Canada has allowed at least 160 flights to criss-cross North America using Boeing 737 Max jets since grounding the fleet for commercial use almost a year ago.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau banned the planes from Canada’s airspace in March after two crashes within five months in Indonesia and Ethiopia killed 346 people, including 18 Canadians. Satellite data showed both planes experienced significant flight control problems. Garneau said earlier this month he won’t lift restrictions on the planes until all of Canada’s safety concerns have been addressed.
CBC News analyzed flight data that shows Canadian airlines have continued to fly the jets for the past 11 months, often multiple times a week. The flights include four hours in the air over Canada from Windsor to Vancouver and shorter hauls such as Montreal to Trois-Rivières, Que., and Abbotsford, B.C., to Calgary.
Transport Canada said no passengers were on board any of the flights. The department said it has been allowing Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing to fly the planes for maintenance, storage, or pilot training under certain conditions. Only certain pilots with specialized training and briefings of the 737 Max are allowed to operate the aircraft.
The flights came as a shock to some families in Canada whose loved ones died on a 737 Max.
“It feels like a slap in the face,” said Chris Moore who lost his 24-year-old daughter died in the Ethiopian Airlines crash. “Your loved one has died due to that plane and they’re still gearing up for the day when it’s ungrounded.”
Paul Njoroge lost his wife, three young children, and mother-in-law in that same crash. He’s also concerned for the safety of the pilots in the air and Canadians on the ground.
“It’s shocking to me that they are still flying,” said Njoroge. “It just tells me that these people will never stop playing or juggling with human life.”
“You cannot say it’s not safe for passengers, but still allow the plane to fly. If you’ve grounded the plane, it has to remain grounded.”
‘Ferry flights’ exempted
When Garneau banned the jets on March 13, the notice to airmen stated it was “necessary for the protection of aviation safety and the public.” But the notice also made exemptions for “ferry flights” that take off or land in Canada.
CBC News pulled data from flight tracking website FlightRadar24 to see where Canadian 737 Max planes have been spotted in the skies since grounded.
An analysis reveals that Air Canada has been flying its Boeing 737 Max fleet the most often. Between March 14 and Jan. 16, Air Canada flew 121 times, in comparison to 29 times for WestJet and 12 for Sunwing.
In at least 27 of instances, Air Canada took off or landed in Marana, Ariz. In some cases, flying more than five hours straight.
“Those aircraft movements were required for maintenance purposes, including to relocate them to the southern desert where they can be stored more safely,” said Air Canada in a statement to CBC News.
Air Canada also said it’s using the ferry flights as an opportunity to keep pilot certifications current for those who train frontline pilots.
737 Max aircraft flew across Canada and the U.S. 0:18
WestJet said it’s ferry flights were for maintenance and storage space. Sunwing said it proactively grounded its fleet before Canada made it mandatory. Since then, the airline confirmed it moved several 737 Max aircraft from large, busy airports to outside storage facilities.
“We approach these necessary transfers with an abundance of caution, conducting thorough risk assessments and only using senior pilots who were briefed on responses to any potential anomalies. All these flights operated without incident,” said Sunwing in a statement.
Flights must be approved, follow ‘very strict conditions’
Transport Canada said in order for ferry flights to be approved, airlines must follow “very strict conditions”:
Only advanced pilot evaluators are allowed to fly.
Pilots must get specialized briefings and training including on a 737 Max simulator.
Additional crew is onboard all flights and a mandatory third pilot.
They can only fly in certain weather conditions.
Larry Vance, former Transportation Safety Board aviation crash investigator, said he has no concerns with the 737 Max flying under this criteria.
“These are not flying bombs about to explode,” said Vance. “They’re not gonna start dropping out of the sky on people. These are very safe airplanes flown under those conditions.
“They’re only flown by the best of the pilots with briefings. Anything that might go wrong with the airplane they know how to handle it.”
Vance added that planes are like cars — if left idle they deteriorate, and need to be in the air to stay in top shape.
Victims’ families meeting with transport minister
That doesn’t comfort Moore and Njoroge who question why the planes can’t be restored for service if and when Canada declares them safe for passengers.
“That tells you a lot about the regulatory authorities promoting the industry instead of promoting safety, instead of safeguarding the lives of human beings.” said Njoroge.
“I don’t understand why they would use that as an excuse to fly,” said Moore.
Families of the Ethiopian Airlines crash victims say they are meeting scheduled with Transport Minister Marc Garneau on Feb.12. Njoroge plans on asking Garneau to keep the planes on the ground — no exemptions.
Canada is continuing to independently review and validate changes to the Boeing 737 Max.
Transport Canada has four areas of concern that it wants addressed before the fleet can return to service including: acceptable levels of pilot workload, architecture of the flight controls, minimum training required for crew members, and aircraft performance, according to Garneau’s briefing binder obtained through an access to information request.
The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec posted a negative return of 7.9 per cent for the first six months of the year, in what chief executive Charles Emond noted was the worst period for stock and bond markets over the past 50 years.
As of June 30, the Caisse had net assets of $392 billion, with the $28.2-billion decrease due to investment losses of $33.6 billion offset by $5.4 billion in net deposits. The losses included a full write off of the fund’s US$150 million investment in crypto lender Celsius Network LLC, which is now in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings in the United States.
“The first six months of the year were very challenging,” Emond said in a statement. “The mix of factors we faced had not been witnessed in several decades: spiking inflation that triggered rapid and sharp interest rate hikes, rare simultaneous corrections in both stock and bond markets, fears of an economic downturn and the war in Ukraine with its many collateral effects.”
