Suspicion and strife strain Ethiopian crash probe

At the headquarters of the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority, a paper sign balanced above room 107 and a threadbare square of carpet welcome a stream of foreign visitors to the Accident Investigation Bureau. The office — with three investigators and an annual budget of less than 2.5 million Birr ($89,000) — is leading a multi-party, multi-nation probe into what caused an Ethiopian Airlines flight to crash on March 10, killing all 157 people on board. Brusque foreign investigators in cargo pants and Ethiopians in suits or reflective vests wave away questions from reporters on how their inquiries are progressing.
This modest agency is under intense international scrutiny because the results of its investigation could have far-reaching consequences for the global aviation industry. If the investigators highlight flaws in the 737 MAX 8 that echo a recent crash of the same model in Indonesia, their report could deal a major blow to Boeing, the world’s biggest planemaker and a massive US exporter.
But if investigators find Ethiopian Airlines fell short in maintenance, training or piloting, that could damage one of Africa’s most successful companies, a symbol of Ethiopia’s emergence as a regional power.
Disagreements have broken out in Addis Ababa between Ethiopian authorities and foreign investigators over issues including the handling of evidence and crash site management, according to several sources close to the investigation.
Kevin Humphreys, a former Irish regulator who founded the country’s air investigation agency, said the high stakes involved tend to make probes like this one particularly tough.
“There are tensions because it is unrealistic to assume that international protocols are always going to work. There is a potentially important economic impact from such investigations.”
An 18-strong team of American investigators has been sent to aid the Ethiopians with the inquiry, including representatives from the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Boeing, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which certified 737 MAX planes as safe.
US and some other foreign investigators are unhappy because Ethiopia is so far sharing only limited information, the sources said.
“There is no opportunity for the international community to benefit and learn from this,” said one of them, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Some foreign officials are also unhappy about the prominent role Ethiopian Airlines played in the probe, suggesting a possible conflict of interests, they said. — Reuters

Maggie Fick and Tim Hepher