Aircraft Probe Raises Fears

keteyian airplane parts investigation
An Army investigation alleges a top supplier has sold sub-standard materials to virtually every aircraft manufacturer in the world. CBS News chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian has the exclusive report.

Every day, several thousand military and commercial aircraft take off around the world, carrying precious cargo of soldiers and civilians.

Now, CBS News has learned one of the major suppliers of material used in many of those planes may be putting those passengers at risk.

In a CBS News, Army criminal investigators use stark language in making their case against California-based Airtech International, writing: "seldom have I come across a company with such brazen disregard for safety of soldiers and civilians as well as for the sanctity of laws …"

Airtech dominates the market for the raw materials used to build what are called "composites." Composites are the layers of high-tech plastics increasingly used to replace critical metal parts in the wings engines and the fuselage in many planes, including the C-17, F-18 fighter jets and 747s.

The memo alleges "kickbacks," "fraudulent acts" and the systematic selling of "non-conforming" products - basically products that don't meet required specifications and can leave behind contaminants that can weaken the finished parts.

Read The Army Investigation Memo
It reads, "Airtech has supplied some form of nonconforming product to every aircraft manufacturer in the world."

Nick Schwellenbach is an investigator with the Project on Government Oversight.

"It's a threat to the flying public, because Airtech is supplying bogus materials to companies," he said. "And it's possible these bogus materials could lead to composite parts falling apart."

Airtech declined an on-camera interview in regard to that alleged "brazen disregard" to safety and instead issued a statement.

In it, the company said, "We are aware of no current ongoing investigation," and that it had "fully cooperated" with the government.

Airtech said it considered "the matter closed," citing this November 2006 letter from the FAA, which did its own investigation and found no violation of federal regulations.

But according to a document dated earlier this month, an "active investigation" is still being conducted by the Army. While the House Transportation Committee wants to know why there's been so little action, with so much at stake.