Transport Canada test pilots raised questions about the Boeing 737 Max as far back as 2016, but the government decided to approve the plane first and address those issues later amid pressure from the manufacturer, according to internal government documents.
The revelations were contained in documents made public Thursday at federal hearings probing Canada’s endorsement of the deadly plane. Flawed software that forced the 737 Max into fatal nosedives has been blamed for two crashes, including one off the coast of Indonesia, which killed 189 people in late 2018, and another in Ethiopia that killed 157 people last March, including 18 Canadians.
But when Transport Canada test pilots flew the 737 Max in 2016, they found the plane’s automated anti-stall system unusual and raised questions about how it operated, the documents show. They didn’t realize at the time that they were looking at the MCAS, or the manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system – the software behind the two disasters.
However, when Transport Canada began asking for clarifications on how the new system worked, and why the 737 Max didn’t require a new operating certificate because it flew differently than previous models, Boeing sidestepped the issue.
The company said in 2017 it was in a rush to get the plane certified because it was set to deliver planes to WestJet, Air Canada and Sunwing Airlines in a matter of months.
“Please note that in order to meet its delivery commitments to the Canadian operators, Boeing has requested Transport Canada to issue [the plane’s airworthiness certificate] in June 2017,“ the documents say.
“To avoid delivery delays to our operators,” Transport Canada agreed to approve the plane, and stated that the concerns raised would “remain open.” Transport Canada then approved the plane, and the questions about the software weren’t dealt with.
The documents raise new questions about why Transport Canada didn’t ground the plane due to safety concerns early on. Conservative MP Todd Doherty, who discussed the documents at the hearing, told the federal Transportation Committee that it would have taken only one country to raise alarms about irregularities with the plane, rather than rely on the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s certification of the Max.
In a November, 2018, document – dated a few weeks after the first crash – Transport Canada asked Boeing for more information about the software, even as the plane was allowed to continue operating.
“Transport Canada requests further details to understand whether the potential exists for any single failure … to cause an inadvertent nose down pitch command from the stall identification system, which is considered to be catastrophic,“ the documents say.
It was at that point that Transport Canada learned more about the MCAS, which was intended to stabilize the 737 Max but could force it downward if it was fed incorrect data from a malfunctioning sensor.
The emergence of the documents at the hearings led to a heated exchange between Transport Minister Marc Garneau and Mr. Doherty, who asked the minister why the plane was allowed to fly if there were outstanding questions from test pilots, which Boeing had not resolved.
Mr. Garneau and other Transport Canada officials said the documents were from a “Concern Paper” filed by the regulator to Boeing, but contended that the issues raised by the test pilots were better characterized as “questions.“
“I’m aware of the Concern letter and I’m also aware that we had decided that we would still accept it as an ongoing open file,” Mr. Garneau said. “It’s not necessarily saying we’re not going to accept this aircraft, we’re saying there are some things that we need to better understand.”
Mr. Doherty said the test pilots were correct to flag their concerns, but Transport Canada failed to follow through on getting answers about the automated software, which could have saved lives. “It took one person to say, ‘Wait a second, we’re not getting the answers to the questions that we had,’ ” Mr. Doherty said.
Under decades-old aviation agreements, Transport Canada relied heavily on the FAA to scrutinize the 737 Max, and has the option to validate that regulator’s work. However, congressional hearings in the United States have shown that the FAA outsourced much of its oversight of the new plane’s design to Boeing’s own engineers. That left Canada and other countries uninformed about the fatal MCAS system.
“Not all of the information was provided to us on the MCAS; that was something that we found out later,“ Mr. Garneau said. “It makes us realize that we’ll have to be quite careful and pay attention to these things during future certification processes.”
Mr. Garneau said the government is now examining its aircraft certification system, and has promised a revamp of how it approves new planes. Proposed regulations that would have seen Canada surrender additional scrutiny to the FAA, including test flights, are now being reversed, and the government intends to build more safeguards into the aircraft vetting process.
“This isn’t just about the 737 Max,“ NDP MP Taylor Bachrach said. “It seems to be about a more systemic problem of self-regulation and a lack of due diligence.”
Pressed by opposition MPs at the hearing over whether he trusts the FAA, which has been heavily criticized by U.S. lawmakers, Mr. Garneau said Transport Canada has learned that it needs to “be a little more skeptical in the future.
“I think that we have all learned in the last year some very important lessons,“ Mr. Garneau said.
Mr. Garneau, who met with the families of the 18 Canadians who died in the Ethiopian crash last month, said he regretted not arranging a meeting sooner. The minister agreed to a meeting after The Globe and Mail reported that the families had been asking for nearly a year.
“I apologized to them personally for not meeting with them earlier,“ Mr. Garneau said. “The culture at Transport Canada … is one of dealing with technical issues. We should have been more sensitive to the fact that there were humans also involved here.“