France’s air safety agency began studying data from the black boxes of a Boeing 737 MAX plane that crashed in Ethiopia, as regulators the world over grounded the plane and the US aircraft manufacturer halted deliveries of its latest model.
The Ethiopian Airlines jet crashed soon after take-off from Addis Ababa on Sunday, killing 157 people. It was the second crash involving a 737 MAX since October, when a Lion Air flight plunged into the sea off Indonesia with 189 people on board.
Investigators will look for links between the air disasters.
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded all Boeing MAX jets in service because of similarities.
Boeing paused deliveries of its fastest-selling 737 MAX aircraft built at its Seattle factory, but continues to produce the single-aisle version of the jet while dealing with the worldwide fleet’s grounding.
Possible links between the accidents have rocked the aviation industry, scared passengers and left the world’s largest aircraft manufacturer scrambling to prove the safety of a model intended to be the standard for decades.
The flight data and cockpit voice recorders were handed to France’s Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety (BEA) on Thursday. The first conclusions could take several days.
A picture of the data recorder released by the agency showed the crash-proof housing shielding the critical recording chip apparently intact, though there was damage to the side of the box. Investigators will analyse the voice recorder, which should pick up conversations between pilots as well as with air traffic controllers.
An Ethiopian team investigating the crash is in Paris and the investigation process started, Ethiopian Airlines said.
US lawmakers said on Thursday the 737 MAX fleet could be grounded for weeks if not longer until a software upgrade is tested and installed.
Boeing said it would roll out the software improvement “across the 737 MAX fleet in the coming weeks.”
The captain of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 requested permission to return to Addis Ababa airport three minutes after take-off as it accelerated to abnormal speed, the New York Times reported.
All contact between air controllers and Flight 302 to Nairobi was lost five minutes after take-off, a person who reviewed air traffic communications told the newspaper.
Within a minute of the flight’s departure, Captain Yared Getachew reported a “flight control” problem as the aircraft was well below the minimum safe height during a climb, the newspaper reported, citing the source.
After being cleared to turn back, Flight 302 climbed to an unusually high altitude and disappeared from radar over a restricted military zone, the source added.
Relatives of the dead stormed out of a meeting with Ethiopian Airlines on Thursday, decrying transparency, while others made a painful trip to the crash scene.
“I can’t find you! Where are you?” said an Ethiopian woman, draped in traditional white mourning shawl, as she held a framed portrait of her brother in the charred and debris-strewn field.
Nations around the world, including an initially reluctant United States, have suspended 371 MAX models in operation with airlines largely coping by switching flights to other aircraft.
Nearly 5,000 MAXs are on order, with massive financial implications for the industry.
“We continue to build 737 MAX airplanes while assessing how the situation, including potential capacity constraints, will impact our production system,” Boeing spokesman Chaz Bickers said.
Boeing would maintain its production rate of 52 aircraft per month, of which the MAX, its newest version, represents the major share. Boeing declined to give exact numbers.
CONNECTION TO INDONESIA CRASH?
The FAA cited satellite data and evidence from the scene indicating some similarities and “the possibility of a shared cause” with October’s crash in Indonesia.
Two sources familiar with the matter said crash site investigators found a piece of stabiliser used to set the airplane’s trim in an unusual position similar to that of the Lion Air plane at the time of its crash.
FAA did not respond immediately to a request for comment outside normal office hours. Boeing declined to comment.
The head of Indonesia’s transport safety committee said the report into the Lion Air crash would be speeded up so it could be released in July or August, earlier than originally expected.
Though it maintains the planes are safe, Boeing supports the FAA move. Its stock is down about 11% since the crash, wiping more than $26 billion off its market value. It fell another one percent on Thursday.
US and Canadian carriers wrestled with customer calls and flight cancellations. Southwest Airlines Co and American Airlines Group Inc, the largest US operators of the 737 MAX, said they started flying empty MAX aircraft to park during the grounding.
US President Donald Trump, an aviation enthusiast with ties to Boeing, said he hoped the suspension would be short. “They have to figure it out fast,” Trump told reporters at the White House.
A software fix for the 737 MAX Boeing has worked on since the October Lion Air crash will take months to complete, the FAA said.
In what may presage a raft of claims, Norwegian Air said it will seek compensation from Boeing for costs and lost revenue after grounding its 737 MAX fleet.
Airline Garuda Indonesia said there was a possibility it would cancel an order for 20 Boeing 737 MAXs, while Malaysia Airlines was reviewing an order for 25 aircraft.
Under international rules, Ethiopians are leading the investigation with France’s BEA conducting black box analysis as an adviser. The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) would send three investigators to assist.
The cause of the Indonesian crash is still being investigated. A November preliminary report, before retrieval of the cockpit voice recorder, focused on maintenance and training and the response of a Boeing anti-stall system to a recently replaced sensor, but gave no reason for the crash.