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Inside the 72 hours while Canada debated grounding the Boeing MAX-8 – National

Inside the 72 hours while Canada debated grounding the Boeing MAX-8 - National
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Just hours before then-transportation minister Marc Garneau announced the grounding of Boeing 737 MAX-8 jets in March 2019, staff at his department prepared three very different speeches.

They outlined three different scenarios: restricting the aircraft from Canadian airspace, as many countries already had, declaring the MAX-8 safe to fly, as the Americans did, or allowing the aircraft to operate “only if certain standards were met.”

The speeches are part of a newly released trove of internal documents on the federal government’s decision to ground the Boeing jets following a deadly 2019 crash in Ethiopia that killed 18 Canadians.


Next month marks the fifth anniversary of the disaster.

It’s not unusual for staff to draft multiple versions of speeches for ministers. But the fact that each of Garneau’s three prepared remarks contained vastly different decisions on the grounding of the MAX-8 illustrates the uncertainty at Transport Canada over the jets’ safety.

Emails, memos and briefing notes obtained by Global News through access to information law show three days of flurried activity at Transport Canada as the agency’s position continuously evolved. While Canadian officials worked around the clock to conduct their own safety review of the aircraft, they were largely in lockstep with the FAA, an agency under scrutiny for how it conducted safety reviews of U.S.-based Boeing jets.

And as the American-headquartered company faces questions about its MAX-8, and more recently MAX-9 jets, the documents also raise questions about how Transport Canada makes calls when it comes to which aircraft operate in Canadian skies.

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On March 10, 2019, an Ethiopian Airlines flight went down six minutes after takeoff from Addis Ababa, killing 157 people, including the 18 Canadians. It was the second deadly crash involving a new Boeing 737 MAX-8. Five months earlier, a Lion Air flight plunged into the Java Sea off the coast of Indonesia 13 minutes after takeoff, killing 189 people on board.

Transport Canada initially believed that there was no factual evidence connecting the two crashes.

Over the next 72 hours, as countries closed their airspace to the Boeing jets, Canada — and the U.S. Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), which Transport Canada looked to for advice — became international outliers.

Investigators ultimately found the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes were linked, after problems were identified with Boeing’s anti-stall software known as MCAS. Fatal flaws in some of the aircraft sensors repeatedly forced the nose of the jets down, while pilots fought to right the planes.

The FAA has faced criticism for its handling of Boeing’s MAX-8 crashes and more recently problems with the manufacturer’s MAX-9 model, when an emergency door panel blew off an Alaska Airlines jetliner.

After that incident, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun acknowledged “mistakes” were made and vowed to work with National Transportation Safety Board investigators with “complete transparency.”

The new head of the FAA, Michael Whitaker, told Congress earlier this month “there have been issues in the past. They don’t seem to be getting resolved, so we feel like we need to have a heightened level of oversight.”

Ashley Nunes, a Harvard economics professor who researches the transportation sector, had voiced concerns back in 2019 about the FAA’s quality control.

“I think that is what should have raised a red flag for Canadian authorities, where the FAA effectively delegated the manufacturer of these airplanes to engage in a lot of the self-certification themselves,” Nunes told Global News in an interview Tuesday.

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He added the FAA does not have enough inspectors to ensure the airworthiness of American-made aircraft, and “knows” they can’t go to Congress to ask for more resources, leading to aircraft manufacturers “self-certifying.”

In 2019, U.S. and Canadian regulators were among the last hold outs to suspend the MAX-8 from their airspace. The MAX-8 crafts had been certified by the FAA, and at the time those certifications were automatically accepted by Transport Canada under a bilateral agreement between Canada and the U.S.

“We’ve developed this symbiotic relationship between Canada and the U.S. with Boeing,” said John Gradek, a McGill University professor and aviation expert, in an interview Tuesday.

“We have over 500 Canadian companies that supply Boeing with parts,” he added.

“Boeing trusts us to build parts that are safe. And we trust the FAA for certification.”

‘No indication’ of a link?

But on March 12, 2019, as the U.S. and Canada stood by the MAX-8, Europe issued its own notice.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) announced that it would park the MAX-8s effective immediately in the wake of the Ethiopian crash. The statement’s wording suggested the move was taken out of abundance of caution, rather than hard evidence linking the two disasters.

“Based on all available information, EASA considers that further actions may be necessary to ensure the continued airworthiness of the two affected models,” the notice read, referring to both the MAX-8 and MAX-9 models.

