Transport Canada needs more stringent procedures for vetting new aircraft, and less reliance on the U.S. federal aviation authority, in the aftermath of the Boeing 737 Max disasters, says a new federal report that examined the department’s approval of the plane.
The long-awaited report from the House of Commons Transport Committee comes after hearings were held last year into the government’s role in clearing the 737 Max to fly. It recommends Transport Canada review several of its policies, including how much it relies on the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to scrutinize new designs.
The 737 Max became Boeing’s fastest-selling commercial aircraft when it was introduced four years ago. It soon became one of the industry’s deadliest. In the span of five months in late 2018 and early 2019, two brand new 737 Max planes crashed shortly after takeoff in Indonesia and Ethiopia, killing 346 people, including 18 Canadians.
Both disasters were linked to software on the plane that, if fed incorrect data from on-board sensors, forced the nose of the aircraft toward the ground. In both crashes, the pilots were unable to counteract the software’s commands.
Transport Canada was one of several international regulators that approved the new design, but with limited independent scrutiny. Under international agreements, Canadian regulators didn’t certify the new 737 Max themselves, but relied on data from the FAA, which Transport Canada verified.
However, investigations in the United States found that Boeing withheld crucial information from the FAA about the plane’s design, including the faulty software, which meant other regulators were also misled. The FAA was also found to have outsourced much of its oversight of the 737 Max to Boeing’s engineers, allowing the company to approve its own design changes without disclosing risks associated with the new software.
The 737 Max crashes have “stimulated reflection in Canada regarding the foreign aircraft validation process; specifically the level of involvement of [Transport Canada] in the process,” the committee says in the report’s conclusion.
“Recognizing that the safety of passengers and crews must always be the first priority, witnesses [at the hearings] believe that the aircraft certification and validation process in Canada needs to be even more robust.”
Most countries began grounding the 737 Max soon after the second crash in March, 2019, in Ethiopia, which killed 157 people, including 18 Canadians. Ottawa refused to follow suit for several days, saying the data other countries were using was inconclusive.
The delay raised questions about Canada’s independence from the FAA. Marc Garneau, transport minister at the time, insisted the plane was safe and he would “without hesitation” board one. By the time Ottawa grounded the 737 Max, nearly four days after the second crash, Canada and the U.S. were the only outliers, taking that step within hours of each other.
Boeing spent much of the past two years redesigning the software and says the 737 Max is safe to fly. Early this year, international regulators cleared a revamped version of the aircraft.
“Testimony from Transport Canada officials and from witnesses representing the manufacturing sector strongly defended the quality, rigour and independence of Canada’s validation process,” the report says. “However, with regard to the validation of internationally manufactured aircraft, many witnesses referred to Transport Canada being overly reliant on [the FAA], raising concerns of ‘rubber stamping.’”
The report makes 14 recommendations to improve Canada’s oversight. Among them, the committee of Liberal, Conservative, New Democrat, and Bloc Québécois MPs said Transport Canada should be required to conduct a full recertification of any plane’s system that is connected to a modified design, such as new software. This would mean the regulator could no longer just verify the work of the FAA, but would have to scrutinize and certify any significant new design changes itself.
The committee also recommended that airline pilots be more involved in the certification process, and that Transport Canada “review its policies to ensure that certification or validation of an aircraft does not occur until all significant issues or concerns are fully addressed.”
In calling on Transport Canada to examine its relationship with the FAA, the report recommends that Canada “review its international agreements” that call for aircraft certification to be harmonized and streamlined. The report also recommends that Canada seek “additional technical assessment” during the validation of FAA certified planes.
The committee also said the government should examine staffing and funding levels for Transport Canada’s civil aviation division to determine whether they need bolstering to strengthen the safety oversight process. It also calls on the department to produce a “Lessons Learned” document in the next six months.
The report includes an additional recommendation from the NDP for a public inquiry into Canada’s approval of the plane, and why Ottawa didn’t ground it after the first crash in October, 2018, which killed 189 people off the coast of Indonesia. Grounding the plane after the first crash could have saved lives if regulators around the world followed suit.
A push for a public inquiry supported by the NDP and Bloc was defeated last year by the Liberal and Conservative MPs on the committee.
“Serious questions have rightly been asked about the certification of an aircraft with a feature unknown to many pilots,” the NDP addendum says. “Over the course of this study, it became increasingly clear that Canadian experts at Transport Canada Civil Aviation have become overly reliant on certification of aircraft by other states, including the U.S.”
During testimony for the report, Air Canada Pilots Association chief executive Rob Giguere criticized the practice of deferring oversight to the FAA. “We should not outsource this critical safety task to the United States or any other country, which may in turn outsource chunks of its own regulatory oversight to the industry.”
The report also includes submissions from Gilles Primeau, an expert in flight control systems, who said the design characteristics of the flawed software met “only the barest safety standards.” Mr. Primeau urged regulators to examine how design changes on new aircraft affect other aspects of the plane’s operations, rather than scrutinizing items – such as the software – in isolation.
Chris Moore of Toronto, whose 24-year-old daughter Danielle was travelling to work with the United Nations when she died in the Ethiopian crash, said on Thursday the report “shows that there are several gaps in oversight in the validation process.”
Mr. Moore and Paul Njoroge, a Hamilton man whose three children, wife, and mother-in-law also died in the Ethiopia crash, testified before the committee in November. Mr. Moore said trust in the international certification process has been broken. “We need authorities that are trustworthy and planes that are airworthy,” he said in a statement.
A Globe and Mail investigation into the 737 Max disasters showed Canada relied heavily on data from the FAA in its approval of the plane, and this created blind spots for Ottawa. Because Transport Canada only verifies information provided by the U.S. regulator, rather than assessing all aspects of the plane itself, it does not necessarily catch any flaws in the design that the FAA missed.
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader, whose grandniece, Samya Rose Stumo, died in the Ethiopian crash, wrote in The Globe in December that stricter oversight of the industry is needed by other international regulators because the FAA has lost much of the reputation and clout it once had. “The FAA has long been influenced by aircraft manufacturers and airlines lobbying Congress and the White House,” Mr. Nader said. This “has had the effect of it having neither an adequate budget, enforcement authority or sufficient technical staff.
“As a result, the FAA has been influenced by industry apologists making the agency safe for Boeing, letting the giant company have too much influence in the certification process of its own aircraft. This is regulatory abdication.”
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