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Black Market in Bogus Parts Poses Peril to Airline Passengers

Aviation: Recycled, stolen or counterfeit equipment, including salvage, increasingly turn up in the world's fleets.

December 15, 1996|FRANK BAJAK | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Howard Davidow, a Miami aviation consultant with 37 years in the industry, warned at the hearing, however, that the potential for a bogus part causing a catastrophic accident "has entered the stage of critical mass." Three months later, the FAA created a task force on unapproved parts.

A study by the FAA of its accident-incident database done at the request of Associated Press found that unapproved parts played a role in 174 aircraft crashes or less serious accidents from May 1973 through April 1996, resulting in 17 deaths and 39 injuries. None involved major commercial carriers.

But critics, including outgoing Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine), suggest the FAA may gloss over the role bogus parts played in some accidents because it does not want the onerous responsibility of regulating the parts industry.

James Frisbee, quality control chief at Northwest Airlines until his 1992 retirement, is among those who feel bogus parts have contributed to many more accidents than federal records indicate.

"It's very, very hard to pin the cause of an accident on a part that failed . . . especially when the airplane is scattered over five acres," he said.

Major airlines have as a rule been discreet about bogus parts, not wanting to spook passengers. Frisbee says standard procedure has been to alert other airlines to a discovery by phone call but rarely inform the FAA, which does not require them to report such incidents.

Frisbee said he and colleagues from American, Delta and Federal Express sought stricter regulation of the parts market in 1990 but the FAA didn't take them seriously.

A. Mary Schiavo did. Appointed the Transportation Department's inspector-general by President Bush that year, the former federal prosecutor made bogus parts a priority.

Investigations launched under Schiavo have yielded more than 150 convictions in such cases, with prison sentences ranging up to five years and more than $47 million in restitution and fines paid.

Schiavo, who stepped down in July, is proud of the campaign. "When we first started working these cases, we were getting probation," she said.

A recent catch: Allan L. Ausman of Seattle, sentenced in July to four years in prison for selling thousands of counterfeit Boeing replacement parts over 10 years. Some were what the FAA classifies as "safety category one" parts--such as bolts that hold engines to wings--whose failure could cause an aircraft to crash.

"About $2 million worth of parts were put into the system by Ausman and what happened to them after that, I do not know," said Thomas Wales, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case.

Ausman's biggest customer, AvioSupport, serviced such airlines as American, United, USAir and Aer Lingus, court documents show.

Bogus parts often come from abroad. U.S. agents have seized shipments from Germany, France, Kuwait, England, New Zealand, Japan, China and the Philippines. The Air Transport Assn. has complained of a mass dumping of questionable aircraft screws, rivets and bolts made in Taiwan and Mexico.

The FAA is stepping up vigilance and training inspectors better on unapproved parts. And many major airlines are tightening up their parts acquisition--cutting down on suppliers and auditing them better.

In October, SAS airlines replaced wing control wires based on an FAA-issued warning that the parts could be bogus. The airline said it was unable to obtain proof from its supplier that the parts were genuine.

In June 1994, the Air Transport Assn. petitioned the FAA for regulation of parts brokers, but the agency balked.

Asked its reasons, the FAA said, "There are several thousand parts brokers and distributors and regulating all of them would be a monumental task."

It put the onus on the industry: "By using accredited brokers and distributors and by closely inspecting parts during incoming inspection, the industry can ensure it meets its responsibility to use airworthy parts."

No senior FAA official would agree to an on-the-record interview about the situation, but the agency provided answers to written questions submitted by AP.

The FAA oversees parts' manufacturers, aircraft repair stations and the airlines themselves--but no one in between. There are no laws mandating, for example, that crash-damaged or life-limited parts be destroyed; the FAA only recommends it.

Many parts, like jet turbine blades and disks, must be replaced after a set amount of hours aloft because of the stress they undergo. Or they must meet hardness standards, which the bolts responsible for the Norwegian crash did not.

But criminal dealers in recycled and crash-salvaged parts can circumvent inspections and tests by simply lying about where they got them.

In the Colombia crash last December, salvagers lifted parts from the site via the same helicopters used by the country's civil aviation authority--ostensibly in control of the mountainside--for ferrying investigators.

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