By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 1, 2008
Passengers have flown on jetliners built with "substandard" parts, some of which may have been made in foreign countries, because the Federal Aviation Administration lacks an adequate system for checking the quality of airplane components, according to a federal oversight report.
The parts for commercial airliners such as the Boeing 727 and 737 were once manufactured almost exclusively in the United States. But the parts on today's big jets, such as Boeing's 777 and its planned 787, are made in such countries as China, Japan, Brazil, Italy, France and Australia, in addition to the United States. Boeing, Pratt & Whitney, GE and other plane manufacturers buy parts made overseas largely because they are cheaper.
But the bargain-hunting has come at a price, according to a new report by the Transportation Department's inspector general.
"Neither manufacturers nor FAA inspectors have provided effective oversight of suppliers; this has allowed substandard parts to enter the aviation supply chain," reads the report, dated Feb. 26. The agency released the report yesterday after it was made public by the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit organization that focuses on government accountability.
The report cited four engine failures in 2003 -- three on the ground, one in flight -- that were traced to "unapproved design changes made by a . . . supplier" of speed sensors on engine fuel pumps. It did not cite any more recent incidents, nor did it specify the degree to which continuing problems with parts threaten to cause similar failures.
During a visit to one parts supplier, the inspector general's office observed an employee who "used a piece of paper, scotch-taped to the work surface, as a measuring device for a length of wire on an oil and fuel pressure transmitter."
Among its recommendations, the report said that the FAA needs to require manufacturers to make more on-site visits. The FAA also needs to improve its own inspections, the report said.
"The nature and number of discrepancies found at suppliers we visited would not have been identified through records reviews only," the report says. "For example, a supplier of fuel system parts for a major manufacturer had no record of the manufacturer ever completing an on-site audit of their facility. We found numerous deficiencies at this facility, including problems with the calibration program, employee training and product inspection."
So far, no airline accidents have been attributed to faulty overseas parts, the FAA said. "There are absolutely no imminent safety issues raised by the report," FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said.
The FAA largely concurred with the report and said it would implement most of the recommendations. It said some improvements urged by the report were already underway.
The report identifies 17 major components of commercial airliners made by Boeing, including the wings, rudder, nose and engine nacelles. When the Boeing 727 was introduced in 1964, all 17 of the components were made in the United States.
By contrast, of the 17 major components of the Boeing 787, which is scheduled to make its first test flight this year, 13 were made exclusively or partially overseas.
"FAA's process for supplier audits should be designed to address newer manufacturing business models, which have expanded the number of foreign suppliers, locations where parts are assembled, and the degree of independent manufacturing responsibility suppliers now have," the report reads.
Boeing said yesterday that it was taking the report seriously. "Oversight is really important in maintaining a high-quality supply system," spokeswoman Liz Verdier said. "We're reviewing the report, and then certainly if it's necessary to make changes to our process, we'll make changes."