When Terry Dale, president and CEO of the U.S. Tour Operators Association, went to Ethiopia last February to finalize the itinerary for the association’s annual out-of-country board meeting, he had no way of knowing what extraordinary circumstances would intervene and almost derail the whole effort.
The trip was set for Mar. 24-30, 2019. Then on Mar. 10, Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 crashed, killing 157 passengers and throwing the Ethiopian travel industry and the global airline industry into a state of turmoil.
As Ethiopia’s national airline and its tourism industry reeled from the tragedy, panic spread and questions flew. Is the airline safe? Is the country safe? Are Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft safe? For travelers the question arose, as it always does in such cases: Should we cancel our trip until things settle down and we can get a better assessment of the risk?
The tour operator association was on the spot. Do they cancel in the face of an incident of this magnitude? This was not an isolated incident. A similar crash with a 737 MAX 8 had taken place only a few months before with an airplane operated by Lion Air out of Jakarta, Indonesia, killing everyone onboard.
In the early days after the crash, there were many questions about the reliability of the 737 MAX 8s and few answers. It took the FAA several days to take action to ground the 737s until the questions could be resolved. During that time, fears and rumors multiplied in regard to the safety of air travel. The USTOA had to make a commitment in the presence of a great deal of uncertainty.
Full speed ahead
“I thought it was critical for us to continue,” said Dale. “It would have been the wrong message had we not gone.”
The Ethiopian Tourism Organization (ETO), which was hosting the tour operators on the trip, asked whether the tour operators wanted to delay the trip a month until things settled down and there was more clarity about the crash and its implications in regard to the safety of air travel.
Dale considered the proposal, then rejected it and left the decision to the ETO whether to proceed as planned.
“With my members’ schedules, it doesn’t make sense to delay,” Dale told the Ethiopians. “We’re going to lose half the people.”
The association decided to go forward with the trip. “It was the right thing to do,” said Dale. “And they were so grateful. It was amazing.”
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