France takes Ethiopia crash black boxes, families grieve

An arch of flowers is erected as officials prepare to receive families of the victims at the crash site of the Ethiopian Airlines operated Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, at Hama Quntushele village in the Oromia region, on Wednesday.
An arch of flowers is erected as officials prepare to receive families of the victims at the crash site of the Ethiopian Airlines operated Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, at Hama Quntushele village in the Oromia region, on Wednesday.
Image: TONY KARUMBA / AFP

Investigators in France were to take charge of the crashed Ethiopian Airlines jet's black boxes on Thursday, seeking clues into a disaster that has grounded Boeing's global 737 MAX fleet and left scores of families grieving and angry.

Sunday's crash after take-off from Addis Ababa killed 157 people from about 30 nations in the second such calamity involving Boeing's flagship new model in six months.

Possible links between the accidents have rocked the aviation industry, scared passengers worldwide, and left the world's biggest planemaker scrambling to prove the safety of a money-spinning model intended to be the standard for decades.

Relatives of the dead stormed out of a meeting with Ethiopian Airlines on Thursday, decrying a lack of transparency.

"I'm so angry," said Yemeni citizen Abdulmajid Shariff, 38, who lost a brother-in-law.

"They called us to give us a report on bodies and the reasons for the crash but there was no information."

Nations around the world, including an initially reluctant United States, have suspended the 371 MAX models in operation, though airlines are largely coping by switching planes.

Another nearly 5,000 MAXs are on order, meaning the financial implications are huge for the industry.

After an apparent tussle over where the investigation should be held, the flight data and cockpit voice recorders arrived in Paris and France's BEA air accident investigation agency said it would receive them later in the day.

The investigation has added urgency since the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Wednesday grounded the 737 MAX aircraft citing satellite data and evidence from the scene indicating some similarities and "the possibility of a shared cause" with October's crash in Indonesia that killed 189 people.

Though it maintains the planes are safe, Boeing has supported the FAA move. Its stock has fallen about 11 percent since the crash, wiping nearly $26 billion off its market value.

PAINFUL CRASH VISITS

In Ethiopia, there was another day of mourning as more families headed by bus to the arid farmland where Flight 302 came down and burst into a fireball after the pilot radioed he was suffering internal control problems.

"We saw where he died and touched the earth," said Sultan Al-Mutairi, who came from Riyadh to visit the site on Wednesday where his brother Saad, who ran a recruitment agency, perished.

Adding to the families' distress, there are only scattered and charred remains, meaning it could take weeks or months to identify them via dental or DNA analysis.

Ethiopian relatives wore traditional white mourning shawls, some slumped in chairs, others hugging each other, as they gathered in a hotel prior to boarding buses on Thursday.

It is unclear how long the Boeing aircraft will be grounded.

A software fix for the 737 MAX that Boeing has been working on since the Lion Air crash in October in Indonesia will take months to complete, the FAA said on Wednesday.

Deliveries of Boeing's best-selling jets have been effectively frozen, though production continues.

Amid the uncertainty over the 737 MAX, a French presidential source said European planemaker Airbus and Ethiopian Airlines were discussing a possible new contract as part of the airline's fleet overhaul.

The official said President Emmanuel Macron and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed spoke about a possible new contract during Macron's visit to Addis Ababa earlier this week.

TUG-OF-WAR OVER PROBE

Japan became the latest nation to suspend the 737 MAX planes on Thursday. And airline Garuda Indonesia said there was a possibility it would cancel its 20-strong order of 737 MAXs, depending on what the FAA does.

Under international rules, the Ethiopians are leading the investigation but France's BEA will conduct black box analysis as an advisor. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will also have an influential role as representatives of the country where the Boeing plane was made.

The choice of the BEA followed what experts say appears to have been a tug-of-war between national agencies, with Germany initially invited to do the analysis.

Ethiopian Airlines criticised a French-backed investigation into a crash in Lebanon in 2010, when a Ethiopian plane crashed into the sea after take-off. It said the investigation was biased against the pilots, who were blamed for the crash.

There is a small pool of countries including Britain, France, the United States, Canada and Australia that are seen as leading investigators.

But only France and the United States have the experience gleaned from being present at almost every crash involving an Airbus or Boeing respectively.

Since the Indonesia crash, there has been attention on an automated anti-stall system in the MAX model that dips the plane's nose down.

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