DOJ investigation could focus on Boeing’s Renton plant

RENTON, Wash. — The U.S. Department of Justice could soon take on one of our region’s largest employers: Boeing.

The Justice Department says Boeing may have breached a major 2021 agreement to insulate the company from criminal prosecution in two major crashes in 2018 and 2019.

A DOJ inquiry or criminal prosecution could focus on the Renton facility, where the 737 is manufactured.

The jets that crashed in 2018 and 2019 were linked to Renton, as are nearly all 737s made by Boeing, the company’s best selling aircraft, according to company records posted online.

Richard Aboulafia is an aviation analyst and Managing Director at AeroDynamic Advisory. He suspects that the DOJ making this statement now is all about sending a message to Boeing.

“Hopefully, this will be viewed as a way of effecting change in the company’s management and its culture,” said Aboulafia.

Aboulafia says he does not expect to see DOJ lawyers or the Federal Bureau of Investigation pouring over Boeing’s Renton facility.

But he does believe the DOJ is bringing pressure to the company on purpose.

“This would be a way of getting the company to change faster than it (has) been willing to change…I understand DOJ and the government’s frustration here,” said Aboulafia.

In 2018, a Lion Air jet crashed into the ocean off Indonesiona shortly after takeoff, and in 2019, an Ethiopian Airlines jet also crashed shortly after takeoff. Both crashes killed a total of 346 people.

At the time, a Boeing anti-stalling system was under scrutiny since it would automatically push the nose of the plane down and possibly cause a nosedive.

Some called it a design flaw; others called it criminal negligence. Now, the DOJ wants to know if Boeing did enough to improve safety after those crashes, and whether it upheld an agreement to avoid criminal prosecution.

Mark Lindquist is an attorney from Tacoma who is working with some of the families linked to the crashes several years ago. He said the DOJ’s decision to call out Boeing has been a long time coming.

“We’ve all been waiting to see if the Department of Justice was going to pull the trigger...and with this announcement, it looks like we’re going to see a prosecution justice and accountability,” said Lindquist.

Lindquist says most of the victims’ families feel Boeing has not been held accountable and questioned a deferred a 2021 prosecution agreement.

“That sweetheart deal, however, doesn’t matter anymore. Because Boeing has violated or at least the Department of Justice believes Boeing has violated the terms that agreement,” he said.

January’s Alaska Airlines door plug incident put Boeing back on DOJ radar, and it says Boeing breached its obligations to improve safety and compliance.

Boeing disagrees and says it is in compliance. Lindquist believes this case could soon land before a judge.

Federal officials who looked into the door plug incident did report safety and quality control concerns at the Renton facility.

Aboulafia believes Boeing does not have to re-invent the wheel to address the DOJ’s concerns.

“You have to appoint people who really care about the business of building aircraft; ideally, engineers or production managers or people who care about production…you have to have managers spending a lot more time in factories,” said Aboulafia.

Aboulafia believes the threat of criminal prosecution by the DOJ could pressure Boeing to move faster with safety improvements.

“They’re willing to amp up that pressure a notch in order to produce results,” he said.