US Justice Department prosecutors have issued multiple subpoenas as part of an investigation into Boeing's Federal Aviation Administration certification and marketing of 737 Max planes, sources briefed on the matter said.
The criminal investigation, which is in its early stages, began after the October 2018 crash of a 737 Max aircraft operated by Lion Air in Indonesia, the sources said. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on Tuesday asked the agency's inspector general to investigate the Max certification.
Criminal investigators have sought information from Boeing on safety and certification procedures, including training manuals for pilots, along with how the company marketed the new aircraft, the sources said.
It's not yet clear what possible criminal laws could be at issue in the probe. Among the things the investigators are looking into is the process by which Boeing itself certified the plane as safe, and the data it presented the FAA about that self-certification, the sources said.
The FBI Seattle office and Justice Department's criminal division in Washington are leading the investigation.
A Boeing spokesperson referred to a statement the company released earlier in the week, which indicated it "does not respond to or comment on questions concerning legal matters, whether internal, litigation, or governmental inquiries."
The safety of the 737 Max has been called into question after it was involved in two fatal crashes in less than five months. Both the crash last October involving the Lion Air jet and the crash last week involving an Ethiopian Airlines jet resulted in the deaths of everyone aboard.
The planes were grounded for an indefinite period worldwide after the Ethiopian Airlines crash. Boeing is still building the planes, but it said last week that it would temporarily stop delivering them to airlines while it determines what caused the two crashes.
The FAA and others have said data shows similarities between the Lion Air and Ethiopian crashes.
The FAA also said Wednesday that Boeing has developed a software patch and pilot training program to address issues with the Max that were identified in the Lion Air crash.
The 737 Max jets are by far the most important product for the company. It has orders for nearly 5,000 of the jets, enough to keep production lines operating for years to come. But none of the 371 planes delivered so far can fly until aviation authorities around the world determine they are safe.
Boeing spent three days after the crash insisting the plane was safe before conceding that the jets should be grounded out of "an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public of the aircraft's safety."
Boeing and the FAA had been insisting that with proper training the pilots could overcome any problems with the safety systems, and that the planes could keep flying while a software upgrade was completed. That upgrade is expected to be available next month.