Grounded 737 Max could take first step toward being cleared to fly this week, say crash victims’ families

Canadian families who lost loved ones on a Boeing 737 Max in 2019 say Transport Canada has told them the fleet could be “validated” as early as tomorrow — the first step toward potentially clearing the aircraft to fly again.

The aircraft has been grounded for 20 months in the wake of two deadly crashes. In March 2019, an Ethiopian Airlines flight plunged from the air southeast of the capital Addis Ababa minutes after takeoff, killing everyone onboard — including 18 Canadians and a family of permanent residents to Canada.

Five months earlier, another 737 Max owned by Lion Air plunged into the Java Sea shortly after takeoff, killing all 189 passengers.

Chris Moore’s 24-year-old daughter Danielle died in the Ethiopian crash. He took part in a video call this afternoon with roughly 10 other victims’ families, Transport Minister Marc Garneau and several officials from Transport Canada. Moore said they were told the planes would be cleared to fly again soon.

“They were very confident they would be un-grounding it, even as early as tomorrow,” Moore told CBC News. “Which is crazy. How could you leave us in a lurch like that?”

Moore said that three people on the call — Nicholas Robinson, director general of civil aviation at Transport Canada, Dave Turnbull, the department official in charge of aircraft certification, and a test pilot — assured the families that the department’s review process for the aircraft was thorough.

Garneau’s office told CBC News said as of 6:48 pm no final decision on validating the aircraft had been made yet and said the “commercial flight restrictions” remain in effect. 

“I should also point out that even if Canada does validate, that does not mean that it is given green light to fly,” said Garneau’s director of communications Amy Butcher in a statement. “A number of steps must first take place, including the approval of the air worthiness directive.”

Butcher said that is “not likely to happen before January 2021.”

“That would also include a safety maintenance plan, given that these aircraft have been unused for 20 months,” said Butcher. “A return to service plan is very complex and will take time before being completed.”

But Moore and other grieving family members say they still have safety concerns they feel haven’t been addressed, and don’t want the fleet cleared to fly so soon.

“I don’t feel good about it,” he said. “I feel it was going to happen sometime, although it shouldn’t from my perspective. There’s still a lot of questions about the safety of that plane.”

Chris Moore protested outside Transport Canada on the anniversary of the Ethiopian Airlines crash that killed his 24-year-old daughter Danielle. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Roughly two weeks ago, the U.S. cleared the 737 Max to fly again. Transport Canada has been working with the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration and received a directive listing changes to the aircraft. The department’s safety experts have been doing their own independent review of those proposed changes to determine if the aircraft is safe to fly again.

Ethiopia’s investigation report pointed the finger at Boeing, saying flaws in the aircraft’s design caused the crash. Inaccurate sensor readings activated the MCAS anti-stall system, which pointed the plane’s nose down as pilots struggled to right it, the report said.

Robinson testified in front of MPs on the transport committee last week, telling them that while Transport Canada has been working with other authorities around the world, their work should not be seen as a “rubber stamp process.” He said their experts conducted flight tests this summer and he was proud of the changes to the aircraft his team was “instrumental in shaping.” 

“Our safety experts are finalizing their independent validation process to determine whether to approve the proposed changes to the aircraft,” Robinson testified on Nov. 26. 

“Transport Canada remains steadfast in its commitment that the Boeing 737 MAX will not be permitted to fly in Canada until we can confirm the changes have been made to the aircraft and that adequate flight crew procedures and training are in place.”

Garneau said earlier this month that if Canada approves the aircraft to fly again, it would be with conditions.

“These differences will include additional procedures on the flight deck and pre-flight, as well as differences in training,” he said in a media statement.

His office insisted Canada would not allow the plane to fly again until Transport Canada “is fully satisfied that all its safety concerns have been addressed, and that enhanced flight crew procedures and training are in place in Canada.”

For the past year, families have been calling on the federal government to launch an independent inquiry to determine why Canada didn’t ground the 737 Max after the first crash — and what it knew after the second disaster.

But the Liberals and Conservatives blocked the NDP’s motion during Thursday’s transport committee hearing, leaving victims’ families devastated. 

Moore and Paul Njoroge testified last week at the committee that the plane should remain grounded until after an inquiry. Njoroge lost his family in the Ethiopian Airlines crash — his wife, three children and mother-in-law. 

“I still have nightmares about how my wife must have felt helpless, seeing the fear in our children’s eyes, knowing they were about to die,” he told the committee on Nov. 24.

“We want Transport Canada to go back to the drawing board … I think that’s the only way Canadians can feel safe stepping onto a 737 Max.”

Rescuers work at the scene of an Ethiopian Airlines plane crash south of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on March 11, 2019. (Mulugeta Ayene/The Associated Press)

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