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FBI warns Alaska Airlines passengers they could be “victims of a crime”

Passengers aboard the Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 that suffered a horrific mid-air explosion in January have received a letter from the FBI saying they may have been victims of “a crime.”

Attorney Mark Lindquist, who represents several passengers on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282, shared with CNN the letter that the FBI office in Seattle sent to the passengers on Tuesday.

“I am reaching out to you because we have identified you as a possible victim of a crime,” the letter states, adding that the FBI is currently investigating the case.

“My clients and I welcome the Justice Department's investigation,” Lindquist told CNN. “We want accountability. We want answers. We want safer Boeing planes. And a Justice Department investigation helps us achieve our goals.”

Attorney Robert Clifford, who represents many family members of the victims of the 2019 Ethiopian Air Boeing 737 Max crash as well as some of the recent Alaska Air passengers, said some of his Alaska Air clients also received the letter informing them they may be victims of a crime.

“I'm sure everyone on the plane will get that letter,” he told CNN. “The families of the Ethiopian Air victims should have been considered victims of crime as well.”

In addition to the letters sent to passengers, flight attendants on board Alaska Air Flight 1282 were also questioned by Justice Department investigators, according to people familiar with the situation.

The Wall Street Journal first reported on the letters earlier this month.

“The FBI does not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation,” the FBI Seattle Public Affairs Office wrote in an email to CNN, citing Justice Department policy.

Boeing’s potential criminal liability

But the Justice Department launched an investigation into the incident and Boeing in February, as CNN previously reported. That investigation could jeopardize a controversial settlement to stay prosecution that Boeing reached with the Justice Department in the final month of the Trump administration.

The settlement, which was criticized by families of the crash victims and members of Congress, addressed allegations that Boeing defrauded the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) during the original certification process for the 737 Max jets. Boeing agreed to pay $2.5 billion as part of that settlement. However, most of that amount was money Boeing already owed to the airlines that purchased the Max jets, which were grounded for 20 months after the Ethiopian Air crash and an earlier crash in Indonesia.

The stay of prosecution agreement could have ended Boeing's threat of criminal prosecution for the earlier fraud allegations. However, the Alaska Air incident occurred just days before the end of a three-year probation period, meaning that Boeing could be charged in the criminal investigation not only for the Alaska Air incident but also for the earlier allegations of criminal misconduct.

Boeing declined to comment.

On January 5, 171 passengers and six crew members boarded the flight in Portland, Oregon, bound for Ontario, California. Immediately after takeoff, a fuselage panel, the so-called “door plug,” was blown away, forcing the pilots to make an emergency landing.

A preliminary investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found that the jet, delivered by Boeing to Alaska in October, left the Boeing factory without the four screws needed to hold the door stopper in place.

While the NTSB has not yet determined who is responsible for the missing screws, it has criticized Boeing for not having documentation showing who worked on the door stopper while the plane was at the Boeing factory.

Following a six-week audit at Boeing triggered by the door lock failure on January 5, the FAA also identified numerous problems with the production practices of both Boeing and its main supplier, Spirit AeroSystems.

According to a report by Bloomberg, the Justice Department has also recently issued subpoenas demanding documents and information potentially related to Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems, including mentioning the “door plug” used in the Boeing 737 Max 9.

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun told investors last month: “We caused the problem and we understand that. Whatever conclusions are drawn, Boeing is responsible for what happened.”

The development comes the same week that Boeing announced it would report massive losses in the first quarter due to the Alaska Airlines incident.

The losses are partly due to compensation paid to the airlines that owned the Max 9, which was grounded for three weeks after the incident. Alaska Air CEO Ben Minicucci told investors last month that the incident cost his airline about $150 million and that it expects Boeing to reimburse those losses.

Other causes of losses include “all the things we're doing around the factory,” Chief Financial Officer Brian West said Wednesday, which is leading to slower production at the 737 Max plant in Renton, Washington.

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