Canada urged to review aircraft certification agreement with U.S. following Boeing 737 MAX 8 crashes
Aviation experts are urging Transport Minister Marc Garneau to review an aircraft certification agreement between Canada and the United States following two crashes involving the Boeing 737 MAX 8 in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed nearly 350 people in recent months.
The bilateral agreement — called the Implementation Procedures for Airworthiness — is being criticized after preliminary data from last week’s Ethiopian Airlines crash, which killed 157 people, including 18 Canadians, revealed “similarities” to the fatal Lion Air crash that killed 189 in October 2018.
According to the agreement, when a plane is certified to fly in the U.S. by the Federal Aviation Administration or in Canada by Transport Canada, the aircraft is also approved by the reciprocal country based on a “high degree of mutual confidence and trust.”
“The acceptance of the following approvals shall be implemented by the FAA and [Transport Canada] solely on the basis of each other’s approval without the need for submission of an application and validation by the other,” reads the agreement.
Ashley Nunes, who studies regulatory policy at MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics, said the FAA has for years lacked adequate resources and staffing, which has had an “impact on the quality of service.” Currently, the FAA hasn’t had a permanent top official for 14 months.
Nunes said a report from the Seattle Times alleging that the FAA sped up approval of Boeing’s 737 MAX 8, which included a flawed safety analysis, is more evidence Canada needs to rethink how it approaches certification with the troubled U.S. agency.
“The FAA was putting pressure on its own employees to hurry up and certify the airplane, which, quite frankly, is not the role of the agency,” Nunes told Global News. “The agency isn’t there to look out for Boeing. The agency is there to look out for the flying public.”
WATCH: Report says FAA overlooked warnings on Boeing 737 MAX 8
Nunes said that for years, the FAA has delegated some certification work to aircraft manufacturers or to outside experts, a process that has become a kind of “self-certification.”
“It’s hard to imagine that the status quo could or should continue,” he said.
Citing current and former FAA engineers, the Seattle Times reported that Boeing was under pressure to catch up to Airbus to approve its new 737 MAX jets. The Chicago-based manufacturer turned in a safety assessment filled with “crucial errors,” the Times reported, and understated the power of the aircraft’s Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) flight control system.
“There was constant pressure to re-evaluate our initial decisions,” a former engineer told the Times. “Even after we had reassessed it … there was continued discussion by management about delegating even more items down to the Boeing company.”
Now, the U.S. Transportation Department’s inspector general has opened an investigation into the FAA’s approval of Boeing’s 737 MAX planes, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Ross Aimer, a U.S. pilot and aviation expert, said that no country should take the FAA “at its word” when it comes to certifying aircraft and that its current processes should raise major “red flags.”
“They’ve let Boeing do whatever they want, and the [FAA] just rubber-stamped it,” he said. “Boeing was uncontested in everything they did with the 737 MAX.”
Paul Bergman, a spokesperson for Boeing, said in a statement that the 737 MAX was certified in accordance with “the identical FAA requirements and processes that have governed certification of all previous new airplanes and derivatives.”
“The FAA considered the final configuration and operating parameters of MCAS during MAX certification and concluded that it met all certification and regulatory requirements,” Bergman said.
The FAA did not answer specific questions from Global News but issued a general statement denying allegations made in the Times reporting.
“The FAA’s aircraft certification processes are well established and have consistently produced safe aircraft designs,” the agency said. “We have no reports from whistleblowers any other sources pertaining to FAA technical personnel being pressured to speed up certification of the Boeing 737 MAX.”
In the aftermath of the two crashes, investigators have focused on the aircraft’s MCAS system, which is designed to automatically lower the nose of the plane to prevent it from stalling.
The MCAS was cited as the potential cause of the Lion Air crash by investigators in Indonesia, and Ethiopian Transport Minister Dagmawit Moges said Sunday an initial analysis of the black boxes recovered from the wreckage showed “clear similarities” between the two crashes.
Complaints from several U.S. pilots and lawsuits filed on behalf of Lion Air victims claim Boeing failed to disclose that the MAX 8 was equipped with the new MCAS software.
“If you know a crash has occurred and you have evidence to suggest that other pilots are experiencing the same issue, why is there hesitation in pulling the airplane?” Nunes said.
WATCH: Ethiopian Airlines victims’ family and friends longing for answers
Larry Vance, a former Transportation Safety Board investigator, said that in light of the two crashes, he hopes the federal government reviews its agreement with the United States.
“The entire relationship between those who are trying to get airplanes and equipment certified and those who have the ultimate responsibility for declaring those things to be safe,” he said. “It’s certainly high time for that now.”
As countries around the world grounded their fleets of MAX 8s following the Ethiopian Airlines tragedy, Canada and the U.S. stood by the aircraft.
Roughly two days later, Garneau moved to ban the MAX 8 aircraft from Canadian airspace, citing new evidence related to the Ethiopian crash.
WATCH: Garneau questioned on reliability of FAA on aircraft certification
Transport Canada and the minister did not immediately respond to questions about whether Canada would review its airline certification agreement.
When asked last week why Canada trusted the FAA, the minister said the U.S. agency is “an extremely professional organization.”
“With respect to safety, we are very, very comfortable with the fact that they are a certifying agency,” Garneau told Global News.
Garneau said the decision to ground the planes came after his office received new data suggesting a similarity between the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air crashes.
“There are similarities that sort of exceed a certain threshold in our minds with respect to the possible cause of what happened in Ethiopia,” he said. “My departmental officials continue to monitor the situation, and I will not hesitate to take swift action should we discover any additional safety issues.”
Boeing has announced that it’s working with the FAA to finalize a software update related to the MCAS system to make the planes safer, which it hopes to have updated no later than April.
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