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NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy takes notes during a conversation aboard the Boeing 737 Max 9 involved in Alaska Airlines 1282 on Jan. 5, 2024.
NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy takes notes during a conversation aboard the Boeing 737 Max 9 involved in Alaska Airlines 1282 on Jan. 5, 2024.

NTSB sanctions Boeing for sharing unauthorized Alaska 1282 information during media briefing

Boeing retains party status, but NTSB limits its access to the investigative information after comments in advance of the Farnborough International Airshow.

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The National Transportation Safety Board late Wednesday offered a sharp rebuke of Boeing after learning the company held a media event on June 25 with around four dozen U.S. and international journalists inside its Renton, Washington factory, which included brief comments about Alaska Airlines 1282.

Boeing is a party to the NTSB’s investigation of the Jan. 5 accident, which occurred when a plug exit violently departed a newly built 737 Max 9 soon after takeoff from Portland International Airport in Oregon. Preliminary information indicates that the bolts designed to hold the exit in place were not on the airplane when it left Boeing’s factory in Renton.

“During a media briefing Tuesday about quality improvements at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, a Boeing executive provided investigative information and gave an analysis of factual information previously released,” the board said in a statement to The Air Current. “Both of these actions are prohibited by the party agreement that Boeing signed when it was offered party status by the NTSB at the start of the investigation. As a party to many NTSB investigations over the past decades, few entities know the rules better than Boeing.”

Related: NTSB Chair: Alaska 1282 investigation is like ‘peeling an onion’

In an unusual step, the NTSB is taking action against the plane maker for its comments, including removing its access to the docket of information gathered through the investigation. The NTSB will subpoena any relevant records from Boeing, and the plane maker will not be given the opportunity to ask questions of witnesses at the planned August hearing into the accident. Boeing remains a party to the investigation.

Additionally, the NTSB said, “Given that Boeing is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice in relation to its Deferred Prosecution Agreement stemming from Boeing’s interactions with the FAA prior to the Boeing MAX fatalities, the NTSB will be coordinating with the DOJ Fraud Division to provide details about Boeing’s recent unauthorized investigative information releases in the 737 MAX 9 door plug investigation.”

The party system allows technical experts — such as the manufacturer of an aircraft involved in an accident — to help the NTSB gather and develop the facts around an investigation. Internationally agreed-upon rules strictly govern the conduct of parties, including limiting what information they may share publicly while the investigation is ongoing.

Related: 127 Days: The anatomy of a Boeing quality failure

NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy told TAC that the board was not notified in advance about the media event, which Boeing described to journalists as “a full day dedicated to safety and quality” at the site of the manufacturing breakdown that led to Alaska 1282. Coverage of the event has not yet been published, as Boeing imposed an embargo on attending publications, including The Air Current, which lifts on June 27.

Embargoes are common practice during media briefings in the pre-air show run up in order to provide journalists with sufficient time to prepare coverage on the many topics that are discussed. The U.K.’s Farnborough International Airshow begins July 22.

“After the NTSB learned of the unauthorized release of information and requested additional information about the press briefing, Boeing provided the agency with a transcript. The transcript revealed that Boeing provided non-public investigative information to the news media that NTSB had not verified or authorized for release. In addition, Boeing offered opinions and analysis on factors it suggested were causal to the accident,” said the NTSB.

A Boeing spokesperson told TAC: “As we continue to take responsibility and work transparently, we conducted an in-depth briefing on our Safety & Quality Plan and shared context on the lessons we have learned from the January 5 accident. We deeply regret that some of our comments, intended to make clear our responsibility in the accident and explain the actions we are taking, overstepped the NTSB’s role as the source of investigative information. We apologize to the NTSB and stand ready to answer any questions as the agency continues its investigation.”

The rebuke comes just one day after NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy made a damning indictment of Norfolk Southern during a public board meeting to determine the probable cause of a Feb. 3, 2023 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. The NTSB found that a defective wheel bearing on a Norfolk Southern rail car caused the derailment, and that the decision by the local incident commander three days later to conduct a vent and burn of the contents of tank cars carrying hazardous materials was based on incomplete and misleading information provided by Norfolk Southern officials and contractors.

In her closing remarks at the board meeting, Homendy said that Norfolk Southern on numerous occasions delayed or failed to provide critical information to investigators and violated regulations governing evidence collection by manufacturing its own evidence outside of the NTSB investigative process. Homendy called Norfolk Southern’s actions “unconscionable” and said she was initiating an internal effort to ensure that the agency and its personnel are adequately protected from undue interference with a federal investigation.

“I want everyone who works with the NTSB — on current and future investigations — to understand this: we are impervious to anything but the truth,” she declared.

The NTSB said this is the second time Boeing has violated party rules in the Alaska 1282 investigation. In a Congressional hearing in March, Homendy chastised Boeing for its conduct, particularly around its delay in handing over information surrounding work done on the plug door exit by Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems employees that ultimately caused it to depart in flight. Since then, Boeing has confirmed that documentation of that work being done does not exist.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with comment from Boeing.

Write to Jon Ostrower at jon@theaircurrent.com, Elan Head at elan@theaircurrent.com and Will Guisbond at will@theaircurrent.com

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