By Andrew Tangel 

A central figure in a federal criminal probe into Boeing Co.'s development of the 737 MAX is leaving Southwest Airlines Co., where he has worked as a pilot since leaving the plane maker more than two years ago.

Mark Forkner, who as Boeing's 737 MAX chief technical pilot oversaw regulatory approvals for training and pilot manuals, is among more than 4,400 Southwest employees who opted for a voluntary buyout package, a spokeswoman for the airline said. U.S. carriers have been preparing to slash their payrolls in recent months as the worsening coronavirus pandemic sapped demand for air travel.

Justice Department prosecutors in recent months have been gathering information about Mr. Forkner and his then-fellow Boeing technical pilot Patrik Gustavsson, according to people familiar with the matter. Boeing and the Justice Department declined to comment.

David Gerger, Mr. Forkner's attorney, said Mr. Forkner was among some 630 pilots who took the voluntary exit package. The airline spokeswoman said the deals include payouts as well as medical and travel benefits.

Mr. Forkner will remain at the Dallas-based carrier through Aug. 31, the Southwest spokeswoman said.

The Wall Street Journal reported in March prosecutors were seeking to build a criminal case against Mr. Forkner and considering charges against Mr. Gustavsson. Mr. Gerger has said Mr. Forkner did his job honestly and would never jeopardize the safety of other pilots or their passengers.

Mr. Gustavsson and his lawyer couldn't be reached.

Mr. Forkner emerged as a focus of the MAX saga after disclosures of chat messages and emails he sent during his time at Boeing, including one exchange in which he said he inadvertently misled the Federal Aviation Administration about a flight-control system later implicated in two fatal crashes that claimed 346 lives.

Federal prosecutors and investigators have interviewed other airline pilots to understand what their professional obligations to report safety issues should be in such situations, people familiar with the matter said.

While at Boeing, Mr. Forkner helped Boeing avoid FAA requirements that MAX pilots undergo simulator training, a costly prospect for Boeing's airline customers.

Previously disclosed emails show Mr. Forkner requested FAA approval to delete mention of the flight-control system, MCAS, from pilot manuals, arguing it would only activate in rare circumstances.

After the two MAX crashes, crash investigators and safety experts criticized Boeing for not informing pilots about the MCAS system and how it could automatically push down the plane's nose.

Mr. Forkner joined Southwest as a junior pilot in 2018. Among his early responsibilities involved phasing the MAX aircraft into Southwest's fleet. Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said last year that Mr. Forkner's earlier messages weren't related to his current job and that the pilot was by all accounts a "very fine man and does a fine job for us."

The MAX has been grounded world-wide since its second crash in March 2019. The FAA is expected to approve the aircraft to resume passenger service later this year, after pilots undergo required MAX simulator training.

--Alison Sider and Dave Michaels contributed to this article.

Write to Andrew Tangel at Andrew.Tangel@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 07, 2020 14:26 ET (18:26 GMT)

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