Crash victims' families told approval of 737 Max by Transport Canada looks 'imminent'

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OTTAWA — The father of a young woman who died in the Boeing 737 Max crash last year says federal officials told victims' families approval of the beleaguered aircraft is "imminent."

Transport Canada's head of civil aviation informed family members in a virtual meeting Wednesday the department is on the cusp of validating changes to the plane — already cleared for takeoff in the United States — said Chris Moore, who lost his 24-year-old daughter Danielle in the tragedy.

The Max has been grounded in Canada since March 2019, when Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 plummeted to the ground six minutes after taking off from Addis Ababa, killing all 157 people on board in the second of two Max crashes less than five months apart.

Moore said he is concerned the review processes that led regulators to green-light a fatally defective plane remain in place.

"They basically said they have one or two minor things to go over," Moore told The Canadian Press on Wednesday. "But we still don't know exactly how they're going to reform the way that they validate these airplanes."

Transport Canada has spent months poring over changes made to the Max, which contained critical flaws in its MCAS anti-stall system that could plunge it into a nosedive if a sensor failed.

Departmental approval would be the first step on the path back to the runway, a process that would not wrap up before January, said Amy Butcher, a spokeswoman for Transport Minister Marc Garneau.

The initial validation stage is expected "to conclude very soon," she said in an email, noting that Canadian operating requirements will differ from those issued by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

"These differences will include additional procedures on the flight deck and pre-flight, as well as differences in training."

Following the first 737 Max crash in October 2018, which killed 189 people aboard Lion Air Flight 610 off the coast of Indonesia, the FAA conducted a study that found more crashes could occur as a result of faulty stabilizing software. It sent preliminary results of the risk analysis to Transport Canada.

The department has not disclosed what precisely the preliminary report revealed, why it did not ground the plane or the reason it only obtained the full analysis after the second disaster 19 weeks later.

Moore and other family members have called for a public inquiry into Transport Canada's validation of the Max, which New Democrat MP Taylor Bachrach proposed last month in a motion to the House of Commons transport committee. The motion was voted down 9-2.

"I think Transport Canada failed. After the first crash, they should have grounded that plane in Canada, which would cause other agencies to follow suit," Moore said Wednesday.

"I am channelling my daughter’s energies and passions and her sense of justice," he said, noting Danielle was en route to the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi.

"She couldn’t stay still. She was a beautiful girl."

Gilles Primeau, a flight systems engineer, told the committee on Nov. 24 that design deficiencies remain on the Max, Boeing's bestselling plane — and one of the deadliest ever produced, with more fatalities in its first four years on the market than any other commercial aircraft in history.

"I would not get on this aircraft … The grandfathering has been stretched too much," he said.

"It’s safer now that the MCAS software has been changed. However, to say that this is now the safest airplane because of all the scrutiny is just not true."

In a three-and-a-half-hour meeting Wednesday afternoon, three Transport Canada officials — director general of civil aviation Nicholas Robinson, director of aircraft certification David Turnbull and a test pilot — assured about 10 of the victims' family members that the validation process would thoroughly scrutinize changes to updated aircraft, Moore said.

A complex return-to-service plan would follow validation, and involve training and maintenance instructions for planes that have languished unused for 20 months, Butcher said in her email. It would also include an "airworthiness directive," which would notify operators that certain defects must be corrected before the aircraft can fly again.

Reassurances from transport officials failed to satisfy Paul Njoroge, whose wife, three children and mother-in-law died in last year's crash. He told the transport committee on Nov. 24 that others should not have to experience that profound trauma, which has left him "in a chasm of solitude, isolation and pain."

"The difficult thing in life is when you are living in a world full of billions of people, but you just feel alone all the time."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 3, 2020.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press