FAA: New Planes Are Held Together With "Substandard" Parts

Terrible news for anyone afraid of flying: the FAA is reporting that the newest passenger planes are held together with “substandard” parts. The oversight at several supplier factories was so shoddy that workers were caught using rulers made of scotch-tape and paper.

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 FAA concluded that the report raised no “imminent safety issues.” Great, we feel safer already.

FAA Criticized In Report on Airplane Parts [Washington Post]
(Photo: Charliux)

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  1. azgirl says:

    As soon as I read this- I thought– something, if not everything was NOT made in the US. I work in this industry and will tell you that the failure rate on these imported parts is high. We just repair them… and then use them…and it is apparently still cheaper than using US made stuff.. And even if it was once made here- the repairs business is going overseas too…So more to come folks. I don’t like fly…anymore..

  2. dmk2113 says:

    yikes. Yikes is the appropriate response here, right?

    You would think that if you’re building an airplane that you’d follow all of the rules to the letter.

  3. OK, can someone please tell WHAT is wrong w/ using a piece of paper mounted to a table top to measure a length of wire. Does the property or quality of the wire change if it is measured with a tape measure each time vs. a stationary pre-measured piece of paper?

    I for one don’t see the problem w/ a worker saying “I have to measure and cut 200 pieces of wire to a certain length. Maybe I’ll mark out how long the wire needs to be on my work area here, and then un-roll the wire until it’s the right length, then cut it.” Otherwise, he’s going to get tired of trying to hold down the wire AND measure the right length AND cut it. I don’t think we have that many 4 armed people in the labor pool.

  4. DeltaPurser says:

    Just another example of the government trying to scare the shit out of people so that they can do whatever they want… I’m sure Bush has something to do with this. Somehow.

  5. Pylon83 says:

    The title of this article is terribly written, and is clearly designed for sensationalism. Nothing in the article refers to structural parts, nor does it every say things are “held together” by these substandard parts. In fact, the only part specifically mentioned was a fuel pump sensor. This kind of journalism is what creates panic in the public. I would have hoped that the Consumerist would be more responsible with things like this.
    @Git Em SteveDave:
    I agree. If the “measuring” system was accurate, who cares if it’s a real “Ruler” or a piece of paper taped together, so long as it gets the job done.

  6. DeltaPurser says:

    Seriously, folks… read the full article and you can see how it implies that foreign made products are BAD, whereas US made products are GOOD. What a load of crock!

  7. Ragman says:

    That’s something that could be done with automation. Waste of time & money to have a human to sit and cut wire.

    SteveDave, I’d have to see just how the paper was being used. If it was a printed ruler as implied by the first paragraph, that would be unacceptable. If it was a length of paper that matched the needed length, then it’s not quite as bad, although they should be using a sturdier “standard” for measuring. Any supervisor who didn’t have their head up their a** would make sure there was something available to quickly measure out a length of wire to speed up production.

  8. calvinneal says:

    Nothing wrong with using tape? what happened to machine tool measurements. People’s live depend on such foolish exactness. Git em SteveDave is totally wrong. Airplanes are high precision machines, not Chrysler products.

  9. stageright says:

    Paper mounted on a tabletop seems to me to be a MORE exact way to measure – since it’s mounted on the tabletop, it’s not going to move.

    If I were forced to use a wooden or metal ruler instead, I’d tape THAT to the table top, but it wouldn’t be as flush nor as durable as paper taped down that way.

  10. Pylon83 says:

    @calvinneal:
    Yes, airplanes are highly precise machines, but not every single part on the airplane requires such precision. Many do, but not all. We don’t know what the wire in question was to be used for. My guess is something that doesn’t require such precision.

  11. ClayS says:

    @DeltaPurser:
    Of course, there is nothing good about America. If it’s foreign, it must be great.

  12. MrSpaz says:

    @calvinneal: SteveDave’s point (which I agree with) is that the length of a piece of wire in a circuit doesn’t need to be *that* precise. The worker (apparently) had measured out the correct length on a piece of paper, then taped that down to their work surface and used that as a reference for the wire length each time they cut it. Realistically, a 1/2 inch variation should not be that big a deal UNLESS the design in question is specifically using the impedance of the wire to measure some value (ie; in a coil with an external contact of some sort). I am fairly certain that is not the case, as that level of sophistication is usually reserved for toys.

  13. deb35802 says:

    Makes me glad that I no longer have to fly.

