Danger In The Skies

Is the Federal Aviation Administration involved in a coverup of a widespread bogus-parts problem in the airline industry? A three-month investigation by BUSINESS WEEK of the aircraft-parts trade demonstrates that fakes, used parts sold as new, and new parts sold for unapproved purposes are seeping into the inventories of all the major airlines in the country. The FAA, with its dual mission of promoting the business of aviation while ensuring safety, denies there even is a significant counterfeit-parts problem. Despite information from its own flight-safety inspectors and airline employees, the FAA is protecting the industry it regulates.

Bogus parts are not causing a rash of planes to fall from the sky--yet. But some accidents have been linked to defective parts. A ValuJet Airlines DC-9 caught fire last June. The cause was an engine that had been overhauled in a repair station in Turkey that lacked FAA approval. It contained a cracked and corroded compressor disk. A Cessna 175 crashed on an Oklahoma City runway in 1994 and National Transportation Safety Board inspectors found bogus engine bearings. A Convair 580 belonging to Norway's Partnair disintegrated at 22,000 feet over the North Sea because of counterfeit bolts in the plane's tail. The tail fell off in midair, and all 55 people aboard died. Even so, the FAA has allegedly threatened to fire or demote staffers who publicly acknowledge that counterfeit parts are a safety problem. It even edited its computer database to show far fewer accidents attributed to bogus parts.

There is great pressure to cut costs in the deregulated U.S. airline industry. Many carriers are outsourcing maintenance overseas, others are using older planes, and still others are searching the world for the lowest bidding suppliers. So far, the airlines and the FAA have provided the public with the safest, most inexpensive transportation of any nation. That record is threatened by increased use of counterfeit parts. The FAA should acknowledge the problem and seek the additional resources it needs from Congress.

Government vigilance against behavior that threatens public safety is an absolute requirement of a free market. The FAA must be a watchdog, not simply a promoter. If it can't, then the functions must be split between two agencies.

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