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Prosecutors, regulators probe Boeing 737 Max production issues
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Boeing Co. faces criminal and civil scrutiny into years of widespread quality-control lapses on its 737 MAX assembly line, according to people familiar with the details, potentially exposing the plane maker to greater legal liability than previously anticipated by industry and government officials.
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The inquiries build on a federal grand-jury investigation into hazardously designed flight-control systems, these people said. As part of the expanded probes, Justice Department prosecutors and federal air-safety regulators have been scrutinizing potentially significant safety problems stemming from 737 MAX production missteps, these people said.
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The grand jury probe has focused largely on what certain Boeing employees told Federal Aviation Administration officials about the dangers of a faulty stall-prevention feature before it led to two fatal MAX crashes in less than five months and prompted the March 2019 grounding of the global fleet, according to people familiar with the matter.
But simultaneously, the people familiar with the inquiries said, DOJ prosecutors and FAA investigators also have been examining factory problems that raise red flags about the Chicago plane maker’s compliance with mandatory production rules and safeguards. Boeing found debris mistakenly left behind by workers in fuel tanks or other interior spaces of approximately half of the MAX aircraft it inspected starting last November, according to a company spokesman. Another person briefed on the details said most of the undelivered planes have been inspected.
Neither the Justice Department’s interest in MAX assembly issues nor the extent of debris discovered inside undelivered MAX planes has been reported before. Industry and government experts say such debris, including tools, rags and other materials, poses potentially serious safety concerns when lodged inside fuel tanks or scattered around compartments or other interior spaces of airliners.
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The FAA is pursuing possible civil-enforcement action and is considering proposing a multimillion-dollar fine against Boeing regarding the debris issue, according to the person briefed on the details. The agency also is drawing up plans for stepped up government oversight and enhanced assembly-line inspections amid anticipated resumption of MAX production in coming months, the person said.
A Boeing spokesman said the inspection results prompted an internal investigation and immediate corrective actions, which are being implemented across all commercial airplane programs. As a precautionary measure, the spokesman said, Boeing recommended that all 737 MAX operators inspect fuel tanks for debris and provided detailed instructions for those checks.
No final regulatory decisions have been made by the FAA, the person said. On Monday an agency statement in response to a Wall Street Journal inquiry said that all of the issues discovered during continuing review of the 737 MAX will be resolved to the FAA’s satisfaction before the plane is allowed to fly again. Two months ago, when Boeing for the first time publicly acknowledged debris problems with MAX aircraft, the agency said it stepped up its oversight of the manufacturing process and planned further action as appropriate, based on additional inspection results.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.