MONTREAL — Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft is a step closer to returning to Canadian skies, nearly two years after being grounded due to technical issues that resulted in two deadly crashes involving foreign airlines.
Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau told reporters Thursday that Transport Canada has approved design changes to the plane, among them allowing pilots to disable a faulty warning system that was found to be central to the crashes in 2018 and 2019.
“Today is the validation, which means that we recognize the modifications that have been made to fix the problem with the Max 8,” Garneau said. “However, there’s still another step to take, and that will be done in January, when we will, as Canada, emit what we call an airworthiness directive.”
After the government issues the directive, airlines will be permitted to fly the Boeing Max again in Canada, provided that they meet Ottawa’s criteria for procedures and training.
The government’s announcement comes several weeks after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration cleared the Max for flight, as long as carriers implement certain design fixes and provide specialized training to pilots.
Transport Canada said at the time that its independent review process would impose requirements on the Max that go above and beyond those by U.S. authorities.
In particular, Transport Canada will require that Max pilots in Canada be allowed to disable a “loud and intrusive” warning system that will reduce workload for pilots in the event of a problem, the agency said in a statement Thursday.
Garneau said Canadians who are still worried about flying aboard the aircraft should know that Canada has played a leadership role in contributing to the fix being put into place.
“This plane has been looked at very, very carefully because we want to make sure that we absolutely fix it,” he said. “We feel very confident that we have done our homework properly.”
Countries around the world have been conducting independent review processes regarding whether to recertify the Max for flight.
The planes were grounded worldwide in March 2019 after two crashes, one of which killed 18 Canadians in Ethiopia. Subsequent investigations found that the crashes were caused by a faulty sensor that pushed the plane’s nose downward in flight.
Morgan Bell, a spokeswoman for WestJet, which has 13 Max aircraft in its fleet, said its planes will only return to service once they have met the requirements and the airline is certain that they are safe.
“This validation is an important first step in the eventual return to service of this aircraft in Canadian airspace,” Bell said. “There are remaining steps to take and measures to put in place before Transport Canada officially reopens the skies for passenger service.”
Pascale Dery, a spokeswoman for Air Canada, said the carrier will be finalizing its plans for returning the Max to service once regulators approve it to operate in Canada.
Sunwing Airlines said it was working closely with Transport Canada to ensure its four Max airplanes can return to service.
Several family members of Canadians who died in the Max crashes denounced the government’s decision on Thursday, saying in a statement that the aircraft is still dangerous.
John Gradek, a lecturer at McGill University and the head of its Global Aviation Leadership Program, said the additional changes to the Max that Canada will require are intended to ensure that pilots aren’t overwhelmed by sirens and other noises in case of an issue with the aircraft.
“What Transport Canada has done, which goes above and beyond what the FAA has done, is tone down the alerts,” Gradek said.
Gradek said the approval will be a boon for airlines, who, since the grounding orders, have had to replace the Max with older, less profitable airplanes.
The aircraft’s grounding caused significant headaches for WestJet, Sunwing, and Air Canada, which grounded 24 planes, delayed delivery of 26 and cancelled an order for 11 planes.
Airlines have suspended schedules, rerouted flights and faced higher costs from leasing aircraft that are less fuel-efficient.
They’ve also reached agreement with Boeing for undisclosed compensation.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 17, 2020.
Jon Victor, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version stated that the Max was grounded in January.