Officials at the National Transportation Safety Board and the U.S. State Department are trying for a second day to get the Ethiopian government to make a decision about where it will send the black boxes recovered from Ethiopian Airlines flight 302. This comes as a result of the extraordinary delay in reading them since they were found on two days ago. The Ethiopian government has said simply that it will send the flight data and cockpit voice recorder “abroad”.
Both the NTSB and the UK Air Accidents Investigation Bureau have offered their labs and a well-regarded recorder facility capable of doing this work is located in Abuja Nigeria. A senior NTSB official tells me the agency is confounded by the ongoing lack of data, pointing – out that had the data been available earlier it would have informed the government and airline decisions on whether to ground the Max fleet.
As it is, nations and airlines are in disagreement about whether the airplane is safe to fly. More than half of the countries flying 737 Maxs have taken them out of service and the European Union and the UK have banned the airplane from their airspace.
“We are very frustrated that we don’t know more. We don’t know what the boxes look like, what condition they are in,” I was told, because no photos of the recorders have been made available to the NTSB officials on the ground in Addis Ababa. The condition of the boxes would also determine what labs would be capable of reading them.
Accident investigations are often political at some level and the investigation into the loss of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 more so than most because of the suggestion that the software installed on Boeing’s Max may have played a role in the disaster. It is an enormous financial question for the manufacturer and its airline customers.
It is possible that the Ethiopians do not want the sensitive recorder data in the control of American investigators when a more neutral country is available.
But as the country in which the airplane is manufactured, the United States is by international treaty allowed representation on the Ethiopian investigation. And to that point, so are the governments which had citizens onboard the flight. That means nearly 3 dozen countries.
This could mean many countries are jockeying to have a say in how the investigation proceeds from here. I don’t know. One thing is clear, though. To have information about a disaster and delay in accessing it is not the way accident investigations are supposed to work – especially when airplanes are grounded, air travelers around the world fret and families of Flight 302’s victims wait for answers.