ADDIS ABABA/WASHINGTON - Two black boxes from the Boeing 737 MAX airplane that crashed in Ethiopia were being taken to Paris for investigation, Ethiopian Airlines said, as regulators around the world awaited word on whether it was safe to resume flying the jets.
Following the lead of other global aviation regulators unnerved by the second crash involving a 737 MAX in less than five months, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued orders on Wednesday for the planes to be grounded.
On Thursday morning in Addis Ababa, grieving relatives of the 157 victims of Sunday's air disaster boarded buses for a three-hour journey to the crash site in a field 60 kilometers (37 miles) outside the Ethiopian capital.
"We saw where he died and touched the earth," said Sultan Al-Mutairi, who had come from Riyadh to mourn his brother, Saad, who perished in the crash.
Experts say it could take weeks or months to identify the victims, as their remains were scattered, charred and in fragments due to the impact of the crash and ensuing fire. Two of the victims were Israeli businessmen.
Both the Ethiopian Airlines crash and a Lion Air crash in Indonesia occurred shortly after take-off.
New information from the wreckage in Ethiopia and newly refined data about the plane's flight path indicated some similarities between the two disasters "that warrant further investigation of the possibility of a shared cause," the FAA said in a statement.
An Ethiopian delegation led by the accident investigation bureau has flown the black boxes from the Ethiopia plane crash from Addis Ababa to Paris for investigation, Ethiopian Airlines said on Thursday.
France's air accident investigation agency BEA will analyse black-box flight recorders, a spokesman said.
The contents of the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder that will be examined in France will provide critical details about what caused the plane crash, according to experts. The acting administrator of the FAA, Daniel Elwell, said he did not know how long the U.S. grounding of the aircraft would last.
A software fix for the 737 MAX that Boeing has been working on since a fatal crash last October in Indonesia will take months to complete, Elwell told reporters on Wednesday.
Deliveries of Boeing's best-selling 737 MAX jets were effectively frozen, though production continued, after the United States joined a global grounding of the narrowbody model over safety concerns, industry sources said.
All 737 MAX jets have now been grounded, flight tracking website FlightRadar24 said. An Air Canada flight from San Francisco to Halifax was the last to land late on Wednesday.
With the uncertainty hanging over the 737 MAX, a French presidential source said European planemaker Airbus and Ethiopian Airlines are discussing a possible new contract as part of the airline's fleet renovation.
The official said President Emmanuel Macron and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had spoken about a possible new contract during Macron's visit to Addis Ababa earlier this week.
Airlines operating the 371 737 MAX jets that have been delivered since its 2017 debut said they had cancelled some of their flights and rearranged schedules to use other jets in their fleets.
"Our goal is to operate our schedule with every available aircraft in our fleet to meet our customers' expectations during the busy spring travel season," said U.S. carrier Southwest Airlines Co, the world's biggest operator of the 737 MAX.
Boeing, which maintained that its planes were safe to fly, said in a statement that it supported the FAA move.
"Boeing has determined - out of an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public of the aircraft's safety - to recommend to the FAA the temporary suspension of operations of the entire global fleet of 371 737 MAX aircraft."