Within the last week, Boeing announced that a number of 737MAX and 737 NG airplanes are currently in operation with potentially defective components known as “slat tracks,” which help control the forward flight surfaces on the aircrafts’ wings. The Boeing announcement was another black eye for the already beleaguered company, but it was odd in that it didn’t name the manufacturer of the product in question.
Subsequent reporting then uncovered that the manufacturer was a sub-tier supplier a major Boeing component manufacturer, Spirit AeroSystems of Wichita KS. Even after that was reported, Spirit wasn’t announcing the actual manufacturer’s name, either. Stranger still, the FAA hasn’t issued any airworthiness directive or announcement naming the supplier.
It’s not just an oversight, either. In a call to reporters, Boeing spokesman Bernard Choi flat-out refused to answer when asked who the supplier is, saying he “is not commenting on the supplier.”
The level of secrecy about the supplier is unusual, to say the least. This is made worse by the fact that Boeing is under the microscope right now due to the 737MAX angle of attack indicator malfunctions and hidden MCAS software features which appear to have caused the two deadly crashes in Jakarta and Ethiopia, grounding the entire MAX fleet worldwide. You would think Boeing would be opting for transparency in light of this new problem, but they are going in the opposite direction.
And there’s got to be a very powerful reason for that. For now, all we can do is guess.
One likelihood is that the Spirit “sub-tier supplier” is located in Asia. A prominent manufacturer of wing components for Spirit is Drewloong Precision in Taiwan, a potential culprit. Announcing that Boeing aircraft are being affected by defects originating from Taiwan could raise a number of thorny issues for the Trump administration as it engages in a trade war with China, Taiwan’s enemy. Boeing and Spirit are also keenly aware that any news of defects coming from Taiwan might trigger a tweetstorm from the Commander-in-Chief demanding that such manufacturing be done in the US, which would cripple Boeing’s already damaged stock prices.
But the source may not be from Asia at all, but instead Europe. As this news hit, French manufacturer Aubert & Duval was simultaneously stripped of all its AS9100, AS9120 and other certifications from the certification body Burea Veritas. Normally when a company loses multiple different certs from a CB it means they simply didn’t pay their bill, and the certificates will be restored within days; but Aubert & Duval also simultaneously lost their Nadcap accreditation, which is issued by PRI, not Bureau Veritas. The IAQG OASIS database shows that Aubert & Duval’s AS91xx certs were suspended on March 15th 2019, while PRI’s listings show that the company’s heat treat processes had their Nadcap withdrawn just four days later on March 19th. Clearly, the two actions are related, raising suspicions that the company may have gotten caught falsifying heat treat data. That March date would align with when Boeing allegedly discovered the slat track problem. Aubert & Duval supply metal to the Boeing/Spirit supply chain, so would be considered a “sub-tier supplier.”
If so, Boeing, Spirit and FAA may be keeping the story quiet because they don’t need a “metal data falsification” scandal to pile on top of the already suffocating host of issues Boeing is dealing with. To date, the majority of aerospace test data falsifications have come from Japan, and haven’t been tracked to installations on exact US-designed aircraft models.
Since the original filing of this post, the VP Communications for Eramet, which owns Aubert & Duval, sent me the following statement denying involvement in the slat track nonconformities:
As spokesperson of Aubert&Duval, we would like to point out that, contrary to what you indicate, our company does not manufacture the defective slat tracks installed on some Boeing 737 aircraft nor does it provide material that is part of their composition.
Whatever the reason, the companies and FAA are happy to keep the supplier quiet for now, but the identity of the supplier is unlikely to stay hidden permanently. When it does come out, it won’t be good news for the aerospace supply chain nor its quality certification schemes.
[Updated 14 June 2019 to include an official statement by Aubert & Duval.]