FBI tells passengers on the Alaska Airlines flight that lost a panel they might be crime victims

The FBI has told passengers on the Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max that lost a door-plug panel in midflight that they might be victims of a crime.

“I’m contacting you because we have identified you as a possible victim of a crime,” a victim specialist from the federal agency’s Seattle office wrote in the letters, which passengers received this week. “This case is currently under investigation by the FBI.”

The plane was flying 16,000 feet (4,800 meters) over Oregon on Jan. 5 when the panel blew out, leaving a gaping hole in the side. The rapid loss of cabin pressure caused oxygen masks to drop from the ceiling, and suction as air rushed from the hole exerted force on people inside the plane.

Pilots were able to land safely in Portland, Oregon, and none of the 171 passengers and six crew members were seriously injured. Investigators say it appears that four bolts used to help secure the panel were missing after the plane was worked on at a Boeing factory in Renton, Washington.

Published reports and government officials have said the U.S. Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into whether the panel blowout violated terms of a 2021 settlement that let Boeing avoid prosecution for allegedly misleading regulators who certified the 737 Max.

The settlement followed two crashes of Boeing Max jets in 2018 and 2019 that killed a total of 346 people.

Mark Lindquist, a lawyer representing some of the passengers on the Alaska Airlines flight in a lawsuit against Boeing, shared the FBI letter with The Associated Press. The notice gave recipients an email address, a phone number, a case number and a personal identification number so they can share questions and concerns.

“A criminal investigation can be a lengthy undertaking, and, for several reasons, we cannot tell you about its progress at this time. A victim of a federal crime is entitled to receive certain services,” the letter stated.

The FBI letter did not name Boeing, which declined to comment Friday. Alaska Airlines said, “We are fully cooperating and do not believe we are a target of the investigation.”

The National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Justice Department are conducting separate investigations of Boeing.

Lindquist said he and his clients welcome the Justice Department’s investigation.

“We want accountability, answers, and safer planes,” he said. “The DOJ and the FBI bring significant leverage and resources that I’m confident will help our case and help the flying public as well.”

The decision to designate the Alaska passengers as potential crime victims is a turnaround for the Justice Department, which a few years ago argued that families of passengers who died in the Max crashes did not meet the legal definition of crime victims.

A federal judge in Texas, however, ruled that the families did meet the standard. He said that under federal law, the Justice Department should have told them about secret negotiations with Boeing that produced the 2021 settlement.

Robert Clifford, a Chicago lawyer representing some of those families, said his clients are grateful that the Justice Department is following a different policy with the Alaska passengers.

“They are thankful that it is happening,” Clifford said. “To be clear: They are not thanking DOJ for doing the right thing. They were forced to do the right thing.”

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