Boeing 737: Firm to plead guilty to criminal fraud to avoid trial over crashes that killed 346 people

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Boeing will plead guilty to a fraud charge in order to avoid a criminal trial over two fatal 737 MAX crashes that killed 346 people.

The company has agreed to pay a fine of $243.6m to resolve a US Justice Department investigation into two incidents in Indonesia and Ethiopia over a five-month period in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people, the government said in a court filing on Sunday (7 July). The settlement drew swift criticism from victims’ families who slammed the move as a “slap on the wrist”.

Lawyers for some of the relatives of those who died in the two crashes have said they will ask the judge to reject the agreement. Paul Cassell, a lawyer for some of the families, said: “This sweetheart deal fails to recognise that because of Boeing’s conspiracy, 346 people died. Through crafty lawyering between Boeing and DoJ, the deadly consequences of Boeing’s crime are being hidden.”

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US federal prosecutors gave Boeing the choice last week of entering a guilty plea and paying a fine as part of its sentence or facing a trial on the felony criminal charge of conspiracy to defraud the United States. Prosecutors accused the American aerospace giant of deceiving regulators who approved the plane and pilot training requirements for it.

Boeing will plead guilty to a fraud charge in order to avoid a criminal trial over two fatal 737 MAX crashes that killed 346 people. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)Boeing will plead guilty to a fraud charge in order to avoid a criminal trial over two fatal 737 MAX crashes that killed 346 people. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)
Boeing will plead guilty to a fraud charge in order to avoid a criminal trial over two fatal 737 MAX crashes that killed 346 people. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images) | AFP via Getty Images

The plea deal, which still must receive the approval of a federal judge to take effect, calls for Boeing to pay an additional 243.6 million dollar (£190 million) fine. An independent monitor would be named to oversee Boeing’s safety and quality procedures for three years. The deal also requires Boeing to invest at least 455 million dollars (£355 million) in its compliance and safety programmes.

The plea deal covers only wrongdoing by Boeing before the crashes, which killed all 346 passengers and crew members aboard two new Max jets. It does not give Boeing immunity for other incidents, including a panel that blew off a Max jetliner during an Alaska Airlines flight in January, a justice department official said.

In a court filing on Sunday night, the justice department said it expected to file the written plea agreement with the court by July 19. The judge overseeing the case, who has criticised what he called “Boeing’s egregious criminal conduct”, could accept the plea and the sentence that prosecutors offered with it or he could reject the agreement, likely leading to new negotiations between the justice department and Boeing.

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The case goes back to the crashes in Indonesia and in Ethiopia. The Lion Air pilots in the first crash did not know about flight-control software that could push the nose of the plane down without their input. The pilots for Ethiopian Airlines knew about it but were unable to control the plane when the software activated based on information from a faulty sensor.

Boeing, which blamed two low-level employees for misleading the regulators, tried to put the crashes behind it. After grounding Max jets for 20 months, regulators let them fly again after the Boeing reduced the power of the flight software.

A guilty plea potentially threatens the company’s ability to secure lucrative government contracts with the likes of the US Defense Department and Nasa. The plea announced on Sunday does not address that question, leaving it to each government agency whether to bar Boeing.

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