  14. wav3form says:

    I work in the engineering dept of a contract electronics manufacturer and we used to build a lot of cable assemblies. Anyway, using a piece of paper or pieces of tape at a determined length to aid in cutting many cables/wires is not a problem. Usually with cables exact length is not required as there is usually a tolerance built into the spec. Obviously if something is too short or too long, it will be caught by QA or be rejected by the customer’s incoming inspection. I can’t comment on the bad parts other than don’t deviate from your approved suppliers.

  15. Applekid ┬──┬ ノ( ゜-゜ノ) says:

    Chinese quality right here at home!

  16. Trick says:

    @ClayS:

    Just wait ClayS, in a few months finally the Democrats will take over and everything will be OK! I can’t wait!

  17. stopNgoBeau says:

    @Git Em SteveDave: Agreed!

  18. mammalpants says:

    i hate statements like “we have to do ____” and “we need to do _______”. just effing do it! when those types of statements are made, you can guarantee that nothing will be done, although there might be 30 meetings about it.

  19. PølάrβǽЯ says:

    Here’s my theory: train tickets are cheaper than plane tickets, and a plane ticket usually costs more than the gas to drive somewhere. And in my car, I can listen to whatever I want, stop whenever I feel, pee whenever I want, eat whenever and whatever I want, take whatever I want with me (even my gun if I want!), and I never have to encounter a metal detector or TSA asshole.

  20. drallison83 says:

    “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.”

    And the problem with this is??? I work in an aviation industry, and for non-critial wire lengths, this is a common way to measure. I agree that the article is very sensationalist.

  21. 5cents says:

    Measurement marking on a work surface used for cutting wire to length is pretty standard procedure in many manufacturing facilities. All that matters is how accurate the markings are. Besides, wire lengths aboard aircraft all incorporate a factory of safety and slack length.

  22. 5cents says:

    @5cents: factor, factor, factor of safety

  23. Mollyg says:

    I think the point of the article is that the manufactures of the plane parts do not have enough oversight/inspections as they should.

  24. youbastid says:

    Yes, continue to deregulate! The free market will sort this all out, friends!

    @aaron8301: Where are you taking a train to/from? Train tix from boston to NY are $50-$100 each way – about the same as flying. Train tix from LAX to BOS are about $1000 each way, and it takes 3 days. Not the same. If you wanna drive, gas is at least $400 one way. Every single time there’s an article about flight, you proclaim proudly that you don’t fly, and you don’t understand why anyone would need to. Not everyone is in your situation.

  25. comopuedeser says:

    Maybe now they will start charging us a “on-site parts evaluation” surcharge. Someday the taxes and fees for airplane tickets will be more than some flights if it isn’t already. Mark my words.

  26. Techguy1138 says:

    @drallison83:

    Repair workers in the aviation industry are getting a reputation for doing non-standards work and saying it’s good enough.

    @Git Em SteveDave: @Pylon83:

    In this article the FAA is investigating faulty parts. Specifically those in fuel sensors. Then they see that a part of those sensors is being manufactured incorrectly. That is NOT the proper way to measure out wire, for a variety of reasons.

    If you can simply throw out proper fabrication pratices because it costs to much to do it the right way I’m sure the US could be cost competitive also.

  27. matto says:

    The good news, folks, is that according to the article, the FAA is “taking the issue seriously”. So we can all breathe a sigh of relief.

  28. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    A first year engineering student, or even me if you give me a roll of duct tape, a handful of dowels, a pair of scissors, and a shoe box, could design a simple contraption for automatically measuring and cutting lengths of wire. And they are paying some guy to do this by hand? What is this, the Middle Ages?

  29. lemur says:

    @youbastid: “Train tix from LAX to BOS are about $1000 each way, and it takes 3 days.”

    3 days one way can be done if you get the right schedule but 4 days is also likely. But the price is more 400-500 for one adult for the whole round trip. It takes 1 minute to check that by going to the Amtrak site.

  30. nrwfos says:

    @youbastid:
    “Yes, continue to deregulate! The free market will sort this all out, friends”

    Ahh, you mean by “Sort this all out” the planes will fall out of the sky? That would be drastic market quality control!

    I guess the planes would be caught before that. But most of all the parts we use in planes and cars, etc. are already made out of the US, so why the sensationalism on it here? I don’t like to fly (except that it takes less time and effort). So our air transportation is already hard to do what with the TSA and fuel surcharges and no food or beverages, etc. This is just to pump up that nervousness?