Mexico and the United Kingdom also announced the planes would be grounded that day. But the FAA said that while connections between the two crashes were being drawn, the agency had no data to support grounding the MAX-8.

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That same day, a Transport Canada official briefed Garneau’s chief of staff that the department’s civil aviation wing held a meeting with technical experts and that there was “no information to indicate we have a safety risk,” according to the internal documents.

“There is no indication that the Lion Air and the Ethiopian Airline crashes are linked; there’s a lot of different factors that have to be taken into consideration,” the official wrote.

While speaking to reporters in Montreal on March 12, 2019, Garneau said there were no plans to park the planes and insisted “it’s important for us not to jump to conclusions.”

By 9:55 p.m. that same day, the list of countries that had grounded the jets had grown to 21 — including France, Germany, China, Australia, Ireland, Brazil, and South Korea — along with four international airlines.

And as the list grew, Transport Canada continued to weigh whether to close its airspace to the Boeing jets and what to tell the public, preparing remarks for three different possibilities.

But by 7:20 a.m. on March 13, 2019, new information had come to light.

What triggered the decision?

Transport Canada received satellite tracking data “suggesting some similarities in the flight profile between the Lion Air and Ethiopian Air accidents,” according to the internal documents.

“I’ve asked Civil Aviation to consider on an urgent basis what this means for our analysis to date,” read an email from the associate assistant to the deputy minister.

Later that morning, Garneau held a news conference, announcing Canada would restrict the MAX-8 from its airspace on March 13, 2019, effective immediately.

“My experts have looked at this (data) and compared it to the flight that occurred with Lion Air six months ago in October and there are — and I hasten to say — not conclusive, but there are similarities that sort of exceed a certain threshold in our mind,” he said.

At the time, Garneau insisted U.S. regulators had his full confidence.

“I have the greatest respect for the FAA. It has thousands of very competent professionals,” he said.

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FAA chief admits agency made a mistake not taking immediate action to prevent further Boeing 737 MAX crashes

Later that afternoon, the U.S. followed suit with Canada, as former president Donald Trump announced an “emergency order of prohibition to ground all flights of the 737 MAX-8 and the 737 MAX-9.”

A Liberal government official, who was not authorized to speak publicly but provided background information to Global News last Friday, suggested Canada was the first country to ground the jets based on “evidence,” including the satellite data, when asked about the timing.

Still, the incident prompted Transport Canada to review how it certifies aircraft as safe.

Garneau said in April 2019 that Transport Canada would do its own certification of Boeing’s fixes for the MAX-8s’ software, even if the FAA had already approved it.

In a statement Global News on Monday, Transport Canada spokesperson Hicham Ayoun said the agency’s “decision to restrict commercial passenger flights of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft was based on its own independent assessment of the operation of this aircraft.”

“The experts reviewed the latest available data in real time,” he added.

Robert Ditchey, a former U.S. Navy pilot and an expert in civil aviation litigation, told Global News that a regulator’s influence is often connected with the size of the country’s airline fleet.

“For example, (the Civil Aviation Administration of China) and Europe’s EASA have much more influence with both the FAA and Boeing than does (Transport Canada),” Ditchey said in an email.

Transportation Minister Pablo Rodriguez’s office sent a brief statement, simply stating that the “safety of Canadians, passengers, and pilots is always” the government’s “highest priority.”

What do things stand now?

In 2021, after almost two years of grounding, Canada cleared the MAX 8 to fly again.

That same year, Boeing admitted to misleading American regulators and agreed to pay US$2.5 billion to settle with the U.S. Justice Department. The fine included compensation to the families of the Ethiopian Airlines crash victims.

But on Jan. 5, 2024, safety concerns over Boeing’s MAX-9 models were ignited again, after the panel blew off an Alaskan Airlines flight over Oregon, leaving a hole the size of a refrigerator in the cabin wall. No one was seriously injured in the incident, which prompted an emergency landing.

“Boeing needs to get its act together. They’re on very short leashes now,” aviation expert Gradek said.

No Canadian airlines fly MAX-9s, though several have codeshare agreements with U.S. carriers that do. WestJet announced in 2022 it would buy at least 42 of the as-yet certified MAX-10 model with an option to buy 22 more.

— with files from Global’s Andrew Russell, the Canadian Press and Associated Press

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