The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit found thousands of instances where bogus and potentially dangerous airplane parts were surreptitiously installed on planes including major commercial airliners. In the aviation industry, every component of an aircraft must be tested and certified to ensure that it can withstand the rigors of commercial flight. But despite these regulations, NBC Bay Area’s analysis of federal records found nearly 200 instances where unapproved parts were installed on thousands of aircraft.
The Federal Aviation Administration sanctions repair shops and manufacturers who deal bogus parts, but records show that doesn’t always stop some companies from staying open for business.
“At 30,000 feet a bogus part, yeah it’s scary,” Procraft Aviation mechanic Stephen Panagotacos told NBC Bay Area. Panagotacos has more than 30 years of experience working on airplanes and says it’s up to mechanics to discard bogus parts.
“A lot of times your operator doesn't even know what's going on an airplane,” Panagotacos said. “He trusts that I'm going to do the right thing,”
However, not everyone in the business of repairing and manufacturing aviation parts share’s Panagotacos’ scruples.
Unapproved Parts on Commercial Airlines
NBC Bay Area reviewed FAA investigation records and Unapproved Part Notifications dating back to 2007. The records detailed at least 172 different reports involving at least 17 commercial carriers including Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest Airlines and US Airways. In most cases, the airlines were unaware that the unapproved parts were in their inventory until the parts failed.
That was the case for Delta Airlines, when an unapproved Aircraft Engine Generator malfunctioned after only three hours of flight time. The FAA traced the part’s history before Delta Airlines purchased it and determined that someone modified the bogus part to make it appear legitimate, and sold it to the airline as an approved part. (click here to see that FAA report)
In a statement, the Delta Airlines told NBC Bay Area, “Each part that Delta purchases goes through an FAA-approved Receiving Inspection process where it is scrutinized to ensure it is received from an approved source. Once a part passes inspection, it is made serviceable by the airline and inducted into inventory.”
While most unapproved parts are immediately quarantined once they are discovered, FAA records show that is not always the case. In 2014 the agency issued a letter of correction to American Airlines after an incident involving an unapproved strobe lamp onboard a 757. Records show the lamp was manufactured by a company that did not have approval from the FAA, certifying the part is safe for flight. However, instead of immediately removing the part, FAA records state, “American continued to operate the aircraft with this lamp installed in their Anti-Collision light assembles after knowing it was a Suspected Unapproved Part.” (click here to see FAA report)
American Airline spokesperson Ross Feinstein told NBC Bay Area in a statement, “We have thorough procedures that start with vetting suppliers and verifying the paperwork and certifications that arrive through our reliability program. We are always vigilant to validate parts against the manufacturer's specifications. In the very rare instance we come across a SUP, we immediately take action to remove the parts from our system and notify the appropriate parties, including the FAA.”
Other records include a repair station that fraudulently installed car parts onto an airplane, unbeknownst to the plane’s owner.
Selling unapproved parts that circumvent federal regulations can be lucrative for dealers who are willing to cut corners. The NBC Bay Area investigation found those parts often sell at a lower price than certified, approved airplane parts. Mechanic Panagotacos says that those savings can come at a tragic loss.
“Something that is manufactured incorrectly, not per specifications, it's going to fail. And if you have a failure . . . it could be a catastrophic one,” he said.
Accident investigation reports from the National Transportation Safety Board confirm Panagotacos’ fears. According to official documents, NTSB investigators found that unapproved parts played a role in 26 different airplane crashes that caused 8 deaths and 20 injuries between 2006 and 2015.
The Market for Unapproved Parts
Rory and Sally Silva, who own On-Call Aviation Services, buy used aviation parts to resell all over the world as part of their business. Rory told NBC Bay Area that he avoids putting unapproved parts into the system by destroying any part that he cannot trace back to its manufacturer or even a part he suspects is bogus.
“If it doesn’t have a good data plate, I don’t want to buy it. I want nothing to do with it,” Rory Silva said.
Still, the couple says they see competitors selling unapproved parts at deep discounts.
“I see it all the time,” Sally Silva said. “But it ends up biting them in the butt in the long run. Those kinds of businesses don’t stay in business for that long.”
Unapproved Manufacturer Continues to Sell Aviation Parts
The FAA regulates aviation parts by requiring manufacturers to apply for a Parts Manufacturer Approval (PMA), ensuring that every part they produce is safe to fly. Companies that violate safety regulations can face penalties ranging from a letter of correction to having their PMA revoked.
In 2015, the FAA issued an emergency cease-and-desist order to Huntington Beach manufacturer Ameri-King Corporation. According to FAA records, regulators found the company, “Falsified documents used to show compliance with FAA regulations.” Despite the order, records show the company continued to sell aviation parts represented as FAA approved. (click here to read that order)
NBC Bay Area visited the company’s shop in Huntington Beach and observed what appeared to be a worker boxing up parts in the company’s workshop. The Investigative Unit attempted to speak with the people listed in FAA and California Secretary of State Corporation records as the CEO, Secretary and CFO to discuss the FAA sanctions. But workers at the company would not provide their names, declined to comment, and asked us to leave.
The FAA’s investigation into Ameri-King parts calls into question the safety of more than 14,000 emergency locator transmitters (ELTs) produced by the company, stating the agency is, “Not confident parts and articles manufactured by Ameri-King Corp. prior to December 28, 2015, were manufactured in accordance with approved design.” (click here to read document)
While the FAA’s cease-and-desist order prevents Ameri-King from selling and advertising ELTs, the order does not stop third party venders from selling the questionable parts. In April, NBC Bay Area purchased an Ameri-King ELT from a parts dealer in Georgia who advertised the part as “fully functional” and in “good condition,” but did not state whether the ELT is FAA approved.
We showed the part to Panagotacos who was concerned by our findings.
“Unfortunately there are a lot of people [who] want to make a quick buck,” Panagotacos said. “I would not put this in my airplane or any airplane I work on.”