    As for being able to drive where you want with out TSA interference…I’m just wondering how long that will be the case? Hoping that won’t ever happen…but we’ll have to be vigilante for it to remain that way.

  31. youbastid says:

    @lemur: If you plan on sitting upright the entire 3-4 days, yes.

    @nrwfos: I hope you caught my sarcasm. I think you did?

  32. When my girlfriend and I were leaving Miami for Chicago, we were a bit delayed. The pilot came over the intercom to tell us we were about to pull away from the terminal “Once the maintenance crew finished up with their paperwork because they had to fix the handle on an access hatch on the underside of the plane that had broken off during the previous flight.” Oh. Yes. Please, Mr. Pilot, tell all us passengers about the random parts falling off of the plane during flight, that will put us at ease. Keep up the good work.

  33. kepler11 says:

    the *reason* it is not acceptable to use a piece of paper marked by hand to measure out precision parts, is that if something goes wrong, how are they going to trace it back and know how it went wrong to prevent further problems? Everything in aviation/aircraft maintenance is based on reproducibility and accountability. Parts are tightened with tools that are themselves carefully calibrated, with records.

    Granted, this was a small thing, measuring a piece of wire. But perhaps it indicates that things should be looked into further.

  34. wav3form says:

    Cable assemblies may include precision parts but as long as they are within tolerance and built to spec, it doesn’t matter how they’re measured.

  35. WraithSama says:

    I’m an aircraft mechanic that builds propulsion systems/pylons for Boeing commercial aircraft, and I agree with Pylon83′s assessment of this article. If you work on a section of the plane that you know requires a certain length of wire every time, we sometimes create our own ruler, as it were (often a metal bar cut to the necessary length, or even notches etched/inked on a desk), to ensure we reach that length each time. It has no bearing on the quality of the wire (which we test before installation), and as with every installation, we have a set range of tolerances for wire lengths as well.

    Note that we have stringent guidelines that govern the installation of every single part that goes into the aircraft, and our inspectors/auditors aggressively inspect every single installation, down to the tiniest fastener, every step of the way. We also put our personal stamp on the completion of every installation operation we perform (which is required by the FAA and held on record for 30 years, the typical life span of an aircraft), giving us personal liability in the event of criminal negligence. When it comes to quality/security on these things, they don’t dick around.

    This article does smack of sensationalism. As someone who actually works in the front lines of this industry, I feel confident in the quality of the product we make. Even before I worked in this industry, I’ve felt flying is statistically the safest form of travel, and seeing it from the inside has not changed my opinion.

  36. magnus150 says:

    You think for something as important and potentially dangerous as a flying metal cylinder with a ton of people in it would warrant a little extra to insure safety. Guess not.

  37. sue_me says:

    No, the Bush administration wants another plane to fall out of the sky so they can blame the terrorists and use it as an excuse to move one step closer to totalitarianism.

  38. Tush says:

    I feel pretty skeptical… simply because the article is written in a very sensationalist style.

  39. smoothtom says:

    Hey, who needs regulation? Passengers will refuse to fly airlines with planes that use substandard parts. Just let a couple planes crash, and people will know which companies to avoid. FREE MARKET, BABY!!

  40. unklegwar says:

    “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.”

    So? Who cares HOW it is measured as long as it’s the right length? Adding in the part about what it was a wire FOR is just for effect. The piece of paper is just as accurate as a ruler, or another piece of wire, or a $5,000 machine to cut wire. As long as the wires come out the right length, and reach from point a to point b, who cares WHAT it’s measured on?

  41. mcjake says:

    I have an uncle that is a mechanic for American Airlines. He was bitching a few weeks ago about “some asshole pilot” that refused to take off and fly the plane “just because it was missing one part. It’s not even like it was an important one.”

    That makes me feel really great about flying. If that pilot was an asshole for refusing to fly a broken plane, does that mean most pilots don’t mind?

  42. @mcjake: Holy crap, that could’ve been my plane, I flew AA.

  43. trujunglist says:

    Last time I checked, an inch is still an inch and a foot is still a foot regardless whether it’s an actual ruler or a piece of paper with the markings on it. If the guy is constantly cutting this same shit all the time it’s much easier to have this representation of a ruler taped down the table where you won’t lose it or have to fumble with it.

  44. trujunglist says:

    @kepler11:

    track it back? it’s taped to the fucking desk man, how hard would it be to figure out? hmm, this length of wire is .05 mm less than it should be.. and here’s the taped down for this exact purpose piece of paper he was using to measure it. well, i’m stumped! let’s go get some donuts.