When an international flight crashes, who is involved in the investigation and why?

The investigation into what happened to Metrojet Flight 9268 and the 224 mostly Russian passengers aboard is in its third day. As the mystery deepens, representatives from at least five countries are now involved in finding out what happened to the doomed plane. How does this work and who decides which countries participate in the investigation?

For more on the anatomy of this crash investigation, we’ve prepared a FAQ on the matter aggregating our reporting and the insights of aviation expert Alan Diehl.

WHY IS EGYPT IN CHARGE? IS THERE A LAW THAT DICTATES WHO CAN BE INVOLVED IN INVESTIGATING PLANE CRASHES?

The United Nations’ specialized agency for civil aviation called The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) dictates the rules on this, spelled out in its Annex 13. They set out that the country where the crash occurred leads the safety investigation. It also says that the countries where the plane is manufactured, owned and operated should be invited, as well as where the majority of the deceased are from. That can encompass many different countries, agencies and private companies. But if the cause is terrorism, then it turns into a criminal investigation and the rules change.

WHICG COUNTRIES ARE CURRENTLY INVOLVED IN THE INVESTIGATION OF FLIGHT 9268?

Egypt, Russia, France, Germany and Ireland.

The downed plane crashed in Egypt, was designed in France, manufactured in Germany, operated in Russia and registered in Ireland.

The United States has offered their assistance as the plane’s engines were manufactured in America but currently are not involved at this early stage of the investigation, per a NTSB official.

COULD EGYPT OR RUSSIA INFLUENCE THE INVESTIGATION TO PROTECT THEIR OWN INTERESTS?

According to aviation expert Alan Diehl, plane crash investigations make this difficult by design. He explains, “Investigations are typically split up into different groups simultaneously, like a ‘Human Factors Group’ or an ‘Aircraft Group.’ The Egyptians would lead each group but representatives from the each of the different parties involved would sit on every one of these groups. This ensures that there is not a single country completely in charge of one aspect of the investigation.

HOW MUCH DOES IT HELP THAT THE WRECKAGE IS SCATTERED ACROSS A DESERT?

This helps tremendously. The fact that it occurred in a dry desert area will allow investigators to get answers a lot faster. A relatively small piece of electrical equipment or wreckage can be the key to finding out what happened. For instance, the discovery of a small circuit board was a key piece of evidence in the Lockerbie investigation. In this case the sea is not tearing it away or it isn’t hidden in an agrarian field. A microchip is much more discoverable in the arid expanse of the Sinai than many other places.

PUTIN HAS LAUNCHED AN INVESTIGATION COMMITTEE INTO THE CRASH. COULD THE RUSSIANS TAKE OVER THE INVESTIGATION FROM THE EGYPTIANS?

No. Per Annex 13 it is pretty clear that Egypt is the one to lead. If Russians are unhappy with the way the Egyptian authorities are handling it that is one thing but taking it over completely would be pretty unprecedented.

WHAT IS HAPPENING NOW?

The black box recorders are normally the key so the info that they glean from those two records determines what is really going to be the focus of the investigation at that point. As the recorders and radar data is being analyzed different groups are working on different parts of the action. For instance, the Russians are getting important documents from MetroJet: crew records, maintenance records, speaking to the mechanics. The manufacturing group is really looking at the individual plane parts. Typically, a representative from each of these groups report their progress daily to the investigator in charge.