Rules and regulations

Transport Canada approves Boeing 737 MAX changes


Aircraft has been grounded for almost two years following a pair of deadly crashes

Transport Canada imposes requirements including additional training for MAX pilots

An Air Canada Boeing 737 MAX departs Vancouver International airport in February 2019 (Brett Ballah).

Almost two years after the type was grounded around the world, Transport Canada has validated training and software modifications, clearing the way for the Boeing 737 MAX to return to service.

Changes include aircraft modifications, new pilot training, and required maintenance before a return to service.

“This validation is an important first step in the eventual return to service of this aircraft in Canadian airspace,” the ministry said Thursday in a news release. “However, the return to service is complex, and Transport Canada must put in place comprehensive safety plans that require additional aircraft changes, maintenance and training.”

Transport Canada joined other regulators around the world, grounding the MAX in March 2019. That followed a pair of deadly crashes that killed 346 people.

“Canada has been very much involved with several other countries,” said Transport Minister Marc Garneau, answering questions from reporters Thursday in Montreal. “The Americans, obviously, but also the Europeans. And today’s the validation. Which means that we recognize the modifications that have been made to fix the problem with the MAX 8.”

Transport Canada will finalize the changes in an airworthiness directive expected to be issued in January. Once that happens, the type will be cleared to return to service.

“It means we accept the modifications, but we also have some Canadian modifications as well,” said Garneau. “Those primarily touch on procedures that pilots will use, some slightly different procedures, as well as the training.”

Pilots will have to spend time in a simulator before they are allowed to fly the MAX.

Boeing MAX changes

Regulators have linked the crashes, in part, to a computer software called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System. Boeing installed the MCAS to prevent the MAX from stalling in some flight configurations. Data suggest the system was wrongly triggered by faulty angle of attack readings in the crashes. That set off a series of events that pilots could not control.

Since then, Boeing has made changes to the system. The Federal Aviation Administration approved the changes in November. These include changes to the software and pilot training.

“We redesigned how the airplane’s flight control computers process the information provided by the Angle of Attack sensors,” the manufacture says on its website. “They now compare information from both AOA sensors — instead of one — before activating, adding a new layer of protection. Also, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) will now only activate once and will never provide more input than the pilot can counteract using the control column alone. Pilots will continue to have the ability to override MCAS at any time.”

“We recognize that we have to fix the airplane, but also it’s important to control the even workload that pilots have when there’s a problem,” said Garneau. “And so procedures and training are very important.”

Canadian distinctions

Transport Canada has imposed additional measures related to the MAX.

“There are three key areas of concern for Transport Canada that are broader than the maneuvering characteristics augmentation system, commonly referred to as MCAS, which has been commonly reported,” Transport Canada Director General of Civil Aviation Nicholas Robinson told a Commons committee in February. “These are acceptable levels of pilot workload, the flight control system or architecture for the aircraft, and a minimum training requirement for crew members to operate this aircraft safely.”

One such Canadian change includes teaching pilots a five-step procedure to deal with with what they call “runaway trim stabilizer condition.” That includes instructions how to disable the ‘stick shaker’ what warns of an impending stall.

In both the Lion Air crash and the Ethiopian crash, the stick shaker added to the confusion and chaos. Eighteen Canadians died in the crashes.

Transport Canada’s assessment came after the agency conducted its own evaluations, including test flights.

“This plane has been looked at very, very carefully, because we want to make sure that we absolutely fix it,” said Garneau. “And we feel very confident that we have done our homework properly.”

Risk mitigation

Transport Canada said the Canadian requirement will reduce the workload for MAX pilots if something goes wrong.

“I can’t say with any confidence that this would have prevented that Ethiopian accident,” testified Robinson. “First, the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 investigative report has not been released yet, so we still have things to learn with regard to this accident. We still have more to garner from here. We won’t know whether the crew operating that aircraft used that unique Canadian procedure and could have recovered from what they were experiencing. That’s something we won’t be able to determine.”

Regulators are particularly concerned with mitigating risk, said Robinson. That’s where pilot training comes in.

A Westjet Boeing 737 MAX departs Vancouver International Airport in 2018 (Brett Ballah).

“By memorizing those procedures,” he said, “what we were doing was decreasing the reaction time for crews on Canadian-operated aircraft to recognize and respond to this sort of event happening in the flight deck, and that may have or would have helped them prevent that sort of issue from escalating.”

The ministry said it has been working with Canada’s airlines and pilot unions to validate the changes.

Air Canada has turned to the MAX as a future narrow-body workhorse. It had 24 MAX aircraft in the fleet when Transport Canada pulled their operating permit. The airline expects another 16 MAX deliveries over the next two years.

Rival Westjet has 13 MAXs in storage, with another 41 on order.

Sunwing had four of the type in its fleet when it was grounded.

The airlines have to update their aircraft before they can carry passengers. They also must perform maintenance tasks since the aircraft have been grounded for so long. The MAX won’t return to service in Canada before the new year.