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How does a plane get grounded in Canada?

How does a plane get grounded in Canada?
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As Canada joined countries around the world Wednesday in grounding the Boeing 737 Max 8 , experts agree it was a rare move. It was also, they say, an example of the system working just as it should — by carefully looking at the evidence, rather than making knee-jerk decisions.

“Until yesterday, there really wasn’t any new evidence,” said Tony Appels, chair of the aviation school at Seneca College. Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau cited radar evidence showing similarities between this past weekend’s Ethiopian Airlines disaster that killed 157 people and the crash of a Lion Air flight in Indonesia on Oct. 29 that killed 189.

While Canada and the U.S. were two of the last major countries to ground the type of plane involved in the two fatal crashes, authorities here have nothing to apologize for, Appels said.

“They don’t want to make snap judgments, good or bad. The system worked like it should. They took a careful look at the evidence, and they made a decision,” said Appels.

Who can ground a plane?

A manufacturer can do it. An airline could ground its fleet, if it’s concerned about safety. But it’s usually aviation authorities who do it. Typically, it’s the aviation authorities in the country where the plane was designed and manufactured who take the lead, by revoking or temporarily suspending a plane’s air worthiness certificate. In this case, that would be the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority. But China moved first, then other major countries followed. “Each country has its own air worthiness process so they can withdraw their approval,” explained Appels. Evidence authorities use can include flight data recorders, cockpit voice recorders and radar data, among others. In Canada, the Aeronautics Act gives the federal transport minister broad discretion to shut down particular models of planes — or other modes of transport — for safety reasons.

Confusion and relief for passengers after Canada grounds 737 Max 8 aircraft

How do they get approved in the first place?

Aviation authorities in the country where a plane is built go through a rigorous inspection process, examining the plane’s electrical, mechanical and other systems, and manufacturing process before issuing an air worthiness certificate. Then, other countries where the plane is going to be operating do their own approvals. That approval includes examining the extensive report issued by authorities in the plane’s home country. “It would be the FAA for Boeing, Transport Canada for Bombardier, European Aviation Safety Authority for the Airbus and Brazil would do it for the Embraer,” said former federal transportation minister David Collenette.

How often does grounding happen?

Very rarely. In fact, the last time Appels could recall an entire fleet of a particular model being grounded was 40 years ago when the McDonnell Douglas DC 10 was grounded in 1979, following the crash of American Airlines flight 191, which slammed into the ground shortly after takeoff from Chicago, killing 273 people. The last time Appels could recall the grounding of such a new model of plane was more than 60 years ago. The De Havilland Comet, designed and made in the U.K., was grounded after a series of fatal crashes. “This really doesn’t happen that often,” said Appels.

It’s just as rare for Canada to have made the move on a U.S.-designed plane before the FAA did, said Collenette. “I can’t recall the last time Transport Canada and the minister made a decision like this without the FAA doing it first.”

Before the drastic measure of grounding a model takes place, aviation authorities can issue safety directives for less urgent matters. “That happens a lot, and most of the time you’d have no idea it’s going on,” said Appels.

Do politics enter into the grounding debate?

Not really, says Collenette. “The transport minister is a much more technical than political position especially when it comes to safety,” said Collenette, who was transport minister when Swissair Flight 111 crashed in Nova Scotia and also during the attacks on the U.S. on 9/11. “People can come to you with questions, but no minister worth their salt is going to let politics affect a decision on safety.”
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