Technology

Get Your Airplane Parts—on Craigslist


On business-to-business Web sites like Alibaba and Craigslist, spare parts are showing up for sale by vendors not approved by the FAA

Key airplane parts of sketchy origin are being sold in a thriving online market by vendors that aren't on the Federal Aviation Administration's list of approved suppliers, according to a new study by MarkMonitor.

The study identified at least 24 vendors using business-to-business Web sites, including Alibaba.com, Craigslist, TradeKey, and iOffer, to sell spare parts for Boeing (BA) and Airbus airliners. MarkMonitor, a firm that specializes in protecting brands, says most of the vendors are based in either mainland China or the U.S. The parts—including valves, gears, gauges, and radar components—haven't been tested for airworthiness or lack documentation that such tests have been conducted.

"Sophisticated" problem

The FAA declined to comment on the report, which comes amid rising safety concerns as U.S. airlines cut costs by sending their planes to maintenance facilities outside the country, many of them not properly inspected by the FAA (BusinessWeek, 7/30/07).

The aviation industry has struggled for years with the problem of spare parts that are either unapproved, suspected of being unapproved, or sold by unauthorized vendors. In 1995 the FAA created an office devoted to eliminating "suspected unapproved parts" (SUPS). But the unit was disbanded in 2007 and the agency shifted those responsibilities to its Flight Standards bureau.

Statistics on the extent of the problem are hard to come by. Since 1996, the FAA has issued 117 warning notices about unapproved parts to staff, airlines, flight-service facilities, and foreign civil aviation authorities. But that may be only the tip of a much larger iceberg, says Linda Goodrich, an FAA flight safety inspector for 24 years and vice-president of Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, a union affiliated with the AFL-CIO that has frequently criticized FAA policy. "This is an age-old problem and it's becoming more sophisticated all the time," she says.

Notably, MarkMonitor's findings come just weeks after British regulators brought charges against the budget airline Flyglobespan in a case involving faulty aircraft parts. The airline, based in Scotland, was accused by Britain's Civil Aviation Authority of allowing a June, 2007, flight from New York to Liverpool to proceed although the plane had broken engine pressure gauges. The airline has denied any wrongdoing.

Adequate controls?

MarkMonitor, which declined to say whether Boeing and Airbus are among its clients, reported that 58% of the questionable listings the study found were placed on Alibaba.com. About 41% percent originated from China, while 38% came from the U.S. Christine Splinder, a spokeswoman for Alibaba.com, says the China-based site "operates a neutral marketplace." Alibaba's terms of use, she says, place responsibility on the seller for claims made about products sold. A spokeswoman for Craigslist didn't have immediate comment.

While it's not absolutely certain that the parts being sold on these Web sites are of shoddy make, "unusual variations among vendor product listings, large supplies, and inconsistencies in origination raise questions about the safety of this supply route," MarkMonitor contends.

So who's buying these parts? The study was unable to identify any specific buyers. But that's the key question, says Jason Dickstein, general counsel for the Aviation Suppliers Assn., a trade organization. He says U.S. airlines and the companies they hire to repair and maintain their planes are extremely careful to buy parts only from FAA-approved suppliers, going to great lengths to ensure that parts come with the relevant documents to prove it. "If you're a counterfeiter, it's very hard to break that system," he says.

Dickstein says that during the 1980s and early 1990s the aviation industry struggled with a huge number of counterfeit parts. The industry responded by clamping down with a strict regimen of audits and inspections that air carriers and manufacturers use to prove that plane parts have been sufficiently tested for airworthiness. Countries in North America and Europe generally have the best controls, while countries in Africa and in some parts of Asia tend to have less rigorous standards, he says.

Hesseldahl is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com.

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