Ottawa defends waiting to ground Boeing Max 8 even as flight data emerged online shortly after crash

News provided by The Globe and Mail

ERIC ATKINS TRANSPORTATION REPORTER UPDATED MARCH 18, 2019

Grounded Air Canada Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft are pictured at YVR airport in Vancouver, on March 13, 2019.BEN NELMS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The chart depicting the up-down-up flight path of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 was available to see on plane enthusiast blogs shortly after the Boeing 737 Max 8 crashed and killed all 157 passengers and crew near Addis Ababa on March 10, raising questions about the time it took governments in Canada and United States to ground the plane.

The speed and altitude of the doomed, six-minute flight was gathered from privately hosted receivers and turned into a gut-churning chart posted on the website Flightradar24. Observers quickly noted the similarities to an October crash of Lion Air 737 Max 8 near Jakarta that killed 189.

Within two days of the crash, dozens of countries – China, Britain and across continental Europe – grounded the two-year-old Boeing model, citing public safety and questions that needed to be answered by investigators of the two tragedies.

The swift reactions isolated Canada and the United States, where the jets continued to fly for at least another day.

David Gillen, a professor of transportation policy and management at the University of British Columbia and director of the Sauder Centre for Transportation Studies, called the delay “puzzling.” He speculated Ottawa was reluctant to ground a plane that is a key part of Air Canada’s fleet.

“They were going to take a real financial hit,” he said. “I think [Ottawa was] reluctant to [ground the planes] until it became apparent that they had no choice because of the public pressure.”

Transport Minister Marc Garneau announced the Canadian ban Wednesday at a press conference in Ottawa. He said he was taking the step based on new satellite-tracking information Transport Canada experts had reviewed on Wednesday morning. Virginia-based Aireon, a Nav Canada venture that provides satellite-based aircraft-tracking services to several global air-traffic authorities, supplied the data. An Aireon spokeswoman said Canada asked for and received the data Tuesday evening. The United States received the information on Monday.

“The new information, and I hasten to say this is new information that we received and analyzed this morning, comes from validated satellite tracking data suggesting a possible although unproven similarity in the flight profile of the Lion Air aircraft,” Mr. Garneau said in announcing the ban. “I caution that this new information is not conclusive and we must await further evidence hopefully from the voice and data recorders.”

He said there was no “political pressure” from the United States to delay any ban of the U.S.-made planes and there was no push-back from the Canadian airlines on the decision.

Hours after Mr. Garneau’s press conference, U.S. President Donald Trump said the United States was grounding the planes, also citing new information. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said the global ban “will remain in effect pending further investigation, including examination of information from the aircraft’s flight-data recorders and cockpit voice recorders.”

A Canadian government source who was granted anonymity by The Globe and Mail in order to speak freely said the Aireon data is seen as precise and trustworthy, and the government cannot make policy decisions based on crowd-sourced flight data.

“Transport Canada experts reviewed the latest available evidence from both protected and open sources from the time immediately following the accident up to the Minister of Transport’s decision to issue the safety notice on March 13, 2019,” Sau Sau Liu, a spokeswoman for Transport Canada, said in an e-mail. “Transport Canada analyzed data from Aireon and evidence from open-source reporting throughout their examination into this accident.”

The delay tied Canada to a slow-footed response in the United States that has been criticized as overly sympathetic to a big U.S. company while endangering lives.

The big U.S. airlines and the two major Canadian carriers account for more than 100 of the world’s 371-strong Max fleet, not including Canada’s Sunwing Airlines, which has four. This has added to the perception the slow response was an attempt to protect the airlines, not travellers or people on the ground.

The data used to generate the chart on Flightradar24 was collected from receivers deployed by users of the enthusiasts’ website in return for free access. Ian Petchenik, a spokesman for Flightradar24, said he has not seen the official flight data collected by Aireon, but his company’s is based on the same airplane broadcasts.

Since the planes were grounded, both airlines have scrambled to rebook thousands of passengers a day. WestJet on Monday suspended its financial guidance for 2019 after parking the planes that account for about 12 per cent of its March seat capacity. Air Canada issued a similar warning Friday amid questions over how the loss of 7 per cent of its seat capacity will affect profits and operations.

On Monday, Mr. Garneau told reporters in Ottawa that Canadian pilots of the 737 underwent additional training after the Lion Air incident highlighted possible problems with the plane. He also said Transport Canada is re-examining the validation it gave the Max jets, following reports of a U.S. probe into the aircraft’s certification by the FAA.

Canada accepted the FAA’s March, 2017, certification of the Max under a deal in which such U.S. approvals are accepted by Canada and vice versa.

“We may not change anything but we’ve decided it’s a good idea for us to review the validation of the type certificate that was given for the Max 8,” Mr. Garneau said.

-With files from Reuters