Boeing sanctioned over release of 737 MAX investigation details

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The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said early on Thursday it was sanctioning Boeing for disclosing non-public details of the ongoing investigation into a 737 MAX mid-air emergency and referring its conduct to the Justice Department.

The NTSB said Boeing had “blatantly violated” the agency’s investigative regulations by providing “non-public investigative information to the media” and speculating about possible causes of the Jan. 5 Alaska Airlines door plug blowout.

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The move by Boeing has further deepened the strain between the crisis-hit planemaker and government agencies at a time when it is trying to avoid criminal charges being brought by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) ahead of a July 7 deadline.

The NTSB said Boeing would retain its status as a party to the investigation into the Alaska Airlines incident, but it would no longer have access to the information the agency produces during its probe.

The planemaker will not be allowed to ask questions of other participants at an investigative hearing on August 6-7, whereas other participants at the hearing will be allowed to do so.

“As a party to many NTSB investigations over the past decades, few entities know the rules better than Boeing,” the NTSB said.

The NTSB said Boeing had violated an agreement with the agency during a media briefing about quality improvements at its commercial airplanes division on Tuesday in Washington state.

“A Boeing executive provided investigative information and gave an analysis of factual information previously released,” the agency said. “Both of these actions are prohibited by the party agreement that Boeing signed.”

The NTSB, which will subpoena Boeing to appear at the investigative hearing in August, also said it would refer Boeing’s recent conduct to the DOJ.

Boeing did not respond immediately to a request for comment outside normal business hours.

DOJ scrutiny


In May, the DOJ said Boeing had violated a 2021 settlement agreement with prosecutors that shielded it from criminal prosecution over its interactions with the Federal Aviation Authority prior to fatal MAX crashes in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people.

Even before the NTSB sanctions, US prosecutors were recommending criminal charges be brought against Boeing after finding it violated the deferred prosecution agreement that required it to overhaul its compliance practices, Reuters reported on Sunday.

“Given that Boeing is under investigation by the US Department of Justice in relation to its Deferred Prosecution Agreement ...the NTSB will be coordinating with the DOJ Fraud Division to provide details about Boeing’s recent unauthorized investigative information releases in the 737 MAX 9 door plug investigation,” the agency said.

The DOJ has a separate criminal probe into the MAX 9 door plug emergency. In February, the NTSB said the door panel was missing four key bolts.

The NTSB said on Thursday that after it had learned of unauthorized release of information, Boeing provided the agency with a transcript of the media briefing.

“The transcript revealed that Boeing provided non-public investigative information to the news media that NTSB had not verified or authorized for release,” the NTSB said.

“Boeing offered opinions and analysis on factors it suggested were causal to the accident,” it added.

It is the latest strain between Boeing and the NTSB. In March, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said at a US Senate hearing that Boeing had failed to provide the names of employees on its 737 MAX door team for two months, drawing criticism from lawmakers. Boeing then quickly provided the names.

The NTSB said on Thursday that Boeing had portrayed its investigation to media as a search to locate the individual responsible for the door plug work.

“The NTSB is instead focused on the probable cause of the accident, not placing blame on any individual or assessing liability,” the agency said.

The criticism of Boeing came after Homendy said on Tuesday that railroad operator Norfolk Southern threatened the board, sought to manufacture evidence and failed to provide documents during its investigation of a 2023 Ohio derailment.

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