Boeing could face prosecution over plane crashes which killed 346


A new twist in the safety crisis engulfing Boeing could see the airline prosecuted over the 737 MAX 8 crashes in 2018 and 2019 that left 346 people dead.

It was revealed late on Tuesday that the US Department of Justice (DOJ) had filed a case accusing the planemaker of breaching its obligations in a 2021 agreement that shielded Boeing from criminal prosecution over the crashes.

Then, Boeing agreed to pay $2.5bn to resolve the investigation into its conduct, compensate victims’ relatives and overhaul its compliance practices.

The terms of that deal – known as a deferred prosecution agreement – were due to expire in January this year but, two days beforehand, a Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft operated by Alaska Airlines suffered a mid-air panel blowout.

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Moment Alaska Airlines plane makes emergency landing

The blowout has been the subject of multi-agency investigations, including by the DoJ.

Its court filing exposes Boeing to a potential criminal prosecution over the 2018 and 2019 crashes that could carry further steep financial penalties and tougher oversight, deepening the renewed corporate crisis and reputational damage stemming from the January blowout.

The DoJ said that while Boeing was now subject to prosecution, it would consider steps the planemaker has taken to address and remediate violation of the pact before determining how to proceed.

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It ordered the company to respond by mid-June and said it would make a decision on whether to proceed with a fresh criminal case by 7 July.

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Boeing CEO: ‘We fly safe planes’

“We believe that we have honoured the terms of that agreement and look forward to the opportunity to respond to the Department on this issue,” Boeing said in a statement.

It added: “As we do so, we will engage with the Department with the utmost transparency, as we have throughout the entire term of the agreement, including in response to their questions following the Alaska Airlines 1282 accident.”

The Reuters news agency reported that DoJ officials were to meet families of those killed in the 2018 and 2019 crashes as part of their deliberations.

Women mourn next to the coffins of relatives who died in the Ethiopian Airlines crash
Relatives of the victims have demanded US officials hold Boeing accountable for the crashes. Pic: Reuters

Relatives have long been critical of the original deferred prosecution agreement, claiming it let Boeing off the hook.

The MAX 8 fleet was withdrawn from service for 20 months in the wake of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 disaster outside Addis Ababa in March 2019.

All 157 on board were killed.

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Six months earlier, a Lion Air 737 MAX 8, carrying 189 passengers and crew, had crashed in Indonesia.

Poorly designed flight control software was ultimately blamed for both accidents.

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Bolts missing from Alaska Airlines door

The 5 January MAX 9 incident of this year resulted in a new wave of scrutiny.

Regulators have limited Boeing’s production schedules and a widespread management shake-up is under way.

The knock-on effects of the crisis have harmed deliveries and the expansion plans of its customers, which include Ryanair.

The planemaker, and regulators, have been widely accused of failing to learn lessons of the past.

During a Senate hearing in April, a Boeing engineer testified the company took dangerous manufacturing shortcuts with certain planes and sidelined him when he raised safety concerns.

Boeing has denied the claims and any suggestion that it has put profits before safety.

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