The black boxes from Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 arrived in France early Thursday for analysis, a key step in a probe that could help determine how long Boeing Co.’s 737 MAX jetliner remains grounded around the world.
The devices store key data, like flight parameters and cockpit voice recordings, which investigators will unlock and read to help them determine the cause of the crash. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration joined regulators around the globe in grounding the 737 MAX, the type of jet that went down in Ethiopia on Sunday, killing all 157 aboard.
The agency said it moved after determining the aircraft’s flight path shared similarities with another 737 MAX that crashed in Indonesia in October. U.S. and Canadian officials analyzed flight data, including information collected by satellite, but said it was too early to say if the similarities point to any common cause.
Boeing has said it believes the jet is safe, but said it eventually recommended U.S. authorities ground the jet out of an “abundance of caution,” according to a statement by Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg.
Boeing and airlines around the world scrambled late Wednesday to cope with the grounding, which has idled more than 370 jets. Data from the black boxes will be among the earliest and most important findings that regulators and airlines will consider in determining whether and when the jet should be allowed to fly again.
Ethiopian Airlines said a team, led by the country’s Accident Investigation Bureau, had flown to Paris escorting the plane’s cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder. The French air accident investigation office, known by its acronym BEA, said late Wednesday that Ethiopia had asked it for assistance in analyzing the information contained in the devices.
The French agency has extensive experience probing crashes. U.S. officials urged Ethiopian counterparts to send the devices to the U.S., The Wall Street Journal previously reported. Ethiopia decided instead on a European agency. Officials in Addis Ababa had been eager to show American investigators wouldn’t have undue influence over the probe.
The devices arrived at the BEA’s laboratory outside Paris on Thursday. Downloading the data and making early conclusions can take only a few hours, though detailed analysis typically can take months.
French authorities would work alongside Ethiopian officials. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which can draw on Boeing technical expertise, Thursday said it was sending three investigators to Paris to assist in analyzing the data. Ethiopia, which leads the probe, would disclose any findings.
Acting FAA chief Daniel Elwell warned the length of the grounding would be dependent on the investigation, saying the jet could remain parked for a couple of months. The agency said the information from the flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders would be a key part of its decision.
The FAA said it grounded the plane because data it had gathered independently showed that Ethiopian Airlines’ Flight 302’s flight path—particularly its swift, roller-coaster-like altitude changes—resembled the movements of a 737 MAX flown by Indonesia’s Lion Air that crashed less than five months ago, killing all 189 aboard.
Early findings from the Lion Air crash probe spurred Boeing to start work on a fix to a stall-prevention system. That should be introduced before the end of April. The anti-stall system appears to have repeatedly pushed down the nose of the plane during its 11-minute flight. Investigators are also looking at other factors, including plane maintenance. Lion Air has said the plane was well maintained.
Airlines affected by the grounding have canceled flights or rebooked passengers on other aircraft. Air Italy SpA, for instance, said Thursday it would lease an Airbus SE A319 short-haul plane from Bulgaria Air to replace a Boeing Co. 737 MAX 8 plane put out of service after European regulators on Tuesday grounded the model.
“With the grounding of our aircraft, it was vital to find alternative aircraft as rapidly as possible to minimize any impact on our passengers,” Air Italy Chief Operating Officer Rossen Dimitrov said. The carrier said the lease of the plane would be for an unspecified duration.
Some operators said they were sticking by the 737 MAX. Flydubai, the MAX’s biggest Middle East operator, said the jet remains an integral part of our strategy for the future.”
The cost to airlines of their idled 737 MAX fleet could mount quickly when adding up lost revenues, costs to park planes, and passenger compensation, said airline consultant IBA Group. For the large number of airlines renting planes, the losses could be up to $150,000 per plane per day, the consultant estimates.
Norwegian Air Shuttle ASA Wednesday said it expected to be compensated by Boeing. Boeing has said it wouldn’t discuss talks with customers.
In Addis Ababa, some relatives and friends of the victims have grown frustrated by what they have complained has been a long wait for answers. Nearly 100 friends or relatives of victims clashed with airline executives Thursday, storming out of a briefing after the airline failed to provide updates on the identification process for bodies.
“They are playing with our feelings,” said Yemeni Jamal Said, who has been in Addis Ababa since Sunday night trying to get updates on his best friend, Abduljali Hussein, who was a passenger. Ethiopian Airlines officials said they were doing their best to support families, but that the identification process has been a challenge.