France starts Boeing crash probe, jets could be grounded for weeks

PARIS/ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Boeing Co's 737 MAX 8 and 9 planes will be grounded for "weeks" until a software upgrade can be tested and installed, U.S. lawmakers said on Thursday, as questions mount about Sunday's deadly crash in Ethiopia.

Investigators in France will begin analyzing the crashed Ethiopian Airlines jet's black boxes on Friday, seeking clues into a disaster that has angered scores of mourning families and grounded Boeing's global 737 MAX fleet.

Sunday's crash after take-off from Addis Ababa killed 157 people from 35 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, and left the world's biggest planemaker scrambling to prove the safety of a money-spinning model intended to be the standard for decades.

U.S. Representative Rick Larsen said after the briefing the software upgrade would take a few weeks to complete, and installing it on all aircraft would take "at least through April." He said additional training would also have to take place.

Relatives of the dead stormed out of a meeting with Ethiopian Airlines on Thursday, decrying a lack of transparency, while others made the painful trip to the crash scene.

"I can't find you! Where are you?" said one 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 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. Moody's rating agency said the fallout from the crash would not immediately affect Boeing's credit rating.

After an apparent tussle over where the investigation should be held, the flight data and cockpit voice recorders were handed over to France's Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety (BEA).

CONNECTION TO INDONESIA CRASH?

Technical analysis would begin on Friday and the first conclusions could take several days, the BEA said, posting a picture of the partly crumpled, orange-cased box.

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 that indicated some similarities and "the possibility of a shared cause" with October's crash in Indonesia that killed 189 people.

FAA Administrator Dan Elwell told reporters on Wednesday the software update will be ready within a couple of months. Boeing declined to comment, but said Monday it would roll out the software improvement "across the 737 MAX fleet in the coming weeks."

Though it maintains the planes are safe, Boeing has supported the FAA move. Its stock is down about 11 percent since the crash, wiping more than $26 billion off its market value. It fell 1 percent Thursday.

WestJet Airlines canceled 11 flights on Thursday.

U.S. President Donald Trump, an aviation enthusiast with deep ties to Boeing, said he hoped the suspensions would be short. "It's a great company," he told reporters at the White House. "They have to figure it out fast"

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.

And in what may presage a raft of claims, Norwegian Air has said it will seek compensation from Boeing for costs and lost revenue after grounding its fleet of 737 MAX.

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.

Southwest Airlines Co and American Airlines Group Inc, the largest U.S. operators of the 737 MAX, said they had started flying empty MAX aircraft to be parked elsewhere during the ban. The flights will only be with pilots, as allowed by the FAA.

WHAT HAPPENED?

Under international rules, 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) was also sending three investigators to assist.

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

The cause of the Indonesian crash is still being investigated. A November preliminary report, before the 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.

The pilot of Flight 302 had reported internal control problems and received permission to return, before the plane came down and burst into a fireball on arid farmland.

Relatives are desperate to know what happened and to receive fragments if not corpses, given the fire and destruction at the site. They were at least able to vent their grief.

"We saw where he died and touched the earth," said Sultan Al-Mutairi, who came from Riyadh to say goodbye to his brother Saad, who ran a recruitment agency in Kenya.

GRAPHIC: Ethiopian Airlines crash interactive - https://tmsnrt.rs/2ChBW5M

(Reporting by Richard Lough, Tim Hepher and John Irish in Paris, Duncan Miriri and Aaron Masho in Addis Ababa, Jeff Mason and David Shepardson in Washington, Omar Mohammed and Maggie Fick in Nairobi; Danilo Masoni in Milan, and Eric M. Johnson in Seattle, Allison Lampert in Montreal; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne and Ben Klayman; Editing by Jon Boyle and Nick Zieminski)

03/14/2019 16:01

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