Aviation expert defends ministry's hesitation to ground Boeing jets

Transportation Minister Marc Garneau announced on Wednesday that Canada will ground all of its Boeing 737 Max 8 jets days after other countries took the same measure in response to last Sunday’s deadly Ethiopian Airlines crash.

“As a result of new data that we received this morning and had the chance to analyze, and on the advice of my experts and as a precautionary measure, I am issuing a safety notice that restricts commercial passenger flights of the Boeing 737 Max 8 or Max 9 variant aircraft, whether domestic or foreign, from arriving, departing or overflying Canadian airspace,” said Garneau.

The Ethiopian Airlines crash, which killed all 157 people onboard — including 18 Canadians — has raised concerns in countries around the world over its similarity to a Lion Air crash involving the same Boeing 737 Max 8 jet in Indonesia less than five months before.

As fear spread among Canadians this week, Garneau faced mounting pressure to follow the example of other countries, like Ethiopia, China, Indonesia and many in Europe, and ground the jets.

And with the gap between those countries and Canada growing wider by the day, the Air Canada Pilots Association urged Transport Canada on Wednesday to “to take proactive action to ensure the safety of the Canadian travelling public.”

Air Canada Boeing 737 MAX 8 landing at London Heathrow International Airport LHR EGLL with nice blue sky weather. The Boeing 737 MAX8 aircraft has 2X LEAP engines and is the newest variant of the Boeing 737 series, Boeing 737-800. Air Canada AC is a Star Alliance member and connects London, England UK to the Canadian cities Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Montréal Trudeau, Ottawa, St. John’s, Toronto Pearson, Vancouver. (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Despite pressure on the ministry to ground the planes earlier, aviation expert Joseph Yeremian says he doesn’t believe Transport Canada’s reaction time was inappropriate.

Yeremian is CEO of Thermodyne Engineering Limited, a consulting company that serves the aerospace, military and nuclear industries. He is also a board member of the Ontario Aerospace Council.

Yeremian said that if Canada had grounded the aircraft earlier in the week without sufficient hard data to support the decision, it would likely have been an arbitrary choice at the time, made to soothe a worried public.

That, he believes, was the case in countries that grounded the planes as early as Monday.

“Some countries it’s their choice, but they’ve just grounded without giving an actual reason at this stage,” he said. “Those countries’ information was based on the fear of the public.”

During the announcement on Wednesday, Garneau explained how days of studying the crash with a panel of experts culminated in new information coming to light on Wednesday morning.

“The panel has been reviewing the latest data in real time,” he said, “and I can assure you it’s been occupying our time 100 per cent for the past few days.”

Garneau said the new information his department received gave non-conclusive evidence that an error involving the plane’s autopilot program and one of its sensors might link the two crashes. Data from the Lion Air crash in Indonesia suggest that the plane’s angle of attack sensor incorrectly measured the plane’s angle as it ascended following take-off, he said, which resulted in the plane’s autopilot system adjusting the angle of the plane’s nose based on false information.

“What happened in the case of the Lion Air flight in Indonesia is that the pilot was fighting against the computer software which wanted to drop the nose of the aircraft,” Garneau said. “And eventually there was a loss of control of the aircraft.”

Garneau explained that new satellite data his team received Wednesday morning suggested the doomed Ethiopian Airlines jet displayed the same flight profile after take-off that the Lion Air flight displayed moments before it crashed, offering new evidence that the plane might have suffered from the same malfunction.

He reiterated, though, that while the data was compelling enough to merit temporarily grounding the planes in Canada, it is not meant to be taken as conclusive evidence that both crashes had the same cause.

“I would repeat once again this is not the proof that it is the same root problem,” he said. “It could be something else and we need to wait to see the data and hear the voices on the recorders in the black boxes.”

A known issue

Garneau said that following the Lion Air crash, Canada became aware of the communication issue between the angle of attack sensor and the autopilot program, at which point Canadian pilots underwent additional training to learn how to work around the problem.

“Following the Lion Air crash…Canadian air operators were forced to establish new procedures and add mandatory training for our flight crews,” he said. 

Yeremian said he understands Transport Canada’s hesitation to ground the planes over a known issue that Canadian pilots have been trained on.

“I think that is one of the major things that prevented Canada and the United States from grounding the airplanes,” he said. “Because there is a procedure that was already in place.”

FILE PHOTO: An Air Canada Boeing 737 MAX 8 from San Francisco approaches for landing at Toronto Pearson International Airport over a parked Air Canada Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, March 13, 2019. REUTERS/Chris Helgren/File Photo

Although, ultimately, he said he felt the Transport Ministry had made the right decision by grounding the planes in light of the new data.

Shortly after Garneau announced the grounding of Canada’s Max 8s and the closure of its airspace to all other Max 8s, U.S. officials announced they would take the same precautions.

As of March 13, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a special agency of the United Nations, had not made a recommendation one way or another.

“Once the Final Report into this accident is available we will have verified and official causes and recommendations to consider,”  ICAO spokesperson Anthony Philbin said in an email to Yahoo Canada.

“In the meantime ICAO recognizes the right of those national governments who may choose to act on the limited information currently available by taking immediate flight safety precautions regarding 737 Max 8 operations.”

Three airlines in Canada use the jets.

Air Canada has 24 Max 8 aircraft on routes that include Calgary to Vancouver and Montreal to Los Angeles. WestJet Airlines Ltd. has 13, and Sunwing Airlines has four.

With files from The Canadian Press