Boeing Faces Criminal Probe, Says It Can’t Find Door Plug Removal Records


Numerous sources are reporting the Department of Justice has launched a criminal investigation into the events leading up to the rapid decompression of an Alaska Airlines MAX 9 over Oregon on Jan. 5. Alaska Airlines confirmed the probe to the New York Times. “In an event like this, it’s normal for the D.O.J. to be conducting an investigation,” Alaska Airlines said in a statement. “We are fully cooperating and do not believe we are a target of the investigation.” Boeing did not comment to the Times.

Meanwhile, Boeing says the manufacturing records it was accused of withholding from investigators in the 737 MAX 9 door plug blowout incident probably never existed. The company came under fire from NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy earlier this week for its lack of cooperation in furnishing documents that are supposed to be kept concerning the actions taken and the people who did the work. “We have looked extensively and have not found any such documentation,” Ziad Ojakli, Boeing executive vice president and the company’s chief government lobbyist, said in a letter to Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wa., obtained by the Seattle Times, adding the “working hypothesis: that the documents required by our processes were not created when the door plug was opened.”

The door plug was removed at Boeing’s Renton factory to allow repair of some faulty rivets. The rivet repair records, including photos, were leaked by a whistleblower early in the investigation. That whistleblower also said records show that four bolts required to secure the door plug were not installed, which is at odds with Boeing’s most recent claims. The removal and replacement of the door plug is done by a separate team of workers trained in that operation and the NTSB wants to interview those involved. “We don’t have the records. We don’t have the names of the 25 people. It’s absurd that two months later, we don’t have that,” Homendy told a Senate committee hearing. After hearing that, Cantwell, the chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, gave Boeing two days to hand over the documents.

The NTSB, in its preliminary report on the mishap, determined the four bolts necessary to prevent the door plug sliding up and out of the fuselage gap were not installed when the finished plane was delivered to Alaska Airlines. On Jan. 5, after several flights in which the aircraft’s pressurization system detected a leak, the plug blew out as the plane climbed through 16,000 feet on its way from Portland to Ontario, California, as Flight 1282. There were no serious injuries and the crew landed the plane safely back in Portland.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.


  1. OMG… What can of worms has been opened now? I wonder if they forgot to put the bolts in that hold the wings on? Where have I heard this excuse before?

  2. Will the A&P/ factory mechanic that has performed a repair without documenting said repair please raise his hand?

    Oh! Too many hands to count.

    • Sure. And if said mechanic does a repair by pencil whipping the documents, and the plane crashes and terminates a number of souls, said mechanic goes to PRISON. You do know that falsifying FAA maintenance records is a FEDERAL OFFENSE, under Title 18 U.S. Code 1506. ah, no with a comment like you made you couldn’t be accused of knowing that fact.

  3. In preparation for departure, when the main cabin door is closed, latched and locked by a stewardess, should there be a written record created?

    • The doors are designed to be opened and closed, the door plug is only intended to be opened or removed as part of a maintenance action by a person qualified to perform that task.

      All maintenance actions are supposed to be documented, the fact that it was not, is not a good look for Boeing as now you have to wonder what other safety critical maintenance actions are also not documented…..

      • It now boils down to cooperation between all three parties, Boeing, union, and workers. Boeing will need to allow a thorough and fair investigation before any discipline is decided. The Union should represent workers’ rights and ensure fair treatment during the investigation, while encouraging cooperation to find the truth. And the “door plug” workers and their immediate sups should cooperate by providing honest information about the work done on the door plug. Hopefully, for public safety, they’ll figure out what happened to prevent similar incidents.

        • Now there is a fourth party getting involved. The US justice department has said it will begin a criminal investigation of Boeing on this issue. That might encourage the persons involved on the factory floor to invoke their 5th amendment rights so that without immunity for those involved we may never find out what happened.

    • You would think someone on an aviation-specific forum would know the regulatory distinction between maintenance and opening and closing a door designed to be the main means of egress.

    • Arming/disarming the doors and cross checking (verifying that the opposite door was properly set) is part of their takeoff and landing checklists.

      Is a record kept of those checklists?

      Perhaps the CVR would suffice.

  4. What is Alaska Airline’s culpability for failing to find the source of the cabin air leak? Does a NFF maintenance record get them off the hook?

    • Multiple depressurization warnings went unheeded, leading to this incident. This raises critical questions about:

      1. The responsiveness to safety protocols on initial warnings.
      2. The clarity of communication between flight crew and maintenance.
      3. Potential breakdowns in CRM that could have prevented the incident.
      4. The prioritization of operational needs over safety concerns.

      The depressurization incident exposes a pattern of concerning snowballing issues that demand swift and decisive corrective action. We need to be confident these problems will be effectively addressed to ensure passenger safety.

      • FAA POI’s at the companies I have flown for usually don’t like to see repeated “could not duplicate” maintenance answers for repeated maintenance write ups on the same issue.

        • I understand that. My guess is that the critical nature of the issue may not have been immediately apparent or prominently highlighted (failure to communicate)—hence, it wasn’t a glaring red flag. It’s now a lesson for the maintenance history books.

          • The incident, not the cause belongs to Alaska. I think the first pressure leak could maybe be excused by “couldn’t find it”. The next two are not excusable (if the first actually was). Plane should have been grounded until that issue was located. My daughter was recently on a cancelled flight because apparently a previous passenger had stolen an exit sign. Flight was declared no longer airworthy. Pressure leak three times, a much more critical issue in my opinion, but not Alaska’s I guess.

