Boeing Max Overhaul Sparks U.S.-Canada Rift Over Pilot Guidance
(Bloomberg) -- Canadian aviation regulators are at odds with their U.S. counterparts over guidance for pilots of the Boeing Co. 737 Max during an emergency, threatening to open a schism between nations critical to the plane’s return to service.
Canadian officials have insisted in contentious meetings that Max pilots should be instructed to disable a key warning system to avoid distraction during an emergency. Their counterparts at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration argue that such a change would create additional risks, according to two people familiar with the discussions who asked not to be named because of their sensitivity.
While the disagreement doesn’t appear to threaten the grounded plane’s return to service in the U.S. and possibly other nations, it could slow the schedule in Canada, the people said. It also highlights continuing tension among global regulators sparked by two fatal crashes that rocked confidence in the FAA and now threaten a tradition of international cooperation in aviation.
Canada Minister of Transport Marc Garneau, speaking to reporters in Washington Thursday, said the country is in talks with other nations on the plane and may go its own way on some issues.
“If there are certain things that we will do differently from other countries, which is a possibility, that is not excluded,” Garneau said.
While each country around the world will make its own decision on allowing the Max jets to fly again, the FAA is the lead agency because the plane was certified in the U.S. The European Aviation Safety Agency, Canada and Brazil, all of which have major aircraft manufacturing industries, are also working with the FAA on the decision.
The dispute with Canada revolves around the so-called stick shaker, which causes the control column and yoke to vibrate aggressively and also causes a loud thumping noise. It is designed to get pilots’ attention when they are approaching a dangerous aerodynamic stall, which would cause a loss of lift and has been one of the biggest causes of airline accidents around the world.
As a result of malfunctioning sensors, the 737 Max’s stick shaker activated on the captain’s side of the planes in both fatal accidents -- on a Lion Air plane in October 2018 that went down in the Java Sea near Indonesia and an Ethiopian Airlines jet that crashed near Addis Ababa in March 2019.
The stick shaker appears to have added to the confusion in the cockpit in both cases.
Concerned about that, Canadian officials have said they believe pilots should be able to cut power to the stick shaker under circumstances similar to those in the accidents, three people familiar with the discussions said. Such cases would include when it was activated erroneously on only one side of the plane, said one of the people.
The change sought by the Canadians wouldn’t require a physical alteration to the plane but would add instructions for disabling the stick shaker to pilot procedures.
Garneau didn’t address the stick shaker issue directly at the Washington event, but said that Canada is concerned that pilots aren’t too distracted by emergencies similar to what occurred in the crashes.
“Crew workload in a very demanding environment physically is a factor that is essential to take into consideration because you have only so much time to respond,” he said.
However, FAA officials have disagreed with the suggestion, according to people familiar with their position.
It would set a bad precedent to give pilots permission to cut power to such a critical warning system, one person said. Additionally, U.S. officials are also worried that attempting to reach the circuit breaker panel to switch it off during an emergency could cause dangerous distractions.
Amy Butcher, Garneau’s director of communication, said it would be premature to talk about specific recommendations the agency is making relative to the Max.
“We won’t hesitate to take any additional steps necessary to ensure all of our concerns have been addressed before approving a possible return to service of this aircraft,” she said.
The FAA didn’t comment directly on the issue when asked about it. “We haven’t made any official decisions and continue to have transparent discussions with all the regulators about a variety of issues,” the agency said in a statement.
A Boeing spokesman said, “We continue to work with the FAA to provide them the information they need to safely return the Max to service.” The planemaker says its estimate of a mid-year return to service is unchanged.
The updated Max software is designed to be simpler for pilots to handle if malfunctions such as those in the accidents occur. Instead of commanding a dive repeatedly, as planes did before the two crashes, the new system will only activate once and it will be easier to override. The company also is pouring resources into redesigning future cockpits to be more intuitive.
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