737 Max returns to Canadian skies


Boeing 737 Max makes its first Canadian revenue flights after an almost two-year absence

737 Max Canadian
A Westjet Boeing 737 Max departs Vancouver International Airport January 21, 2021 (Brett Ballah).

With an uneventful flight between Calgary and Vancouver Thursday morning, Westjet turned the page on a dark chapter in aviation and operated the first Boeing 737 Max revenue flight in Canadian skies in almost two years.

“The return of Westjet’s Max aircraft marks an operational milestone after 22 months of intense review and considerable learning,” said President and Chief Executive Officer Ed Sims.

Flight 115 left Calgary with 71 passengers on board – Westjet calls them guests – and landed 10 minutes early in Vancouver. “We had a little bit of a tail wind,” said Captain David Colquhoun, who was at the controls. “The aircraft performed as we expected it would. And we’re happy to be able to do the first Max flight in Canada.”

So began a campaign to convince Canadians the Max is safe.

Greater control

The type was grounded around the world after a pair of fatal accidents that killed 346 people. Much has been made of Boeing’s role in the tragedies, which were linked to a computer software used to push the nose of the Max down in certain conditions. Lax oversight by regulators further undermined public confidence in the aircraft.

“It will take a little time,” said Captain Scott Wilson, Westjet’s Vice-President of Operations. Along with Colquhoun, he piloted this first flight of the Max. He said having the airline’s head of operations and the leader of the pilot’s union at the controls was an important sign of leadership’s confidence in the aircraft. “We do know that some of the travelling public will have more concerns than others. But time will definitely show the safety of the Max. And we do believe, based on the additional scrutiny that’s been put into it, that this is the safest aircraft in the skies today.”

The Federal Aviation Administration authorized the Max to return to service November 18. Transport Canada took an extra two months to certify the Max and add its own requirements.

One of those requirements is additional pilot training. Westjet sent its pilots to Florida for simulator training.

“The old software version, control could sometimes be in the hands of the software versus the pilot,” said Capt. Scott Wilson, Westjet’s Vice-President of operations. “Now the assurance is, that with the changes to the software, the pilot has absolute control of the aircraft at all times.”

“What Boeing’s done is they’ve redesigned it,” said Colquhoun. “So that in the event that MCAS fires – is the expression we use – it will only fire once. And it won’t drive the nose further than there is control with the control column.”

Timing is right

The Max is making its return in the midst of the worst downturn aviation has ever seen. But the aircraft’s economics could help the bottom line. The Max reduces fuel burn compared to older 737s in the Westjet fleet.

“Now of all times bringing the Max back, I think is a big piece for us,” said Wilson.

Three of Westjet’s Max aircraft are operational. They will be deployed between Calgary and Toronto three times a week to start. Westjet said anyone who is booked on a Max can change to another flight through the airline’s call centre.

“We want to be excruciatingly transparent with our guests,” said Wilson. “We look forward begin able to, when the time is right, bring those aircraft back to the full Westjet network.”

Air Canada will return its Max aircraft to service on February 1. The Max will fly between Toronto and Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, and Edmonton. Like Westjet, Air Canada has also used the Max on flights across the Atlantic and to Hawaii, routes that are largely suspended due to the pandemic.

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