          • I thonk, along with Mr. Roger Anderson, that we must differentiate between the incident and their causes. And, consequently, after the warnings of depressurization, keeping the airplane in service is all Akaska fault.

          • Re: ‘thonk’

            My dad would explain away such errors as “using the third-person past pluperfect tense.”

        • Reminds me of a vey senior Captain at my company going to the DOM with the aircraft log book and pointing to the “NFF” entry.

          What the hell is this, he asked. It means no fault found the DOM replied. No the Captain responded it means Not Fu*king Fixed !

      • As a mechanic, I have a personal saying … “Airplanes talk to you; you have to learn how to listen. Once the second NFF appeared, that airplane should have been put through the ringer to find the source of the problem. If that door was leaking cabin pressure, didn’t anyone hear it? This sure looks like they were so hell bent on flying the thing that they just glossed it over. Someone in Alaska’s maintenance department oughta be asked some questions, too. They didn’t cause the problem but they sure shoulda found it.

        • Am a retired A&P and the lack of records at Boeing is amazing and very troubling. As we both know, everything done on an aircraft should be documented and for them to state that there may never have been a record of the plug installation is quite concerning. That some inspector bought this work says, at least to me, that Boeing’s QA/QC is out to lunch. As to Alaska Airlines part in this saga. that demands further scrutiny and investigation.

          • The problem is that QA/QC on Boeing’s shop floor is now handled by the IAM, not an independent organization. This is not gonna fix itself until there is more accountability.

        • As an engineer I and my associates had a phrase we kept in mind – “Once could be an anomaly. Twice could be the beginning of a trend. Three times – You’ve GOT trouble.” You wonder where they looked to find the cause of the depressurization warning. “NFF… Could not duplicate… Again.”

    • This is a failure of Alaska’s CAS (Part 121.373). They should be investigating Repeat Write-ups, this should not have been missed.

  5. In fact, just read this morning Delta had to ground a Triple 7 because a passenger discovered FLUF jet safety cards in her seat pocket. Fortunately, they were in ATL and a supply of the correct cards were found.

      • Hey John. That was an ATC term also an industry term used for the first models of the B737, the very short 100s and even the slightly stretched later 200s. They just appeared ugly with their fat short fuselage and their two small round engines hanging there. I don’t know if it was the controllers first naming them or other pilots not flying them. They became known as Fat Little Ugly F##kers. They were then quickly know as FLUF jets. In ATC back then it was totally acceptable to say, “American 283, you’re following an American FLUF, 1 o’clock, five miles, report him in sight. ” “American has the FLUF.” “American, follow the FLUF, cleared visual approach runway two two right.” I have no idea if they are still called that. 737s have evolved into beautiful swans now…..when they are working ok.

  6. This is a top management failure which has been going on for years. Until they are held accountable, nothing will change.

  7. Regarding the NFF, there can be problems with communication, with air crew not providing enough or correct information to maintenance crews. There are also various systems 9usually avionics or electrics that throw up faults that are very difficult to replicate / diagnose. To record THREE NFFS for the same fault is inexcusable, so, in my opinion, Alaska Airlines have a large part to play in any legal proceedings.

  8. I suspect that the Union immediately saw where this is going and advised the employees involved to lawyer up and shut up.

    From the perspective of Boeing, the Feds and the traveling public, this is not good. But from the perspective of the employees involved, it’s a lot smarter than saying anything when the DOJ is getting involved.

  9. I hate “What ifs”, but if that airplane had crashed, there would have been a lot of ‘splaining to do… and Boeing has no records to prove why they let an airplane off their factory ramp with key parts missing. Boeing has gone downhill in the last decade. A Shame…

  10. I believe I read somewhere that there were two independent record keeping systems. One by Boeing the other by Spirit Aerosystems and they dont “talk” to each other and I believe that Spirit has employees at Boeing. So Who Dun It?

    So I’m driving around in my car and my left front tire keeps loosing air – 3 times. I put air in it and just eyeball the tire. NFF. Then while driving the family to the beach the tire blows out but I manage to save the situation. Who’s fault is it that the leak was not fully investigated?

    • Probably correct. The fact that “The System” failed doubtless resulted from a non-standard workflow process that broke the chain of responsibilities the system was designed to document. Now no one wants to volunteer any responsibility.

  11. just tie the CEO bonus etc to the safety and quality records. amazing there will suddenly be a focus on safety.

  12. I have no engineering or maintenance background, but I have been wondering just how an airline would go about searching for the source of a pressurization leak. Do they pressurize the fuselage on the ground and then listen or feel for the leak. I don’t see how they could search for the leak while the aircraft is pressurized in flight, as there would be too much ambient noise. How do they do this?

    • Absolutely an airplane can be pressurized on the ground. Those that have a pressurization system anyway.

  13. I believe I read that the “Whistleblower” had records and photos. What documents? Where did they come from…the factory floor? Is it possible the documents have been destroyed by employees or the union in order to protect the workers responsible? I have seen this type of action in manufacturing before, but not in the aviation world.

  14. As a federal probe into Boeing’s safety measures continues, The New York Times reported on Tuesday that on the day before the blowout, some engineers and technicians at Alaska Airlines became concerned over a warning light that indicated an issue with the plane’s pressurization system.

    Instead of removing the plane from service, the newspaper reported that the airline decided to continue flying the plane and scheduled a maintenance check for the night of Jan. 5.