US Transportation Department Investigators Find Lax Oversight of Aircraft Parts Suppliers

WASHINGTON -- Regulators and aircraft manufacturers are not keeping adequate tabs on the quality of plane parts made in the U.S. and abroad, potentially raising risks for fliers, government investigators said in a report released Friday.

The Transportation Department's inspector general's office says the Federal Aviation Administration has failed to conduct enough audits to determine whether manufacturers' quality-assurance systems are working.

Investigators found "widespread discrepancies" at 20 out of 21 suppliers they reviewed, including the age of equipment used to make airplane parts and the frequency of product testing prior to shipping parts to airplane manufacturers.

There are 15 countries - including Mexico, Portugal, Turkey, Pakistan and India - that produce parts for U.S. aircraft manufacturers without bilateral trade agreements, meaning "FAA has no assurance that these countries are providing adequate oversight of the operations of suppliers in their countries," the report finds.

The inspector general says that FAA officials in December agreed with most of the findings and recommendations after seeing a draft of the report.

Recommendations included bolstering inspector training and assessing product-quality risks at suppliers that produce flight-critical parts. The FAA already has developed a new way to identify risk in the manufacturer supply chain and will deploy it beginning next year, agency spokeswoman Alison Duquette says.

Boeing Co., United Technologies Corp.'s Pratt & Whitney, and General Electric Aircraft Engines were among the manufacturers that the federal inspectors contacted or visited during the audit that began in February 2004 and concluded last November. Suppliers that were visited or contacted include Alcoa Fastening Systems and two units of Honeywell International Inc.

A Boeing spokesman says the Chicago-based company takes the report seriously "and if necessary, will make changes to our processes to ensure the highest level of safety for our products."

Of the 21 facilities audited, six had little or no oversight by the manufacturer during the two years before the inspectors' visit. During that same period, five of those six supplier facilities also had not received any FAA oversight.

"These six facilities manufacture critical parts, such as aircraft lighting systems, cockpit voice recorders, and pressure switches and controls," the report says.

The report said one supplier, which it did not name, in 2003 delivered about 5,000 landing-gear components that were manufactured improperly, and that at least one of the parts failed while in service. The FAA was made aware of the problem but "has not performed a supplier audit at this facility in the last four years," according to the report.

Supplier oversight of the companies that provide them with certain components also was lacking. For the two years before the inspector general's review, two-thirds of the companies did not perform regular, onsite evaluations of their suppliers. The companies instead relied on mail-in self-evaluations provided by their subcontractors.

Nick Schwellenbach of the Project on Government Oversight, a private watchdog group, lauds the inspector general office's report, but says "Congress will have to dig into this and hold hearings for (the) full impact to be felt."

Some lawmakers, including Sen. Claire McCaskill, recently expressed concern about the FAA's inspector staffing levels. McCaskill earlier this month said she planned to introduce a bill that would ensure FAA-certified inspectors are performing audits at aircraft supplier facilities.

The Teamsters union and a business traveler trade group earlier this month called for a moratorium on all aircraft maintenance done overseas because they say foreign locations are not properly regulated.