WestJet returned the first of its 737 MAX aircraft to commercial service on Thursday (Jan 21), flying 71 guests from Calgary to Vancouver.
Joining customers on board flight WS155 were WestJet operational and union officials, who showed their support for the aircraft that was grounded, worldwide, nearly two years ago following two deadly crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed 346 people, including 18 Canadians.
"The return of WestJet's MAX aircraft to the fleet marks an operational milestone after 22 months of intense review," said Ed Sims, WestJet President and CEO, at a press conference on Thursday after the inaugural flight. "WestJet's preparation, training processes, due diligence and safety above all philosophy drives our confidence in welcoming guests on board our MAX aircraft."
The flight made WestJet the first Canadian airline to operate the 737 MAX since Transport Canada outlined Canadian-specific protocols to enhance the aircraft’s safety on Jan. 18.
WestJet’s “smooth and on-time” flight from YYC to YVR on Thursday was piloted by Captain David Colquhoun, WestJet Master Executive Council Chair, Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and Captain Scott Wilson, Vice-President of WestJet Operations.
“When we look at past airline accidents, we look at a chain of events that led to the accident,” Captain Colquhoun said. “If we’re able to break that chain in any way, then the accident doesn’t happen.”
With that, Colquhoun said “Boeing has redesigned a system that failed,” and with the changes that have been made, “we are confident that it is a safe aircraft to fly on.”
What was fixed, exactly?
The crashes involving Lion Air Flight 610 on Oct. 29, 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March 2019 were caused by a faulty sensor system, investigators found.
Recent changes to the 737 MAX are linked to fixing the airplane’s software, said Captain Wilson.
Control of the aircraft, using previous software, could sometimes “wind up in the hands of the software,” as opposed to the pilot, he explained.
“Now…the pilot has control of the aircraft at all times,” Wilson said.
Speaking in technical terms, Wilson said the MAX’s sensors now have two inputs and "built-in redundancy."
The changes are also supported by new training procedures for all pilots, bringing operations “up to a very high standard,” Wilson said.
“Flight crew approaching this aircraft have no concerns with the flight control system,” he said.
Chris Rauenbusch, President of CUPE Local 4070, said the union representing WestJet cabin crew members “has full confidence in the return of the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft.”
“Union representatives participated in a full technical briefing at Boeing facilities in Seattle, WA and following further data from Transport Canada, Boeing and WestJet, the union is confident that this aircraft type is safe for our cabin crew and our guests,” he said.
WestJet pilots also trained using a 737 MAX simulator at a centre in Miami, Florida.
It is also worth noting the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), an automated flight control by Boeing that was notorious for its role in the 2018 and 2019 crashes.
As Captain Colquhoun explained, when an airplane moves into a high nose-up attitude, the MCAS is designed to trim the nose of the aircraft downwards.
Boeing has redesigned this system so that when the MCAS fires (the expression pilots use) it will only fire once and it won’t drive the nose further beyond the controls, he said.
“They’ve done a very good job at making sure pilots are always in a position to control the aircraft,” Colquhoun said.
But as several planes remain grounded due to the COVID-19 pandemic, why would WestJet, now, reintroduce an aircraft with a troubled past at an already-troubling time?
“The timing is right,” said Captain Wilson, noting the “14 solid months” of experience WestJet had in previously flying the MAX, in addition to the 22 months of global regulatory reviews the aircraft underwent.
The “big piece,” he said, relates to the airplane’s impact on the environment.
“The MAX is 15 per cent more environmentally friendly than the 737-800 it replaces with a 40 per cent less footprint in the communities it flies in and out of,” Wilson said.
Where will the MAX fly?
Following the Calgary-Vancouver flight, WestJet’s 737 MAX service, starting Jan. 22, will operate three-times weekly between Calgary and Toronto.
WestJet, before the aircraft was grounded, operated the MAX for flights between Calgary and Hawaii and through Halifax.
“It has quite an effective range,” said Captain Wilson, calling the plane “a quiet aircraft with a great on-board experience.”
The plan, however, is to wait until “the time is right” to reintegrate all of WestJet’s 13 737 MAX aircraft into the network, he said.
Uncomfortable? There are options.
"We do believe, based on the additional scrutiny that’s been put into it, that this is the safest aircraft in the skies today," said Captain Wilson.
However, WestJet recognizes that not all guests may feel the same way.
Guests that are booked to fly on the 737 MAX, and would like to change their flight, are being advised to consult WestJet’s flexible change/cancel policy. (There are different outcomes, depending on the scenario).
Customers on Thursday’s flight were notified 72, 48 and 24 hours in advance that they had been switched to a MAX aircraft.
WestJet, currently, does not have plans to change or remove its flexible change policy.
Breaking the stigma
Meanwhile, the airline has been releasing behind-the-scenes footage depicting just how it prepared the 737 MAX for its big return.
But what will it take to break the stigma associated with flying on board the aircraft?
“Time and confidence,” said Captain Wilson, painting Thursday’s inaugural flight as a positive first step.
Having WestJet’s leadership team on board showed confidence, said Wilson, and that “helps build it back amongst all WestJetters.”
“Slowly and surely, it will be that confidence we build back with the travelling public," he said.
More details on WestJet's reintroduction of the 737 MAX can be found here.
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