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Boeing in Turbulent Skies: Legal Battles and Quality Concerns

In a statement in 2019, former Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said that “safety is at the core of who we are at Boeing and ensuring safe and reliable travel on our aeroplanes is an enduring value and our absolute commitment to everyone.”This statement followed the tragic crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in October 2018 and March 2019 respectively, killing all passengers and crew on both flights. The two ill-fated flights were less than five months apart. The Boeing Company, a multinational aerospace corporation that designs, manufactures and sells aeroplanes, communicated that these incidents had led to the company learning “many hard lessons” and noted they will be enforcing “fundamental changes” in response to the horrifying accidents. 


On 15 December, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled on the mandamus petition filed by the representatives of victims of Lion Air Flight 601 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. Boeing pleaded not guilty to the court however was instructed that while this case is ongoing, Boeing must not commit any federal, state, or local crimes. Furthermore, Boeing agreed to pay more than 2.5 billion U.S. dollars as a part of the Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA). This settlement includes a 243.6 million U.S. dollar criminal penalty, 1.77 billion U.S. dollars in compensation payments to Boeing 737 MAX airline customers and a 500 million U.S. dollar fund for the family of the 346 people killed in the two crashes. Boeing also agreed that if they commit any U.S. federal felony during the term of the agreement and fail to 

fully cooperate under the DPA, as required by not implementing a compliance program under the DPA, they will be considered in breach of the agreement. 


Multiple issues continue to persist during the manufacturing process of Boeing aeroplanes. On 5 January 2024, an Alaska Airlines flight leaving Portland, Oregon was forced to make an emergency landing as the plane’s door detached from the aircraft mid-flight, leaving passengers exposed to a large hole in the side of the aeroplane. The airline stated, “Part of the metal panelling that covers the engine, called the cowling, detached from the aircraft when it landed.” Miraculously, no one on the flight was injured. Additional Boeing aircraft incidents have occurred since this event, including an Atlas Air flight that encountered an engine fire during a flight en route to Puerto Rico, and a Delta Boeing 757 having experienced the detachment of its nose wheel causing it to fall off the plane prior to take off. Recently in March 2024, a United Airlines flight Boeing 777 had to make an emergency landing in California after a tire broke off mid-flight.


These events led to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ordering a temporary grounding of dozens of Boeing 737 Max 9 aeroplanes. The FAA has also imposed a 90 day deadline to prepare a new safety plan. FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker met with Boeing officials and tasked them with devising "a comprehensive action plan to address its systemic quality-control issues." Emphasizing the imperatives of meeting the "FAA’s non-negotiable safety standards.” 


Multiple high level executives of commercial airlines have criticised and expressed disappointment with Boeing. United Airlines (UA) was unable to deploy its fleet of 79 Max 9 aeroplanes and experienced delays in the utilisation of newly acquired model Max 10 aeroplanes. UA has released a statement noting they anticipate these setbacks will lead to financial losses during the first quarter of this year. Scott Kirby, CEO of UA expressed last month on CNBC that Boeing needs to undertake real action to restore its former reputation for excellence and quality. Furthermore, in the CNBC interview, Kirby stated that UA is “going to at least build a plan that doesn’t have the Max 10 in it.” 


Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, has publicly disclosed his dissatisfaction regarding a defect found on a newly acquired Boeing 737 Max aircraft. A spanner was found underneath the floor of a new Boeing jet. Addressing this in January 2024 at a press briefing in London, Mr O’Leary remarked, “We have been loud in our complaints about Boeing's lack of quality control over the last two years. It is not acceptable that aircraft get delivered at less than 100 percent.” 


In light of the recent Alaska Air incident and other Boeing aircraft issues, numerous voices are asserting that Boeing has failed to uphold its promise of safety, sparking inquiries into Boeing’s manufacturing processes and its relationships with suppliers. Should the U.S. Department of Justice determine that Boeing has not fulfilled its obligations as stipulated in the DPA, the possibility of extending the agreement for additional years exists. Furthermore, in the event of a confirmed breach of the agreement by Boeing, the U.S. Department of Justice retains the authority to pursue legal action against the company based on the terms agreed upon in the initial settlement. Overall, these legal implications highlight the importance for Boeing to address their quality issues during production and its need to take steps to restore trust in its products, operations, and customers.


Despite former CEO Dennis Muilenburg's assurances about safety, the aftermath of the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines disasters has revealed systemic challenges inside Boeing's processes. The latest decisions by the United States Court of Appeals serve as a sharp reminder of the gravity of the situation. The string of incidents following these events including the alarming detachment of aircraft parts mid-flight, indicates that Boeing's production procedures continue to be flawed. For Boeing, addressing these difficulties goes beyond financial compensation needing a reevaluation of Boeing’s manufacturing procedures and supplier relationships. Restoring trust in Boeing's products and processes is critical, not just to reclaim its market position but also to fulfill its obligations to its passengers and the aviation community. In essence, Boeing's response and reaction to these challenges will shape the company’s future and have an impact on the aviation industry as a whole.

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