With protesters in the audience, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun arrives at a Senate subcommittee hearing to answer to lawmakers about troubles at the aircraft manufacturer. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Boeing has agreed to plead guilty to a criminal fraud conspiracy charge after the US found 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 Department of Justice said the plane maker had also agreed to pay a criminal fine of nearly US $244 million.

However, the families of the people who died on the flights five years ago have criticised it as a “sweetheart deal” that would allow Boeing to avoid full responsibility for the deaths.

The settlement must now be approved by a US judge.

By pleading guilty, Boeing will avoid the spectacle of a criminal trial, something that victims’ families have been pressing for.