"Neither manufacturers nor FAA inspectors have provided effective oversight of suppliers; this has allowed substandard parts to enter the aviation supply chain," a Transportation Department IG audit, first disclosed by POGO, states. In other words, defective parts, that can lead to plane crashes, are ending up unnecessarily and at far too high of an acceptable rate on planes because companies and the FAA are shirking their responsibility to the flying public.
Some examples cited in the report are:
- Manufacturers were not verifying that their suppliers were providing effective oversight of the sub-tier suppliers they used to produce parts. This is a critical safety issue, as demonstrated by four engine failures that occurred in FY 2003 due to faulty speed sensors on fuel pumps obtained from a supplier. Three of the engine failures occurred on the ground and one occurred in flight. The part failures were traced to unapproved design changes made by a sub-tier supplier. In all, 152 parts were manufactured in the suspect population.
- Effective oversight of suppliers is essential to ensure that substandard parts do not enter the aviation supply chain. For example, in February 2003, 1 supplier released approximately 5,000 parts that were not manufactured properly for use on landing gear for large commercial passenger aircraft. At least one of these landing gear 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 4 years.
The IG found in 20 out of 21 suppliers that there were "widespread deficiencies at supplier facilities used by major aviation manufacturers. We found that some aircraft manufacturers had not designed effective oversight systems for their aircraft part suppliers." The IG added, "Manufacturers are the first line of defense in ensuring the products used on their aircraft meet FAA and manufacturers' standards. Yet, during the 24 months preceding our review, manufacturers had not audited 6 of the 21 critical part suppliers we visited."
In a striking statistic on the "second line of defense"--FAA oversight--the IG stated "in each of the last 4 years, FAA has inspected an average of 1 percent of the total suppliers used by the five manufacturers we reviewed. At FAA's current surveillance rate, it would take inspectors at least 98 years to audit every supplier once. This is particularly troubling because, as discussed previously, manufacturers are not evaluating these suppliers frequently or comprehensively." The number of FAA supplier audits has declined even as the issue of supplier oversight has been identified as one of six top issues in aviation manufacturing. One FAA Manufacturing Inspection District Office manager told the IG that "his inspector workload had been cut almost in half under the new risk-based system."
Though industry and the FAA have offered public assurances that they are addressing problems identified by the IG, some of their statements have been highly disturbing.
In response to a CNN segment on the IG report, the FAA deflected criticism, rather than publicly embracing the findings as constructive. According to the CNN transcript:
In a conference call with CNN officials from the FAA made it clear final responsibility rests with the companies. Quote, "Safety in aviation first and foremost rests with the manufacturers, not the Federal Aviation Administration. Courts have made that clear."
Those same officials also said they're satisfied with the way the companies assure the quality of parts, noting that an inspector general's report is never positive and always harsh in tone.
Despite numerous cited instances of defective parts making their way onto planes, some even failing in flight due to quality control problems, the FAA simply sought to minimize the safety concerns raised. To the Washington Post, FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said, "There are absolutely no imminent safety issues raised by the report."
This mirrors previous statements the FAA has made in response to previous IG reports. For example, a 2003 IG report on weak oversight of airplane maintenance found "potentially fatal malfeasance at 85 percent of the facilities it checked," as Air Safety Week put it, since the IG found numerous serious problems in maintenance work that were the same kinds of problems that have led to previous plane crashes. In response, then-FAA administrator Marion Blakey said, "There's no data in the report to support a safety issue."
Earlier in 2000, the IG performed an audit very similar to the one just released, but on a narrower scope: the quality control of fasteners used in the manufacture and upkeep of planes. After encountering numerous delays and denials of the IG's lab-based findings from the FAA, the IG noted in its report that evidence suggested a "systemic weakness in FAA's process to evaluate safety issues brought to the agency's attention."
POGO believes these issues merit attention from Congress, including public hearings.
-- Nick Schwellenbach