Politics

Commons committee probes Boeing 737 Max crash following damning reports out of U.S., Ethiopia

On the one-year anniversary of an Ethiopian Airlines crash that killed 157 people — including 18 Canadians — MPs are looking to dig deeper into the federal government's decision to approve the Boeing 737 Max as safe to fly.

Two new reports blame flaws in the aircraft's design

Investigators with the U.S. National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) look over debris at the crash site of Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 on March 12, 2019 in Bishoftu, Ethiopia. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

On the one-year anniversary of an Ethiopian Airlines crash that killed 157 people — including 18 Canadians — MPs are looking to dig deeper into the federal government's decision to approve the Boeing 737 Max as safe to fly.

The House of Commons transport committee is meeting Tuesday — part of a series of public hearings looking into why Canada cleared the Boeing 737 Max to fly three years ago, before two deadly crashes led to the fleet being grounded worldwide.

MPs on the committee now have two new reports to draw upon that point to serious design flaws with the 737 Max, "grossly insufficient" federal oversight in the U.S. and a "culture of concealment" at Boeing.

On March 10, 2019, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed southeast of the capital Addis Ababa minutes after takeoff, killing everyone on board, including 18 Canadians and a family of permanent residents to Canada.

The disaster happened just five months after another 737 Max owned by Lion Air plunged into the Java Sea shortly after takeoff, killing all 189 people onboard. Indonesian investigators concluded the crash was due to a combination of aircraft design flaws, inadequate training and maintenance problems.

Ethiopia blames Boeing

On Monday, Ethiopia's investigation team released its own interim report. It laid no blame on the airline or the pilot, pointing the finger instead at Boeing and saying flaws in the aircraft's design caused the crash.

The Ethiopian investigators found that, as in the case of the Lion Air crash, the 737 Max's automated anti-stall system MCAS pushed the jet's nose down. Their report concludes the system forced the plane's nose down four times before it crashed into a farm field, leaving a crater about 10 meters deep.

"Most of the wreckage was found buried in the ground," said the report.

Rescuers work at the scene of an Ethiopian Airlines flight crash near Bishoftu, Ethiopia, March 11, 2019. (Mulugeta Ayene/Associated Press)

Boeing's training on the Max was "found to be inadequate," said the Ethiopian investigators' report. It recommends training pilots in simulators that can duplicate system failures.

A U.S House of Representatives investigative report released on Friday, meanwhile, paints what it calls a "disturbing picture" of Boeing's 737 Max production and the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) failure to identify key safety problems. The report concludes that the two flights were "doomed" as a result.

Boeing 'jeopardized the flying public': U.S. report

The preliminary findings of the U.S. House Transportation Committee's investigation said Boeing was under "tremendous financial pressure" to compete with Airbus and in several instances "jeopardized the safety of the flying public" to keep up with production pressures.

The report said the committee found a "culture of concealment" at Boeing that involved hiding flaws with the new MCAS system from 737 MAX pilots.

The company made "faulty assumptions" about MCAS by assuming pilots could overcome malfunctions, and "withheld" from pilots the fact that they would only have 10 seconds or less to diagnose and respond to a system error before risking "catastrophic consequences," said the report.

Combination of problems 'doomed' the flights, says report

The report also found the FAA's oversight to certify the Boeing 737 Max was "grossly insufficient."

"The FAA failed in its duty to identify key safety problems and to ensure that they were adequately addressed during the certification process," said the report. "The combination of these problems doomed the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines flights."

The committee claims the FAA handed over too much power and control to Boeing in several instances, creating a conflict of interest. For example, Boeing employees were granted special permission to act on behalf of the FAA in confirming aircraft systems and designs complied with FAA requirements.

"The fact that multiple technical design missteps or certification blunders were deemed 'compliant' by the FAA points to a critical need for legislative and regulatory reforms," reads the report.

The Commons transport committee is studying how Canada certifies planes like the Boeing 737 Max. Victims' families have accused the Canadian government of relying too much on the FAA's evaluations.

A Boeing 737 training simulator shows the cockpit of an earlier 737 model. The cost of training on the new Max 8 was avoided by the inclusion of the MCAS system to control stalls. (CBC)

Appearing before the last committee hearing on Feb. 25, senior Transport Canada officials admitted Canada didn't do an in-depth inspection the MCAS system before approving the 737 Max.

"We have to choose the areas we will review," David Turnbull, Transport Canada's director of national aircraft certification, told the committee. "It so happened that MCAS was not an area that we delved into in any great depth.

"Obviously, the accidents have revealed things about MCAS that we surely wish we had understood, and I believe the FAA would feel the same."

Officials said that it was up to the U.S. to approve the 737 Max because it's built in the United States; Canada verifies the information the U.S. provides on American-built aircraft. It takes hundreds of thousands of hours to certify an aircraft and it's too time-consuming for each country to independently verify every single new model of aircraft, Transport Canada officials said.

'It's not a question of negligence' - Canadian official

"I can assure you if we had had any of that knowledge at the time, we would have been digging a lot further, but with the aviation industry, as with the automobile industry and any other product that's produced, when things go wrong and things break, those are opportunities where we learn things we previously did not know," said Turnbull.

"It's not a question of negligence unless somebody is deliberately hiding information."

Nicholas Robinson, Transport Canada's director-general of civil aviation, said Canada wasn't under any particular pressure to validate the 737 Max.

"We felt that the aircraft was safe to fly in Canada," he said. "There would have been absolutely no instance where we would have approved that aircraft to fly in Canada if we did not feel that it met and complied with what we expected an aircraft to have."

Officials with Canada's Transportation Safety Board are scheduled to testify before the Commons committee Tuesday afternoon.

Boeing and the FAA both expressed their condolences and sympathies to families who lost loved ones in the Ethiopian Airlines Flight. Boeing said it continues to assist in the investigation and the U.S. committee's work and will be reviewing the reports.

In a statement to CBC news, the FAA said it welcomes the House committee's scrutiny. 

"We are confident that our openness to observations and recommendations will further bolster aviation safety worldwide," wrote FAA spokesperson Lynn Lunsford.

Last month, Transport Canada officials said Canada would conduct its own flight tests to examine whether the grounded Boeing 737 Max fleet is safe to fly.

About the Author

Ashley Burke

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Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. Have a story idea? Email her at ashley.burke@cbc.ca

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