Transport Committee says Canada’s aircraft certification process needs to be ‘even more robust’

Avatar for Ken PoleBy Ken Pole | June 10, 2021

Estimated reading time 8 minutes, 58 seconds.

Despite acknowledging vigorous testimony by witnesses during hearings about the effectiveness of Canada’s aircraft certification process in the aftermath of the two fatal Boeing 737 Max crashes — which resulted in a global grounding of the new platform — a House of Commons committee said June 9 that the system needs to be “even more robust.”

Among other things, the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities unanimously recommends less reliance on other countries’ regulatory approvals of new aircraft types, full recertification of any changes to critical systems, more collaboration with other countries’ regulatory agencies, and a possible exchange of permanent representatives. 

The Transport Committee’s recommendations flow from the committee’s inquiry into the two fatal Boeing 737 Max crashes in 2018 and 2019. Stephen Brashear Photo

It also recommends more funding for Transport Canada Civil Aviation (TCCA) and a reinvigorated role for industry involvement through the Canadian Aviation Regulatory Advisory Council  (CARAC).

These and other recommendations flow from the committee’s inquiry, which began in February, into the Lion Air crash in October 2018 and the Ethiopian Airlines crash in March 2019. Both crashed minutes after takeoff with a total loss of 346 passengers and crew. The 28 witnesses at the committee included not only a broad spectrum of industry experts, but also families of the victims.

The fundamental cause of the crashes was determined to have been the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) — software developed especially for the 737 Max to address control issues identified during the aircraft’s preliminary design stage. Redesigned engines and their nacelles caused the aircraft to pitch under certain circumstances; the MCAS was designed to pitch the nose down if an undesired pitch-up threatened flight stability.

The MCAS issue was highlighted in reports by Indonesia’s Komite Nasional Keselamatan Transportasi (KNKT), the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and the Joint Authorities Technical Review (JATR). The latter includes technical representatives from civil aviation authorities in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the European Union, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and NASA.

“All three reports pointed to issues with the certification process for the new 737 design, specifically the MCAS,” the committee says. “The NTSB recommended that the type certification process be reviewed to require manufacturers to ensure aircraft are equipped with fail-safe systems in the event that a flight crew’s response to an alert or indicator is inconsistent with the response assumed by the manufacturer.” 

The committee notes that even though Transport Canada and domestic industry witnesses had expressed confidence in the certification system and that Canada has “an enviable safety record,” there were “serious concerns” about the 737 Max certification process overall. “Many witnesses referred to Transport Canada being overly reliant on the initial certifying authority, raising concerns of ‘rubber stamping.’”

It cites testimony by Rob Giguere, CEO of the Air Canada Pilots Association. “Going forward, we should not outsource this critical safety task to . . . any other country which may in turn outsource chunks of its own regulatory oversight to the industry.” 

The committee says the 737 Max situation had raised key questions about this kind of delegation, “particularly as it was revealed that Boeing, acting as delegate for the certification of its own aircraft, withheld critical information from the FAA.” Tim Perry, president of the Air Line Pilots Association Canada, has raised the concern that as aircraft become increasingly complex, “it’s actually the manufacturer that understands them the best.”

However, Michael Deer, an airworthiness specialist with Bell Textron Canada Ltd., told the committee that “at the end of the day, our delegates are the ones who are making the findings of compliance, but the product will never get approved unless Transport Canada involvement has been completed and they are satisfied that the product is safe.” 

The committee says that throughout its study, concerns were raised about the potential for industry “pressure” during the certification process. This was not only a key finding by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in a September 2020 report, but also featured in two Transport Canada papers about the 737 Max validation.

Both papers noted that Boeing, to meet its Canadian delivery commitments, had asked Transport Canada to issue its 737-8 Max Air Type Certificate in June 2017. “To avoid delivery delays to our operators, Transport Canada will review and discuss FAA position on this concern paper during its upcoming 737-9 validation activities,” Transport Canada said. “Therefore, this concern paper will remain open when the 737-8 Max ATC is issued by Transport Canada.” 

David Turnbull, Transport Canada’s Director of National Aircraft Certification, indicated to the committee that wasn’t uncommon for the department to consider manufacturers’ delivery schedules during the certification process. But Turnbull said the TCAA is “not necessarily constrained” by that and by such dates, and will continue to work through them if issues of concern remain outstanding.

That was echoed by Nicholas Robinson, Director General of Civil Aviation, who told the committee that although the delivery schedules are considered, the regulatory agenda is “determined by the regulations and the standards.” 

As for the Changed Product Rule (CPR), which allows for reduced scrutiny of minor modifications to previously certified components, Turnbull said the JATR had found that “the current changed product rule lacks an adequate assessment of how proposed design changes integrate with existing systems and the associated impact of this interaction at the aircraft level.”

The JATR had recommended a revised top-down approach to the CPR “whereby every change is evaluated from an integrated whole aircraft system perspective.” TC has said it began re-evaluating the rule even before the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes.

Turnbull told the committee that TC had to find “a more systemic approach” to evaluating equipment failures. “Part of the challenge with the changed product rule issues that we acknowledge is that, arguably, as you introduce new technologies into an older design, you should perhaps migrate to a more modern design assurance approach, where you look at not just the area that has changed but at how that changed area affects the entire aircraft as well.”

Several witnesses from the manufacturing sector testified that the rule is an evaluation of the level of change. While this evaluation is initially made by the manufacturer, it is reviewed by TC for a final decision about additional certification requirements.

David Curtis, president and CEO of British Columbia-based Viking Air Ltd., told the committee that the De Havilland Canada Dash 8 is an example of the CPR’s success. In production for more than 20 years, with more than 700 built, it had evolved from 37 seats to 90 seats through an “incredibly robust process.”

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