Crime Report does not appreciate FAA’s preventative SUP approach

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Can America’s Air Safety Watchdogs Police Aviation Fraud?


This headline from The Crime Report reflects the publication’s perspective; it is “the primary non-partisan source of criminal justice news and research for thousands of scholars, practitioners, students, and journalists across the nation.” Yes, the manufacture and distribution of unapproved parts constitute a serious crime and prosecution is an appropriate response to detection of the introduction of unsafe parts into the aviation system.

The author, based on the expertise of A. Mary Schiavo, searches for more rigorous criminal enforcement by her former office (the DoT OIG), the FAA and the US Attorneys around the country. 

She did it between 1990 and1996; under her leadership, 150 criminal convictions were recorded and over $47 million in restitutions and fines were collected. Though that must have had some deterrent effect, SUPs did not stop.

Aviation requires periodic maintenance and unscheduled repairs—all of which require replacements. Unfortunately, the Original Equipment Manufacturers charge a price for those parts that exceeds the pure cost of materials and manufacture of them. The OEMs’ development costs of creating widgets—years of pure research, establishing the specific design parameters for the function, defining the specifications for manufacturing and the costs of FAA certification—are included in their approved parts.

Those, who attempt to sell SUPs, can sell their product for cheaper prices. Their alternatives appear to be the same, but there may be deficiencies in their wares which could be catastrophic. The difference between an SUP and a valid part requires an expert to distinguish the bogus from the real.

Criminal prosecution is an extremely time-consuming approach for SAFETY. The OIG and the FAA have reduced their enforcement offices, perhaps because the time required to conduct the investigation which meets the difficult evidentiary standards required by the US Attorneys and the US Criminal rules. Just the process of sequestering and maintaining the records and suspect parts in the midst of an operating airline is demanding

The cases, cited as examples in the article, are illustrative of the complexity of investigation and compiling a case.  The records, inventory and witnesses are spread over two continents and multiple locations. The proof of substandard quality control typically requires after the fact reassessment of several different stages of manufacturing. The size of adequate sampling is a complex calculation and may vary depending of lot sizes. The assessment of QC/QA compliance may have occurred at the site of a subcontractor and again at an assembly intake station. The staff and

paperwork involved may not have remained in their positions at the time of these processes. Getting witnesses to appear in some federal district court is no easy task. Experts in SUP cases provide great cross examination opportunities for defense counsel. The science, if not art, of this technical subject is likely to be beyond the interest and span of concentration of most juries and a few judges.


So, what are the options? One: increase the staff at the FAA and OIG to address this threat, but the agency’s budget has made that alternative difficult. Two: create a team at headquarters to surveil this sector. As the OIG’s report suggests, the level of SUP activity indicates that even an expert team could catch all of the targets. Ideally, a new and more proactive investigative approach needs to be implemented.


The leaders of Aviation Safety have implemented SMS and a new compliance philosophy. Those changes recognize that not even a “dragnet” of enforcement can or will interdict all of the SUPs. There are too many points of action for the FAA to cover each and every one of those critical events. The new approach emphasizes cooperation and collaboration. By sharing the information with the carriers and their staff, the effective span of inspection increases. With SUPs, the key is to educate all involved about how to spot a bad part BEFORE it enters inventories.

As noted by one aviation expert, “’[c]ertificate holders (FAA-approved aviation businesses {airlines, manufacturers and repair stations}) must protect themselves and their work with or without government help,’ said a spokesperson for the Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA), a global trade association for the civil aviation maintenance industry.” Education of the people who control the inventory is the most effective mechanism to be PROACTIVE, to catch the bad parts before they get near an airplane.


Sending bad guys off to jail insures that the individual going to jail cannot repeat the offense, at least for the time of incarceration. Educating the field, thousands of aviation safety professionals about how to detect a bad part and making sure that the SUP is not introduced into an airplane is proactive and preventative. Sources of bad parts is an immediate result of this approach and are eliminated immediately. That is not a process familiar to a crime reporter, but it is a methodology adopted by most of the world’s civil aviation authorities. Furthermore, the outcome of SMS and cooperation/collaboration does not make headlines. The absence of accidents is just not good copy.


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2 Comments on "Crime Report does not appreciate FAA’s preventative SUP approach"

  1. Hi there, author of the Crime Report article here. You are right that we focus on enforcement only, and that is because we are a criminal justice publication. I found your response very informative, and I especially appreciate the difficulty involved in complex, cross-jurisdictional cases, some of which lead back to uncooperative governments (Chinese authorities, for instance, won’t even release the identities of known drug counterfeiting operations). But taking a step back, this is really not known to the public; and the vast majority of people do not understand what the FAA does, or how the industry works.

    The point here is that actionable criminal offenses are not being prosecuted. When you get up into the white collar world, you hear that response a lot– “you just don’t understand how it works.” Complexity becomes a negotiating strategy for some.

    None of this is to diminish the importance of prevention, or industry’s safety efforts, including rigorous training. But it is a separate topic: I disagree that the public needs to have achieved a lifetime of bureaucratic knowledge and acronyms before getting a glimpse of how things are working– or not working– inside taxpayer-funded agencies. And, whether or not enforcement is even possible when it comes to overseas suppliers.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful response to our post. Hopefully we gave you adequate credit for the editorial perspective of your publication. Your statement that what and how the FAA manages its mission is not widely understood is spot on. Our Journal tries to explain the business of regulating aviation to readers. Your reply is much appreciated.
    Sandy Murdock

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