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Letter to the editor: Ethiopian Airlines Tragedy Hits Close to Home

By Scott Fiene
Assistant Dean, Associate Professor of Integrated Marketing Communications in the School of Journalism and New Media

My phone pinged with a text message at about 5 a.m. Sunday morning, March 10. One of my students alerted me to a crash of an Ethiopian Airlines plane a few hours earlier.

IMC students gather outside Ethiopian Airlines in Addis Ababa. Photo provided.

Soon, other students were chiming in, and then my phone began blowing up as I began hearing from colleagues, friends and family members, too. “OMG” was the general sentiment – and then a sense of profound sadness.

Any airline crash is tragic but this one 8,000 miles away hit especially close to home for some students and faculty in the School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss.

Since last year, we’ve had a strategic partnership with the airline and become particularly close with some of the airline managers. In that time, we’ve also developed a special affinity for the people and culture of Ethiopia. And just last week, Professor Zenebe Beyene (who is from Ethiopia) and I took at a group of Integrated Marketing Communications students to the capital city of Addis Ababa to meet with airline officials and tour their facilities, as well as explore the city and nearby countryside.

One week ago today (Sunday), we enjoyed lunch at a resort very near today’s crash site. On Sunday evening, we were invited to a dinner the airline hosted for several hundred of their worldwide employees where we ate exotic foods, listened to music and danced with the CEO. And late Sunday night, we boarded an Ethiopian Airlines flight to begin our journey back to Oxford.

Students along with Zenebe Beyene (far left) and Scott Fiene (far right) inside an airplane operated by Ethiopian Airlines. Photo provided.

U.S Roots

Is Ethiopia Airlines a good airline? It is absolutely one of the best, and their American roots run deep. They were founded nearly 75 years ago with help from American carrier TWA. In the early years their pilots, mechanics and managers were TWA employees. As they grew into their own, they began managing operations for other African airlines and today their renowned Aviation Academy trains flight crews, cabin attendants, mechanics and other workers for about nine other airline brands – they are the company other airlines turn to for expertise.

They have 111 Boeing, Airbus and Bombardier jets, and one of the youngest fleets of any airline in the world. (My students have done research on competing airlines and have been surprised at how old the fleets of some American carriers are.) Ethiopian Airlines was the second customer to fly the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner and took delivery of a brand new Boeing 737-800 cargo plane during our visit last week. The 737 MAX 8 that crashed this morning was just four months old.

As CNN aviation expert Richard Quest said this morning, “Ethiopian Airlines is a very, very well-run airline. There is no safety issue on Ethiopian. They’ve made it their business to be the African airline that operates like a western airline.”

The students and I have seen that first hand.

Our Project

The specific project for my class is to promote Ethiopian Airlines to the U.S. market. The airline connects Newark, Washington D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles with direct flights to Africa, and is opening up a new route from Houston this summer. They’re also the largest cargo carrier in Africa, and have a cargo connection with Miami. The airline has an incredible story to tell, and we’re using our integrated marketing communication skills to put together a campaign that will tell it.

Ethiopian Airlines is the real deal, and we could not be more proud to align our school with their brand.

Special Ethiopia Connection

Last week was my second trip to Addis Ababa. In June, Professors Beyene, Deb Wenger and I traveled there for our first meeting. A few years ago, another group of students went there for a different project. And sometimes people ask, why Ethiopia?

There are many business and academic reasons the partnership makes sense. But a subtle one is also an unspoken kinship that both Ethiopia and Mississippi share: They are beautiful places with great people and tremendous pride but are often misunderstood, misrepresented and viewed in a negative light by those who don’t know better.

We know better, and can help spread the word.

The partnership with the airline will help them make well deserved inroads into the U.S. market while providing great real-world marketing experience for our students. But more than that, it is opening eyes, altering perceptions and changing lives.

I know it has mine, and for the students right now who especially mourn this terrible tragedy that feels so close. Our thoughts are prayers are with the victims and their families, and with all of our friends at Ethiopian Airlines.


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