Inspector general says defective parts finding way onto aircraft

Study points to several instances -- including four engine failures in fiscal 2003 -- where faulty parts caused problems.

FAA and major aircraft manufacturers are not properly ensuring that defective parts are kept out of commercial and military aircraft, according to a Transportation Department inspector general's report released Friday. The report found that "neither manufacturers nor FAA inspectors have provided effective oversight of suppliers; this has allowed substandard parts to enter the aviation supply chain."

The report is based on audits of major manufacturers -- including Boeing, Bombardier/Learjet, General Electric Aircraft Engines, Rolls-Royce, Pratt & Whitney and Airbus -- as well as FAA. It found that in all but one of the 21 suppliers, there were "widespread deficiencies at supplier facilities used by major aviation manufacturers."

The report points to several instances where this has caused problems, including four engine failures that occurred in fiscal 2003 due to faulty speed sensors on fuel pumps. Three of the engine failures occurred on the ground and one in flight. "Manufacturers were not verifying that their suppliers were providing effective oversight of the sub-tier suppliers they used to produce parts," the report concludes. FAA also has a share of the blame. In February 2003, a supplier released roughly 5,000 defective parts for use on landing gear for commercial passenger aircraft and at least one of the parts failed while in service. "While FAA became aware of this large-scale breakdown at this supplier in 2003, it has not performed a supplier audit at this facility in the last four years," the IG report said.

The report lists six recommendations for FAA, including requiring manufacturers to establish criteria for conducting on-site audits for initial approval of suppliers and conducting periodic audits of suppliers thereafter. It recommends that FAA develop a process for assessing risk "that emphasizes suppliers of flight-critical parts (e.g., those that manufacture critical and high-volume parts or use large numbers of suppliers, etc.) for passenger aircraft."

An FAA spokeswoman said the agency "definitely agreed with most of what the IG had to say and obviously they're pleased with our response." The agency's response includes devising a system to assess risk "using data so the FAA can focus our resources where they need to go and that's the thrust of what the IG is asking us to do," the spokeswoman said. FAA will provide guidance to the industry, which the industry is expected to take "extremely seriously," the agency spokeswoman said. While FAA agreed that additional supplier selection criteria are appropriate, the agency's proposed changes "appear to be minimal and are not specific enough for us to determine whether the changes will fully address the systemic problems we identified," the report said. "To fully address our recommendation, we believe FAA needs to emphasize on-site reviews of suppliers." FAA has been responsive on several other recommendations, the IG's report said.

The report issued Tuesday was put on the IG's Web site Friday after a government watchdog group -- the Project On Government Oversight -- released a leaked copy of it Friday morning. The group will be sending a letter to the House and Senate transportation committees next week asking for hearings. "This is not insignificant," said Nick Schwellenbach, an investigator for the group. "They're putting lives at risk."