U.S. federal authorities began exploring a criminal investigation of how Boeing’s 737 MAX was certified to fly passengers before the latest crash in Ethiopia involving the new jet, according to people familiar with the probe.

The investigation was prompted by information obtained after a Lion Air 737 MAX 8 crashed shortly after takeoff from Jakarta on Oct. 29, said one person, who wasn’t authorized to speak about the investigation and asked not to be named.

The investigation has taken on new urgency after the March 10 crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX 8 near Addis Ababa that killed 157 people. It is being conducted in part by the Transportation Department’s Inspector General’s office, which conducts both audits and criminal investigations in conjunction with the Justice Department.

The Justice Department is now in the process of gathering information about the development of the 737 MAX, including through a grand jury subpoena, according to a person familiar with the matter who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about it. The Justice Department’s Criminal Division, which is overseeing the effort, declined to comment.

FBI spokeswoman Ayn Dietrich-Williams in Seattle said Monday she could neither confirm nor deny that the FBI was involved in an investigation of the Boeing 737-MAX certification. That was a subtle change from last week, when she said she could not confirm any involvement.

Delegating aircraft safety assessments to Boeing is nothing new for the FAA

The Associated Press reported the Justice Department probe will examine the way Boeing was regulated by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the inquiry is not public. A federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., sent a subpoena to someone involved in the plane’s development seeking emails, messages and other communications, the source told The Associated Press.

The Wall Street Journal reported on the probe on Sunday and also said the Transportation Department’s inspector general is looking into the plane’s anti-stall system. It quotes unidentified people familiar with both cases.

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The anti-stall system is suspected of being involved in the Lion Air crash that killed 189 people, and is also under scrutiny in the Ethiopian Airlines crash.

The grand jury issued its subpoena on March 11, one day after the Ethiopian Airlines crash, according to the person who spoke to The Associated Press.

The grand jury’s involvement was earlier reported by The Wall Street Journal. Separately, a Seattle Times investigation published Sunday found that U.S. regulators delegated much of the plane’s safety assessment to Boeing and that the company in turn delivered an analysis with crucial flaws.

Both Boeing and the Transportation Department declined to comment about the investigation.

A possible criminal investigation during an aircraft accident investigation is highly unusual. While airline accidents have at times raised criminal issues, such as after the 1996 crash of a ValuJet plane in the Florida Everglades, such cases are the exception.

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In a statement on Sunday, the FAA said its “aircraft certification processes are well established and have consistently produced safe aircraft designs,” adding that the “737 MAX certification program followed the FAA’s standard certification process.”

Boeing 737’s, many of which are MAX 8 and 9’s in various stages of completion, are parked next to the 737 factory across the runway from the Renton Municipal Airport on March 15. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
Boeing 737’s, many of which are MAX 8 and 9’s in various stages of completion, are parked next to the 737 factory across the runway from the Renton Municipal Airport on March 15. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

Separately, Canadian transport authorities are re-examining the certification given to the 737 MAX, Reuters and the Wall Street Journal reported, citing Transport Minister Marc Garneau. Canada had earlier accepted FAA’s certification of the plane in March 2017 under a deal where both countries accept each other’s approvals.

The Ethiopian Airlines plane crashed minutes after it took off from Addis Ababa. The accident prompted most of the world to ground Boeing’s 737 MAX 8 aircraft on safety concerns, coming on the heels of the October crash off the coast of Indonesia that killed 189 people. Much of the attention focused on a flight-control system that can automatically push a plane into a catastrophic nose dive if it malfunctions and pilots don’t react properly.

Information from The Associated Press and Seattle Times reporter Steve Miletich is included in this report.

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