Jet fuselages at Boeing’s fabrication site in Everett, Washington, Sept. 28, 2022. Some recently manufactured Boeing and Airbus jets have components made from titanium that was sold using fake documentation verifying the material’s authenticity, according to a supplier for the plane makers. (Jovelle Tamayo/The New York Times file)

Jet fuselages at Boeing’s fabrication site in Everett, Washington, Sept. 28, 2022. Some recently manufactured Boeing and Airbus jets have components made from titanium that was sold using fake documentation verifying the material’s authenticity, according to a supplier for the plane makers. (Jovelle Tamayo/The New York Times file)

FAA investigating counterfeit titanium in Boeing and Airbus jets

The material, purchased from a little-known Chinese company, was sold with falsified documents and used in parts that went into jets.

By Mark Walker / The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Some recently manufactured Boeing and Airbus jets have components made from titanium that was sold using fake documentation verifying the material’s authenticity, according to a supplier for the plane-makers, raising concerns about the structural integrity of those airliners.

The falsified documents are being investigated by Spirit AeroSystems, which supplies fuselages for Boeing and wings for Airbus, as well as the Federal Aviation Administration. The investigation comes after a parts supplier found small holes in the material from corrosion.

In a statement, the FAA said it was investigating the scope of the problem and trying to determine the short- and long-term safety implications to planes made using the parts. It is unclear how many planes have parts made with the questionable material.

“Boeing reported a voluntary disclosure to the FAA regarding procurement of material through a distributor who may have falsified or provided incorrect records,” the statement said. “Boeing issued a bulletin outlining ways suppliers should remain alert to the potential of falsified records.”

The revelation comes at a moment of intense scrutiny of Boeing and the broader aviation industry, which is reeling from a series of mishaps and safety issues. In January, a door panel blew off a Boeing 737 Max 9 jet while in flight, prompting several federal investigations. In April, Boeing told the FAA about a separate episode involving potentially falsified inspection records related to the wings of 787 Dreamliner planes. Boeing reported to the FAA that it might have skipped required inspections involving the jet’s wings and that it would need to reinspect some of the Dreamliners still in production.

On May 30, Boeing submitted a plan to the FAA outlining safety improvements it planned to make and committed to weekly meetings with the agency. Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun is set to testify Tuesday before a Senate panel on the company’s safety issues.

The use of potentially fake titanium, which has not been previously reported, threatens to extend the industry’s problems beyond Boeing to Airbus, its European competitor. The planes that included components made with the material were built between 2019 and 2023, among them some Boeing 737 Max and 787 Dreamliner airliners as well as Airbus A220 jets, according to three people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. It is not clear how many of those planes are in service or which airlines own them.

Spirit is trying to determine where the titanium came from, whether it meets proper standards despite its phony documentation, and whether the parts made from the material are structurally sound enough to hold up through the projected life spans of the jets, company officials said. Spirit said it was trying to determine the most efficient way to remove and replace the affected parts if that ended up being necessary.

“This is about documents that have been falsified, forged and counterfeited,” said Joe Buccino, a Spirit spokesperson. “Once we realized the counterfeit titanium made its way into the supply chain, we immediately contained all suspected parts to determine the scope of the issues.”

The titanium in question has been used in a variety of aircraft parts, according to Spirit officials. For the 787 Dreamliner, that includes the passenger entry door, cargo doors and a component that connects the engines to the plane’s airframe. For the 737 Max and the A220, the affected parts include a heat shield that protects a component, which connects a jet’s engine to the frame, from extreme heat.

Boeing and Airbus both said their tests of affected materials so far had shown no signs of problems.

Boeing said it directly purchased most of the titanium used in its plane production, so most of its supply was unaffected.

“This industrywide issue affects some shipments of titanium received by a limited set of suppliers, and tests performed to date have indicated that the correct titanium alloy was used,” Boeing said in a statement. “To ensure compliance, we are removing any affected parts on airplanes prior to delivery. Our analysis shows the in-service fleet can continue to fly safely.”

Airbus likewise maintained “the A220’s airworthiness remains intact.”

“Numerous tests have been performed on parts coming from the same source of supply,” an Airbus spokesperson said in a statement, adding, “The safety and quality of our aircraft are our most important priorities, and we are working in close collaboration with our supplier.”

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency did not respond to a request for comment.

Spirit has suffered from quality issues and financial troubles in recent years, and it came under new scrutiny this year after the episode in January involving the door panel of the 737 Max, whose fuselage it makes.

The problem illustrates the complex global supply chain used in producing modern jetliners, and the story of what appears to have gone wrong involves companies in China, Italy, Turkey and the United States.

The issue appears to date to 2019 when a Turkish material supplier, Turkish Aerospace Industries, purchased a batch of titanium from a supplier in China, according to the people familiar with the issue. The Turkish company then sold that titanium to several companies that make aircraft parts, and those parts made their way to Spirit, which used them in Boeing and Airbus planes.

In December 2023, an Italian company that bought the titanium from Turkish Aerospace Industries noticed that the material looked different from what the company typically received. The company, Titanium International Group, also found that the certificates that came with the titanium seemed inauthentic.

Turkish Aerospace Industries did not respond to a request for a comment.

Spirit began investigating the matter, and the company notified Boeing and Airbus in January that it could not verify the source of the titanium used to make certain parts. Titanium International Group told Spirit that when it bought the material in 2019, it had no clue that the paperwork had been forged, according to Spirit officials.

Francesca Conti, a general manager for Titanium International Group, said the episode was under investigation and that she could not provide additional details.

“We are cooperating with relevant authorities to address any issue eventually identified,” she said in an email.

The documents in question are known as certificates of conformity. They serve somewhat as a birth certificate for the titanium, detailing its quality, how it was made and where it came from, Spirit officials said.

People familiar with the situation said it appeared that an employee at the Chinese company that sold the titanium had forged the details on the certificates, writing that the material came from another Chinese company, Baoji Titanium Industry, a firm that often supplies verified titanium. Baoji Titanium later confirmed that it had not supplied the titanium. The origin of the titanium remains unclear.

“Baoji Titanium doesn’t know about the company and has no business dealing with this company,” the firm said in a statement to The New York Times.

Without knowing where the material came from or how it was handled, it is impossible to verify the airworthiness of the parts, said Gregg Brown, the senior vice president for global quality at Spirit.

“Our quality management process relies on the traceability of the raw materials all the way from the mills,” Brown said. “There has been a loss of traceability in that process and a documentation challenge.”

Spirit officials said they had started testing titanium parts to make sure aviation-grade material was used. The company is testing components that are still in stock and that are on undelivered fuselages.

So far, Spirit’s testing has confirmed that the titanium is the appropriate grade for airplane manufacturers. But the company has been unable to confirm that the titanium was treated through the approved airplane manufacturing process. The material passed some of the materials testing performed on it but failed others.

Buccino said Spirit was working with customers to identify the affected planes. Aircraft that are already in service will be monitored by airlines and removed from service earlier than normal if warranted, he said. More likely, he said, the affected parts will be removed during routine maintenance checks regardless of whether the titanium checks out.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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