Over the same period, the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board reported a positive return of 1.2 per cent on Monday.
During a news conference Wednesday to discuss the Caisse results, Emond said the Quebec pension fund wrote off the Celsius crypto investment even though it is considering its legal options and intends to preserve its rights in the court-monitored U.S. bankruptcy proceedings.
“We decided to take it now” out of prudence, Emond said of the writeoff. “The last chapter hasn’t been written.”
He said his team conducted extensive due diligence with outside experts and consultants. They were aware of management and regulatory issues at Celsius and underestimated the time it would take to resolve them, he said, adding the Caisse was keen on “seizing the potential of block chain technology” and perhaps the investment in Celsius had been made “too soon” in the company’s development.
He noted that the investment was a very small part of a large venture portfolio that has produced 35 per cent returns over the past five years.
“In these disruptive technologies, there’s ups and downs…. Some big winners and many losers,” Emond said.
Although the Caisse posted an overall return in negative territory for the first six months of the year, the performance exceeded that of its benchmark portfolio — which posted a negative return of 10.5 per cent.
“Over five and 10 years, annualized returns were 6.1 per cent and 8.3 per cent respectively, also outpacing benchmark portfolio returns,” the pension manager noted.
Emond said the Caisse is managing the “turbulence” with a combination of asset diversification and strategic adjustments made since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“For the past two years, we’ve been working in an environment of extremes characterized by particularly fast and pronounced changes. These unusual and unstable conditions will persist for some time,” he said.
“In the short term, we’ll be watching what central banks do to contain inflation and how that impacts the economy.”
During the first six months of the year, negative returns in equities and fixed income were partially offset by gains in the Caisse’s investments in real assets including infrastructure and real estate.
The pension giant posted a negative return of 13.1 per cent in fixed income, which beat the negative 15.1 per cent return for its benchmark portfolio. This represented nearly $3 billion in “value added” attributable to all credit activities, the Caisse said.
A negative return of 16 per cent in equities beat the negative 17.2 per cent return in the benchmark portfolio.
The Caisse’s real estate and infrastructure portfolios, meanwhile, generated a 7.9 per cent six-month return, “demonstrating their diversifying role which contributes to limiting inflation’s impact on the total portfolio.”
The real asset class performance also beat the benchmark portfolio’s return, which was 2.4 per cent.
“So that asset class played its role. The two portfolios are doing well,” Emond said.
He said it is challenging to compare the short-term performance of Canadian pension funds because they have e different mandates and investment models. The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, for example, has less exposure to equity markets than the Caisse and more exposure to natural resources and commodities, which performed well in the first half of the year.
Air Canada says it has improved its service levels through the summer, reducing wait times and cancellations and bringing its baggage mishandling rate back to 2019 levels.
The Montreal-based airline provided an update on Wednesday on the operational improvement initiatives that have been underway as the company grapples with numerous challenges in the post-pandemic recovery.
Air Canada says that from the week of June 27 to the week of August 8, it saw the strongest improvement in baggage handling. While the company did not disclose its baggage mishandling rate, it says that the rate during the week of June 27 was 2.5 times the rate in 2019, before the pandemic hit. As of Aug. 8, Air Canada says the rate has returned to pre-pandemic levels, with a baggage handling success rate of 98 per cent.
The airline has also experienced a reduction in flight delays of more than one hour between, with 1,160 fewer flights per week facing longer delays. Air Canada also says delays are getting shorter, with the average arrival delay improving from 28 minutes longer than 2019 levels in the week of June 27, to 12 minutes longer than 2019 levels in the week of Aug. 8.
The number of flights cancelled fell 77 per cent between June 27 and Aug. 8. The airline’s flight completion rate reached 96.7 per cent, less than one percentage point lower than in the same week in 2019.
“We know how much our customers value travel and their reliance on us to transport them safely, comfortably and without disruption. This is always our goal and we share with them their disappointment that, coming out of the pandemic, the global industry faltered due to the unprecedented challenges of restarting after a two-year, virtual shutdown,” Air Canada chief executive Michael Rousseau said in a statement on Wednesday.
“While I am very satisfied with the progress to date… we all continue to work hard on behalf of our customers to complete our recovery.”
Air Canada says it currently operates an average of nearly 1,100 flights per day and it will operate 79 per cent of its pre-pandemic schedule through the summer. It now employs 34,000 workers, slightly below the 34,700 that were on staff before the pandemic.
Despite the improvements, Air Canada’s stock was trading down nearly 2 per cent on the Toronto Stock Exchange as of 1 p.m. ET.
RBC Capital Markets analyst Walter Spracklin says the improvements are a key positive for the airline, and reinforce that “the worst is behind them in terms of travel disruptions.”
“Taken together, these improvements should offer greater confidence to Air Canada’s customer base,” Spracklin said.
“Looking ahead, we hope to see capacity growth as the system gains resilience from the summer travel boom.”
Air Canada apologized to customers earlier this month for the operational instability seen in the post-pandemic ramp-up that came after travel demand surged for the first time in more than two years. The increase in demand strained the global air transport system and resulted in challenges for Air Canada and chaos at some of the country’s biggest airports.
The airline had pointed to challenges throughout the system as a key source of the issues, including resource challenges that impacted airport security screening, Canada and U.S. border customs processing, air traffic control, maintenance providers, equipment, supply chain, aircraft catering and fuelling partners. Air Canada also says a series of mechanical failures at airport baggage handling systems contributed to ongoing issues.
Alicja Siekierska is a senior reporter at Yahoo Finance Canada. Follow her on Twitter @alicjawithaj.
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