OTTAWA—Transport Canada is conducting its own review of design changes to the Boeing 737 Max aircraft to ensure that the “safety risks” identified in two fatal crashes are addressed before the jet is allowed to fly again in Canadian skies.
That return to service will only happen “once there is confidence that the planes are safe to do so and all concerns have been addressed,” Nicolas Robinson, Transport Canada’s director general of civil aviation, told reporters after attending a Thursday meeting of aviation regulators.
Transport Canada was among 33 regulators from around the globe that took part in a day-long session hosted by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration in Fort Worth, Texas, to share information on evaluating changes to the Boeing 737 Max design — these include software changes — that will get it back into service.
Since the plane’s manufacturer is based in the U.S., the FAA has responsibility for certifying changes proposed by Boeing to address the jet’s design problems.
“Our review of the Max design changes, the software upgrade is already underway,” Robinson said.
“The validation will be completed once we are certain that the safety risks that were presented by these two incidents have been addressed,” Robinson said.
The 737 Max, the latest model of a jet that first flew in the 1960s, is operated by WestJet, Air Canada and Sunwing here in Canada. The carriers have removed the Max model from their flight schedules for much of the summer.
He said it is “premature” for airlines to make any further decisions about their schedules, saying that Transport Canada is still waiting on further information from both the FAA and Boeing for its review
“This is not about a meeting a deadline; it’s about getting safety done properly. It’s a process and it will be done when we feel comfortable,” Robinson said.
The FAA wasn’t making any promises either when the Boeing 737 Max would be allowed to resume flights in the United States, a key step to resuming operations in other jurisdictions.
“The only timetable I have is the analysis that says the Max is good to fly and safe to fly,” Daniel Elwell, acting FAA administrator, told reporters in his own briefing after the meeting.
“We are going through an incredibly intensive and robust process to make the safety case to unground the Max,” he said.
“We won’t unground the Max until we’ve made that safety case,” Elwell said.
Instead, he suggested there’s much work yet ahead. Boeing has yet to submit a final application outlining changes to a software system on the 737 Max jets blamed as a factor in the two fatal crashes that forced the worldwide grounding of the aircraft in March.
Once that is submitted, the FAA will do risk assessments and analyses, weigh information from other regulators, put the changes to the test in a modified 737 “before making the decision to return the aircraft to service,” Elwell said.
“Internationally, each country has to take its own decision, but FAA will make available to its counterparts all that we have learned, all that we have done,” Elwell said.
The aircraft was grounded in Canada and around the globe in March following two crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that, taken together, killed 346 passengers and crew.
The investigations have focused on a piece of software introduced on the Max because of design changes that altered its flying characteristics from earlier 737 models.
That software, known as the manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system, would automatically push the nose down if it detected the risk of an aerodynamic stall. But it’s suspected that erroneous air data caused the system to needlessly trim the nose down in both accidents, leaving the pilots in a tug-of-war with the aircraft that ended with catastrophic results.
Boeing has been working on changes to that software and new cockpit warnings and revamped training for pilots who fly the jet.
In a statement Thursday evening, Boeing said it appreciated the FAA’s move to bring together regulators “to share information and discuss the safe return to service of the 737 MAX.
“Once we have addressed the information requests from the FAA, we will be ready to schedule a certification test flight and submit final certification documentation,” the aerospace manufacturer said.
Elwell predicted that the investigations will ultimately show that a host of factors led up to both crashes.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau has said that the federal government may require Canadian pilots to undergo simulator training before it gives the Max the green light to resume flights.
Robinson said there are “many factors” to be considered before deciding what the requirements will be for new training on the Max, including the issue of simulator sessions.
Elwell said that the FAA has not yet made any decisions on that front for U.S. pilots, saying the agency’s safety analysis “will dictate the training required.”
“It remains to be seen whether there will be simulator training of any kind,” he said, adding that as a former commercial pilot himself, “you can never practice certain procedures too much.”
“It won’t be singly, solely about the aircraft, about certification, about procedures, about pilot qualification, training, maintenance. All of those are factors,” he said.
As the agency that certified the aircraft in the first place, the FAA has found itself under the microscope amidst questions that it has become too cosy with Boeing.
But Robinson said that Canada still has “full confidence” in the FAA and its certification of U.S.-designed aircraft.
The FAA was also the last major regulator to ground the aircraft — this was done hours after Canada did — prompting what Elwell said were “frank” questions at the day’s meeting about that decision.
But he defended the timing, saying they acted only once they had hard data, provided by Canadian authorities, that showed similar erratic flightpaths between the two fatal flights, offering evidence that the crashes were linked.
“We’re the only — with Canada — the only countries that made our decision on solid data,” Elwell said.
“We don’t make safety decisions on our gut. We’re data driven, risk-based,” he said.
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier