Canada takes first step to clearing Boeing 737 Max to fly again in the new year

After a nearly two-year flight ban, Transport Canada has taken the first step toward clearing the Boeing 737 Max to fly again by approving design changes to the aircraft in the wake of two deadly crashes.

Aircraft was grounded worldwide for nearly 2 years after pair of deadly crashes

Transport Canada has validated changes to the Boeing 737 Max planes nearly two years after the plane was grounded following a pair of deadly crashes. (CBC)

After a nearly two-year flight ban, Transport Canada has taken the first step toward clearing the Boeing 737 Max to fly again by approving design changes to the aircraft in the wake of two deadly crashes.

The department says pilots can start training flights in January, a sign the plane could return to service early in the new year. 

In a letter obtained by CBC News, Transport Canada said it informed its U.S. counterpart on Wednesday that it has validated a number of changes to the aircraft with "some unique Canadian differences."

Transport Canada confirmed this morning those changes include additional training that gives pilots the option to disable a "stick shaker" — which is "a loud and intrusive warning system when the system has been erroneously activated by a failure in the angle of attack sensor system," according to a press release. 

"This feature will help to reduce pilot workload given what has been learned from the two tragic accidents, and has been fully evaluated by Transport Canada's flight test pilots," wrote Transport Canada. "There will also be differences in training, including training on the enhanced flight deck procedure."

'Very confident'

Transport Minister Marc Garneau said today the plane has been "looked at very carefully because we want to make sure that we absolutely fix it." 

"We feel very confident because safety is critical for passengers, for the government of Canada, and we feel very confident that we have done our homework properly," he said.

WATCH | Concerns remain after Transport Canada approves Boeing 737 Max design changes:

Concerns remain after Transport Canada approves Boeing 737 Max design changes

2 years ago
Duration 1:54
Experts and the families of crash victims are raising concerns about Transport Canada's decision to approve design changes to the Boeing 737 Max, bringing it closer to returning to the skies, because they say there are still flaws and a public inquiry still hasn't happened.

In October 2018, a 737 Max owned by Lion Air plunged into the Java Sea shortly after takeoff, killing all 189 passengers. In March 2019, an Ethiopian Airlines flight plunged from the air southeast of the capital, Addis Ababa, minutes after takeoff, killing everyone onboard — including 18 Canadians and a family of permanent residents to Canada. Countries around the world grounded the aircraft after the second crash. Canada was criticized for being one of the last countries to do so. 

Ethiopia's investigation report pointed the finger at Boeing, saying flaws in the aircraft's design caused the crash. Inaccurate sensor readings activated the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) system, an automated safety feature, which pointed the plane's nose down as pilots struggled to right it, the report said.

Transport Canada has been working with other regulators around the world, but said it conducted its own independent review of the changes to the aircraft to determine if it's safe to fly again. The U.S. already has cleared the plane to fly again and Boeing conducted its first new flight with media representatives on board on Dec. 2. Europe and Brazil have also approved the Max to return to regular service.

There are a number of steps that still need to be taken before Transport Canada allows Canada's 737 Max fleet to carry passengers again, including issuing a directive that outlines the design changes and mandating additional training in a simulator for air crews. These steps and others are expected to happen in January 2021, the department wrote. Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing fly the Max.

Rescuers work at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines plane crash south of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on March 11, 2019. (Mulugeta Ayene/The Associated Press)

'Like a rock from the sky'

Gilles Primeau, an engineer and expert on flight control systems, who has  testified in front of MPs about the Boeing 737 Max before, still has safety concerns. He's been studying the aircraft since the second crash and believes he's discovered another potentially fatal flaw, he said.

Primeau wrote Transport Canada at the end of November and argued if one of the aircraft's sensors gets affected by something like a bird strike, problems could follow. If a pilot were to perform an evasive manoeuvre, the MCAS system might fail, which could stall the airplane, Primeau warned the department.

"It could cause the airplane to stall which means the airplane falls like a rock from the sky," said Primeau. "If that happens close to the ground, it's game over."

Transport Canada told CBC News it has considered Primeau's input and has fully evaluated the system malfunctions. The department said its "fully satisfied that the combination of design changes and training introduced sufficiently mitigated the associated risks." 

Primeau said he was provided a high-level response from the department yesterday, but said it will take time to carefully review the findings and wants more details. 

'Pain in my heart'

Chris Moore, who lost his 24-year-old daughter Danielle in the crash, said it's hard to learn that "a plane that was instrumental" in his daughter's death could fly again in Canada soon. Danielle was on her way to a UN Environmental Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya when she died in the Ethiopian Airlines crash. 

Moore said he feels there are outstanding safety issues with the Max and unanswered questions. He also said the government hasn't adequately explained to families why the plane wasn't grounded after the first crash — a precaution that could have prevented his daughter's death.

Chris and Clariss Moore's daughter Danielle died on March 10, 2019 when Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed. (Tina Mackenzie/CBC)

"There's a bit of hollowness in my gut and pain in my heart," he said. "It's very difficult. Every day, there's always something that comes up that gives another jab to my heart. To think about what I'll be missing in the future. Going on trips with her, not being a grandfather, that's been taken away from me. It is very hard."

Some families of the victims of the Ethiopian Airlines crash have been calling on Canada to launch an independent inquiry before clearing the plane as safe to fly again. Family members said they were devastated when the Liberals and Conservatives blocked the NDP's motion to hold a public inquiry last month during a House of Commons transport committee hearing on Canada's certification process for the Max.

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

The documents show Transport Canada's test pilots asked for more information about the plane's automated anti-stall system, but did not get a response before the aircraft was cleared to fly.


Ashley Burke

Senior reporter

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