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Collateral damage: Boeing 787 Dreamliner dragged into 737 MAX probe

US Department of Justice is expanding its Boeing inquiry, probing the charges that the 787 Dreamliner’s production was plagued with the same incompetence that dogged the doomed 737 MAX and resulted in hundreds of deaths.

The federal prosecutors have requested records related to 787 Dreamliner production at Boeing’s South Carolina plant, where two sources who spoke to the Seattle Times said there have been allegations of “shoddy work.” A third source confirmed individual employees at the Charleston plant had received subpoenas earlier this month from the “same group” of prosecutors conducting the ongoing probe into the 737 MAX.

Boeing is in the hot seat over alleged poor quality workmanship and cutting corners at the South Carolina plant. Prosecutors are likely concerned with whether “broad cultural problems” pervade the entire company, including pressure to OK shoddy work in order to deliver planes on time, one source told the Seattle Times. The South Carolina plant manufactured 45 percent of Boeing’s 787s last year, but its supersize -10 model is built exclusively there.

Prosecutors are on the hunt for “hallmarks of classic fraud,” the source said, such as lying or misrepresentation to customers and regulators. Whistleblowers in the Charleston factory who pointed to debris and even tools left in the engine, near wiring, and in other sensitive locations likely to cause operating issues told the New York Times they were punished by management, and managers reported they had been pushed to churn planes out faster and cover up delays.

The 737 MAX, too, was reportedly rushed to market amid much corner-cutting in order to beat competitor Airbus’ hot new model. Worse, the Federal Aviation Administration allegedly let Boeing conduct many of the critical safety checks itself, and other countries’ regulators took the US safety certification as proof they did not need to conduct their own checks, culminating in the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines tragedies in October and March.

A critical fire-fighting system on the Dreamliner was discovered to be dysfunctional earlier this month, leading Boeing to issue a warning that the switch designed to extinguish engine fires had failed in “some cases.” While the FAA warned that “the potential exists for an airline fire to be uncontrollable,” they opted not to ground the 787s, instead ordering airlines to check that the switch was functional every 30 days.

The DoJ and Department of Transportation’s Inspector General opened their investigation into the Boeing 737 MAX after the first of the two planes crashed in Indonesia in October, killing everyone on board; the FBI joined the investigation in March after the second plane went down in Ethiopia under similar circumstances. Calling the launch of the probe after one crash “highly unusual,” one of the Seattle Times’ sources suggested someone with inside information had come forward with evidence about the cause of the crash, which has since been traced to flaws in the plane’s onboard MCAS computer system.

Boeing has not yet been charged with a crime regarding either crash, but lawsuits against the company, including one class-action suit by over 400 pilots alleging the company covered up the flaws in its MCAS system, are piling up and orders of its planes have dropped to near zero as airlines around the world have grounded the 737 MAX for the last three months. Earlier this month, the FAA found even more “potential risks” that must be addressed before the 737 MAX can return to flying.

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