Boeing has agreed to plead guilty to a fraud conspiracy charge to resolve an investigation by the United States Department of Justice which revealed the company violated a deal meant to reform it after two fatal crashes by its 737 Max planes that killed 346 passengers and crew.

The charge relates to two 737 MAX crashes involving Indonesia’s Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines over a five-month period in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people and prompted the families of the victims to demand that Boeing face prosecution.

As part of the deal with the Department of Justice (DoJ), the plane-maker has agreed to pay a criminal fine of $487.2 million which is the maximum allowed by law, while also strengthening its safety programs by investing at least $455 million over the next three years.

In 2021, Boeing was charged with one count of conspiracy to defraud regulators, alleging it had deceived the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) about its MCAS flight control system, which was implicated in both crashes.

Boeing had reached an agreement with the Justice Department in to make significant safety changes after the two deadly crashes. However, in January 2021, shortly before that period was due to end, a door panel in a Boeing plane operated by Alaska Airlines blew out soon after take-off and forced the jet to land. Even though no-one was injured, the incident intensified scrutiny over how much progress Boeing had made on improving its safety and quality record. The DoJ found out in May that Boeing had violated the terms of the agreement, opening up the possibility of prosecution.

However, the families of the people who died on the flights five years ago have criticised this judgement saying it does not allow Boeing take full responsibility for the deaths. Paul Cassell, a lawyer representing some families of people killed on the 2018 and 2019 flights said, “This sweetheart deal fails to recognise that because of Boeing’s conspiracy, 346 people died. Through crafty lawyering between Boeing and DoJ, the deadly consequences of Boeing’s crime are being hidden.”