Politics

Transport Canada posed questions about Boeing's 737 Max as early as 2016, documents show

Transport Canada had questions about the 737 Max as early as 2016, but Canada didn't get answers from Boeing, the manufacturer, and the U.S Federal Aviation Administration before it approved the plane as safe to fly, according government documents.

New information sparks heated exchange between Transport Minister Marc Garneau and Tory MP

New documents show Transport Canada test pilots posed questions about the 737 Max in 2016, before the two deadly crashes involving the aircraft that killed 346 people and 18 Canadians. Above, rescuers work at the scene of an Ethiopian Airlines flight crash near Bishoftu, Ethiopia. (Mulugeta Ayene/Associated Press)

Transport Canada had questions about the 737 Max as early as 2016, but Canada didn't get answers from Boeing, the manufacturer, and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration before it approved the plane as safe to fly, according to government documents. 

Todd Doherty, the Conservative MP for the B.C. riding of Cariboo—Prince George, made the documents public at a parliamentary hearing Thursday.

They show Transport Canada test pilots posed questions about the 737 Max in 2016, before the two deadly crashes involving the aircraft that killed 346 people and 18 Canadians. The documents' contents prompted heated exchanges between Doherty and Transport Minister Marc Garneau.

"Concerns were raised time and time again," said Doherty. "Yet you still certified this aircraft. Canadians deserve to know, most importantly the families in this crash, deserve to know why."

Garneau accused the Tory MP of not understanding the process of certifying an airplane.

"You do not understand the complexity of this situation," said Garneau. "That's something that's something that is very, very clear." 

The Boeing 737 Max was grounded worldwide a year ago, after an Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed outside of the capital Addis Ababa killing all 157 people onboard. Five months earlier, a Max owned by Lion Air plunged into the Java Sea after taking off from Jakarta, killing 189 people.  (Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press)

The exchanges occurred after Doherty repeatedly cited a Transport Canada document, called a Concern letter, which is filed by the regulator to Boeing and FAA.

The paper, which is a part of the certifying process is a chance for the government to ask questions of the FAA that may not be clear. It's not used to flag safety issues, but instead is a way to understand the work being done, according to Transport Canada.

The documents show Transport Canada's test pilots asked for more information about the plane's automated anti-stall system before the Maxes were certified, but didn't get an explanation in time. 

737 Max grounded worldwide

The document also notes Boeing asked Canada to approve the planes by the summer of 2017.

"Please note that in order to meet its delivery commitments to the Canadian operators, Boeing has requested Transport Canada to issue its 737-MAX ATC [airworthiness certificate] in June 2017," the document from 2017 states.

The Boeing 737 Max was grounded worldwide a year ago, after an Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed outside of the capital Addis Ababa killing all 157 people onboard. Five months earlier, a Max owned by Lion Air plunged into the Java Sea after taking off from Jakarta, killing 189 people. 

In both crashes, investigators found faulty sensors activated the plane's automated anti-stall system, known as MCAS, that repeatedly pushed the jetliner's nose down. Pilots tried to fight the system, but eventually lost control.

David Turbull, Transport Canada's director of national aircraft certification, told the committee that Transport Canada's Concern paper did not raise a technical of safety issue. Rather, it raised a question, he said.

"We did not understand fully the methodology that Boeing used," Turnbull said.

Turnbull has been adamant during the Parliament hearings that Canada would have never allowed the planes to fly if it was aware of any safety issues. 

WATCH | Committee erupts into bickering:

Minister for Transport Marc Garneau and Conservative MP Todd Doherty got into a heated debate during a parliamentary committee meeting discussing the Canadian approval process for the Boeing 737 max. 3:39

After the first crash,Transport Canada in November 2018 asked Boeing about an issue with the software, which contributed to the disasters.

"Transport Canada requests further details to understand whether the potential exists for a single failure . . . to cause an inadvertent nose down pitch command from the stall identification system, which is considered to be catastrophic," according to the Nov, 2018 document.

'We were scrambling for information'

Garneau also faced questions about why Canada was one of the last countries to ground the 737 Max after the second plane crash a year ago. 

"We were scrambling for information," Garneau told the committee. "We had no clear picture of what happened."

The department was getting anecdotal information from witnesses on the ground, air traffic controllers and other countries, according to Garneau.

It wasn't until Canada received data that showed similarities to the Lion Air crash that happened five months earlier, that Garneau said he decided to ground the plane. He then notified the U.S. and it followed suit two hours later. 

The heads of three Canadian airlines that fly the 737 Max testified that after the crash, they went back and reviewed their pilot reports and didn't experience any issues similar to the crashes. One of the airlines held town hall meetings with employees so they could ask questions about the plane's safety.

NDP MP Taylor Bachrach asked the committee to call Boeing to testify in light of the severity of the case. The motion was unanimously carried with a deadline that Boeing must appear before committee by the end of April. 

About the Author

Ashley Burke

Reporter

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

now