MAX, Chief Executive Officer, Tewolde GebreMariam, said at an online CAPA conference on February 9.

“We have made a thorough analysis - technically, operationally, commercially - and we decided to continue with the airplane. We have been following up with our experts, technicians, and pilots, and they seem to be satisfied that the modifications will fully address the flight-control system that was creating problems,” he said.

This was a startling about-turn from Tewolde’s much-quoted statement last year that Ethiopian Airlines would be “the last airline to start flying the MAX after it was tried, tested, and trusted”, following the crash outside Addis Ababa of Flight 302 in March 2019 that followed the fatal plunge of Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia in October 2018.

It was also the first indication that Ethiopian and Boeing may have reached a settlement over compensation for the crash. Last month, the airline’s US attorneys advised it not to accept the settlement Boeing had offered but instead to sue the manufacturer for punitive damages in the US, saying the offer at the time had fallen “grossly short” of what the airline could win in a US court.

US regulators late last year allowed the MAX to resume passenger flights ending a nearly-two-year regulatory grounding. Boeing earlier this year also struck a USD2 billion deal with the US Justice Department to settle a criminal investigation that centred on how two former MAX programme employees had misled FAA training specialists during certification of the old MAX about the aircraft’s flight control system - the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) — that had activated erroneously to cause both crashes. Of that amount, only USD243.6 million, less than 10%, was a fine paid to the US government for criminal conduct. The rest included an additional USD500 million in compensation to the families of the 346 people who died in the two crashes.

Meanwhile, some carriers in the US and South America have resumed flights with the MAX, while Europe’s aviation-safety regulator cleared the type to return to service last month.

Tewolde said it would have been economically unfeasible to switch aircraft types given the airline already operates an older B737 variant.

He said Ethiopian Airlines was cash positive even after the COVID-19 pandemic destroyed air travel. The carrier was quick to respond to a jump in cargo demand, taking out seats in commercial aircraft to haul freight, he said.