Boeing to Plead Guilty in DOJ 737 Max Crash Cases

Federal prosecutors had given the company a choice of entering a guilty plea and paying a fine or facing trial on the felony charge of conspiracy to defraud the U.S.

The Department of Justice offered Boeing a plea deal to resolve a criminal charge of fraud stemming from two 737 Max crashes. [Credit: Shutterstock]

Boeing has reached an agreement with the Department of Justice (DOJ) over the company's actions following two 737 Max crashes that killed 346 people and sparked the grounding of the 737 line for more than a year. 

According to the DOJ, Boeing has agreed to plead guilty to a criminal fraud charge after the government determined the aerospace manufacturer had violated an agreement that protected it from prosecution.

Last week federal prosecutors gave Boeing a choice between entering a guilty plea and paying a fine or facing trial on the felony charge of conspiracy to defraud the U.S.

Federal prosecutors allege that Boeing misled regulators about the flight control system known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), which was ostensibly designed as a flight stabilization feature on the 737. 

MCAS was implicated in the crash of Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia in October 2018 and the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March 2019. In both events the aircraft entered unrecoverable dives shortly after takeoff.

The DOJ accused Boeing of deceiving the FAA to push through certification of the 737 Max despite concerns about the software connected to the flight controls and the additional training required for pilots who flew the airplane.

“We can confirm that we have reached an agreement in principle on terms of a resolution with the Justice Department," Boeing told FLYING, adding, "subject to the memorialization and approval of specific terms."

The plea deal must be approved by a federal judge before it takes effect. It calls for Boeing to pay an additional fine of $243.6 million, which is the same amount the company paid in 2021 in the original settlement that the DOJ says the company breached, as it did not improve its safety and quality control processes.

The company maintained this had been achieved, then in January a Boeing 737 flown by Alaska Airlines lost a door plug midflight. The preliminary investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) revealed the door plug had been installed without four bolts designed to keep it in place.

As previously reported by FLYING, since the incident Boeing maintains that it has taken steps to improve quality control and safety culture at its manufacturing facilities, and the company is working with the FAA to improve communication and oversight.

According to Mark Lindquist, an aviation and personal injury attorney who represented several victim families in the two 737 Max 8 crashes as well as multiple passengers in the Alaska door plug blowout, Boeing had no choice but to accept the plea deal.

"Boeing’s guilty plea was inevitable," Lindquist said. "Boeing can stall and postpone accountability, but justice has a way of catching up to defendants. While many of us would have preferred a more vigorous prosecution, a guilty plea to a felony is a serious step up in accountability from the initial deferred prosecution agreement with the Department of Justice."

Lindquist noted that the families of the victims will be asking the judge not to accept the plea deal in its current form. One of the criticisms put forth by members of the victims’ families during congressional testimony and national media interviews is that Boeing has been fined before, yet the problems still persist.

"More than five years after 346 people died in two preventable crashes, it’s high time for Boeing to accept full responsibility, resolve pending cases, reform its culture, and rebuild,” said Lindquist. “Justice and accountability are important, but it’s also important to victim families—and the nation—that Boeing no longer sacrifices safety for profits. Next steps for the company should include accepting full responsibility in the civil cases filed by victim families. Many of us would like to see Boeing refocus on quality and return to its former greatness…

"A trial would have aired out all of Boeing’s negligence, misconduct, and dirty laundry. Additionally, the evidence was overwhelming. Therefore, Boeing had little choice but to plead guilty."

The latest DOJ plea deal also requires Boeing to invest at least $455 million into its safety and compliance programs.

FLYING reached out to the DOJ but requests for comment were not returned by press time.

This is a developing story.

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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