The Canadian government says domestic airline pilots can begin training flights on the Boeing 737 Max aircraft in January, signaling the imminent return to service of the plane that has been grounded for 21 months after two fatal crashes.
Transport Canada on Thursday said it has validated a series of changes to the 737 Max authorized by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, and will require modifications to Canadian versions of the plane’s software and additional training for pilots before allowing the aircraft to return.
Ottawa will require pilots to take additional simulator training on the revised 737 Max, and new cockpit procedures will be implemented before the plane would return to service at Canada’s major airlines, said the department’s director-general of civil aviation, Nicholas Robinson.
“The commercial flight restrictions for the operation of the Boeing 737 Max aircraft in Canadian airspace remain in effect and will not be lifted until Transport Canada is fully satisfied that all its safety concerns have been addressed, that required modifications have been incorporated, that enhanced flight crew procedures are in place, and that all training has been conducted in Canada,” Transport Canada said on Thursday.
The changes required by Canada include additional training, software alterations and flight-deck procedure changes that allow the pilots to disable the “loud and intrusive” alarms that sound when the speed-trim system is fed erroneous information by sensors.
A series of international investigations determined that both crashes were caused by software that was designed to stabilize the plane, but instead forced the 737 Max into an irreversible nosedive when fed data from a faulty sensor. Introduced by Boeing in 2016, it is now one of the deadliest commercial airliners in history.
Those investigations also determined that erroneous alarms set off in the cockpit when the software failed created confusion for the pilots, and prevented them from diagnosing the problem quickly and accurately.
Tim Perry, a WestJet Airlines pilot and president of the Canadian arm of the Air Line Pilots Association, said overriding cockpit warnings is usually “not supported as a best practice.”
“However there are exceptions when a clear procedure is outlined and when a clear case is made … there are instances where we are okay with that procedure. We support it,” said Mr. Perry, a 737 Max pilot who last flew the plane a day before it was grounded in 2019. “It’s an optional procedure done at the crew’s discretion to relieve distraction.”
He said training will be incorporated in pilots’ recertification procedures, likely in January, and will take days, not months. The union was consulted on the changes, and he expects it will take part in formulating the training procedures.
The plane has been grounded since March, 2019, when it crashed in Ethiopia, killing 157 people, including 18 Canadians. Five months before that, 189 people were killed when another 737 Max plummeted into the sea near Indonesia.
Canadian airlines Air Canada and WestJet were among the biggest users of the Max, which was Boeing’s best seller. Air Canada has 24 Max planes, and while WestJet has 13. Due to the collapse in air travel in the pandemic, Air Canada recently cancelled 10 Max orders and delayed the delivery of 16 over the next three years.
WestJet spokeswoman Morgan Bell called Transport Canada’s announcement an “important first step in the eventual return to service of this aircraft in Canadian airspace.
“There are remaining steps to take and measures to put in place before Transport Canada officially reopens the skies for passenger service,” Ms. Bell said.
The return of the Max coincides with an unprecedented low point in demand for air travel. Airlines have laid off thousands of people, and grounded large parts of their fleets amid travel restrictions and efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. Air Canada, which is reducing its fleet by 79 planes amid collapsed demand, will finalize its plan to redeploy the Max planes when the regulator clears them to resume carrying passengers, said Angela Mah, an Air Canada spokeswoman.
On Wednesday, Transport Canada sent an e-mail to relatives of the 18 Canadians killed in the Ethiopian crash, informing them of the coming announcement. Several of the families had asked the government not to approve the plane unless the deadly software was stripped from the design.
“I know that the news of our completion of the validation process is not something that you wanted to receive,” said Mr. Robinson in the e-mail, which was obtained by The Globe and Mail.
“I can assure you though that our process and review to validate these changes has been comprehensive; that our decisions have been independent and driven by the analysis of our globally recognized certification experts; and, that we are confident in our validation outcome.”
The FAA cleared the revised 737 Max to fly in November, followed by regulators in Europe and Brazil. Brazilian airline Gol returned the plane to service last week, becoming the first carrier to do so. Canada’s two largest carriers Air Canada and WestJet Airlines both fly the aircraft.
However, one of the experts called to testify at Transport committee hearings into the Canadian government’s endorsement of the 737 Max said he is not convinced that the plane has been made entirely safe by the design changes.
Boeing has said the flaws in the plane’s software – known as the manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system (MCAS) – have been fixed. But Gilles Primeau, an expert in flight-control systems, said the stabilization software that caused the crashes can still, under certain conditions, be fed faulty information. He raised this flaw with Transport Canada, Boeing and the FAA, but says his concerns haven’t been addressed.
“I’d love to see proof that Boeing even noticed this condition or that the FAA’s so-called unprecedented scrutiny [of the 737 Max] noticed it either,” Mr. Primeau said. “There’s an easy way to find out: Demand to see immediately Boeing’s or FAA’s evidence that this case was studied, and how they could find a rationale to accept this.”
Under international aviation rules, the FAA scrutinizes Boeing’s aircraft designs, which are then validated by other international regulators such those in Canada and Europe.
Boeing was found to have withheld information from the FAA about the software in the original certification of the 737 Max, so that when Canadian regulators verified the plane, they were unaware that the system could force the plane into a nosedive that pilots could struggle to reverse.
The FAA was also found to have outsourced much of the scrutiny over the original design to Boeing’s own engineers in an effort to streamline the regulatory approval of the plane.
“I have completely lost confidence in them,” Mr. Primeau said of the FAA.
Transport Canada has said it is looking at changes to the way it validates new aircraft as a result of the 737 Max disasters.
“We will issue a Canadian Airworthiness Directive that will clearly outline the Canadian validated design changes that must be incorporated,” Mr. Robinson said in the e-mail. “In addition, we will also mandate the training requirements for air crew through an Interim Order.”
The plane will likely return to service in the new year.
“We expect these steps to take place in January, 2021,” Mr. Robinson said in the e-mail.
“In the meantime, I can assure you all that the commercial flight restrictions for the aircraft in Canadian airspace remain in effect and will not be lifted until we are fully satisfied that all its safety concerns have been addressed.”
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