Boeing has announced it will plead guilty to a criminal fraud charge connected to the two devastating crashes of its 737 Max jetliners, which resulted in the deaths of 346 people. The Justice Department revealed this decision Sunday night, highlighting that Boeing breached an agreement that had shielded it from prosecution for over three years.

Prosecutors’ Offer and Allegations
Last week, federal prosecutors presented Boeing with an ultimatum: plead guilty and accept a fine or face trial for conspiracy to defraud the United States. They accused the aerospace giant of misleading regulators responsible for approving the airplane and its pilot training requirements.

Plea Deal and Conditions
The plea agreement, pending approval from a federal judge, includes a $243.6 million fine—the same amount as the 2021 settlement Boeing violated. Additionally, an independent monitor will oversee Boeing’s safety and quality procedures for three years. Boeing is also required to invest at least $455 million into its compliance and safety programs.

This plea deal addresses only the actions leading up to the crashes and excludes immunity for other incidents, such as the January 2024 incident where a panel blew off a Max jetliner during an Alaska Airlines flight. It does not cover any current or former Boeing officials, only the corporation.

Legal and Public Reactions
In a court filing, the Justice Department announced plans to submit the written plea agreement by July 19. Some relatives of the crash victims plan to request the judge to reject the agreement, arguing that it does not adequately address Boeing’s culpability. Paul Cassell, a lawyer for some of the families, criticized the deal as a “sweetheart deal” that obscures the deadly consequences of Boeing’s actions.

Previous Settlements and Ongoing Scrutiny
In January 2021, the Justice Department charged Boeing with conspiracy to defraud the government, citing that the company misled regulators about a critical flight-control system. The settlement at that time included a $2.5 billion payment and required Boeing to comply with anti-fraud laws for three years. However, prosecutors recently alleged that Boeing violated this agreement.

The guilty plea will be entered in a U.S. District Court in Texas. The overseeing judge, known for criticizing Boeing’s conduct, can either accept the plea deal or reject it, prompting further negotiations.

Boeing’s Defense and Continued Operations
Boeing had previously blamed low-level employees for misleading regulators and sought to move past the crashes by implementing software changes and securing regulatory approval to resume flights. The 737 Max has since logged numerous safe flights, with orders from airlines like Southwest, United, and Ryanair increasing.

However, a recent incident involving an Alaska Airlines flight has led to renewed scrutiny. The Justice Department launched a new investigation, and the FAA increased its oversight of Boeing.

Impact on Federal Contracts and Public Trust
A criminal conviction might jeopardize Boeing’s status as a federal contractor, although the current plea deal does not address this issue directly. The Air Force has previously allowed Boeing to compete for contracts despite past fines, citing national interest.

Boeing remains a critical defense contractor, employing 170,000 people, with 37% of its revenue last year coming from U.S. government contracts. It also manufactures a capsule for NASA, which is facing technical issues currently under investigation.

Calls for Accountability
Relatives of the crash victims continue to push for a criminal trial to uncover what Boeing officials knew about the safety issues. They demand accountability beyond fines, including potential imprisonment for those responsible.

During a recent Senate hearing, Boeing CEO David Calhoun defended the company’s safety record and apologized to the victims’ families. Meanwhile, a new Senate report includes allegations from a whistleblower about potentially defective parts in 737s, adding to the ongoing scrutiny of Boeing’s practices.

The pending plea deal marks a significant step in the legal proceedings against Boeing, with far-reaching implications for the company’s operations and reputation. The outcome will depend on the federal judge’s decision and ongoing public and legal scrutiny.