Bogus parts for aircraft implicated in many crashes


Counterfeit goods, estimated to account for 5 per cent of all goods traded worldwide annually, range from fake watches to jeans. However, international concerns have been expressed about the trade in below-standard aviation parts, which, alongside car parts and medical equipment, can put lives at risk.

Searches by gardai in Shannon yesterday as part of a joint operation with the FBI have put the local aviation parts company, Smyth Aerospace Manufacturing, in the international spotlight, as distribution networks for the industry span the world.

The Internet is now used by a growing number of companies buying and selling aviation parts and the Shannon company under investigation conducted business with its US customers through its website.

In 1989 a plane crash in the North Sea, which killed 55 people, highlighted the problem of unfit spare aviation parts. It is widely believed the tail fin fell off the aircraft after parts failed. The same year a DC-10 crashed in Chicago when bolts securing the engine to the wing became loose and it fell off. Mr Philip Butterworth-Hayes, editor of London-based Jane's Aircraft Component Manufacture, said the industry realised around this time that counterfeit aircraft parts were a serious problem. He said there were two central facets to the problem.

"The first is criminals who become involved in bogus spare parts because the mark-up price on an aircraft part can be higher than crack cocaine. It can cost them £1 to manufacture it and then they can sell it on for £100.

"The second is the billions of pounds worth of aircraft parts in storage that are genuine but for some reason don't have proper documentation. If you consider that there are a million parts in a 747 it is clear the difficulty in keeping track of parts and the huge number of things that can go wrong," he said.

The US National Transportation Safety Board has found unapproved parts were "causal factors" in numerous accidents and emergency landings with airlines, small private planes, cargo carriers, crop dusters and helicopters.

The US Federal Aviation Administration estimates that 166 accidents or serious mishaps between May 1973 and April 1993 were due to bogus parts. The US Department of Transportation cracked a counterfeit aircraft parts operation in Florida in March. The man who sold unapproved parts to federal agents operating an undercover aircraft parts business faces a maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment and a $250,000 fine if convicted.

In 1995 an American Airlines plane crashed into a Colombian mountain side killing 164 passengers and crew. Before air accident investigators could examine the wreckage it was found a large number of parts were missing. In all, 523 parts from the ill-fated Boeing were feared to be available on the second-hand market.

In 1991, after a two-year investigation in Britain, seven men were sentenced for their role in a racket that involved old parts being stolen from warehouses belonging to British Airways.

The stolen parts had been rejected by BA as too old. The parts were sold on with false documentation or none at all, with some of the parts over 20 years old. That year the Civil Aviation Authority in Britain said it was aware of seven private aircraft accidents where illegal parts were found at the scene.