Unapproved Aircraft Parts From Mail Order Suppliers
Some of the mail order suppliers have been involved in a dishonest form of deception for years. The deception occurs when “XYZ supplier” prints a catalog full of aircraft parts. This catalog can be online and in print. The parts in the catalog look like certified aircraft parts and are always significantly cheaper. Watch what happens next.
Newly-minted pilot and aircraft owner Barney Stormer decides to save some money, so he orders an instrument that “looks right.” Stormer has been told by all of the old timers he can save money by buying everything in mail-order catalogs. Stormer orders the part online, pays using his credit card, then laughs as he convinces himself that he has outwitted the expensive price quoted by his maintenance provider.
Several days later, the part arrives. Proudly, Stormer brings his part into the shop and demands that his maintenance provider install the gauge in his aircraft. Wisely, the maintenance provider looks at the gauge and notices several things. The gauge from “XYZ supplier” does not say TSO, FAA-PMA, nor does it have a MIL-SPEC rating. There are no OEM part numbers at all. The only part number listed on the gauge is the one from the online catalog provided by “XYZ supplier.” The maintenance shop informs Stormer that the gauge is not FAA approved for installation in his aircraft.
Stormer gets extremely offended by what he is told. Since he is a pilot, surely his decision-making process qualifies his thoughts above all of the engineering and flight testing that went into certifying the aircraft in the first place. Stormer decides that he knows best, so he convinces a friend of his to install the instrument for him. Stormer’s friend is a newly-minted A&P technician who only recently graduated from A&P school. This newbie works nights for a local airline to learn the ropes of his new job. Additionally, this new technician has almost no experience with general aviation aircraft whatsoever. Wanting to impress Stormer, our newly-minted A&P installs the dubious instrument obtained from “XYZ supplier.” Stormer, proud of his ability to defeat the high cost of aviation, takes off on a test flight. Once airborne, Stormer runs into some bad weather. His newly-installed “aircraft instrument” fails, and sadly he never makes it back to the airport.
You might think my story went overboard, but in reality, I have witnessed almost every part of this scenario. Last week, a respected aircraft technician called me with a baffling scenario. His shop started to recently take care of a twin Piper used for flight training. The EGT gauge wasn’t working despite installing a new EGT probe. The technician pulled out the gauge, but the part numbers didn’t match anything from Piper or Alcor. After doing some research, the part number on the gauge matched one in a very popular mail-order catalog. This gauge did not have a TSO marking, no FAA PMA markings, nor did it have anything remotely close to it. It just had the mail-order catalog number and the manufacturer’s name. I advised the technician that what he had in his hand was an unapproved aircraft part. We double checked to see if an STC had been filed or if any sort of modification had been made in the proper format — but of course, it had not. Now the aircraft owner not only wasted money on a failed non-certified instrument that can no longer be returned, he now has to pay additional shop rates to install the correct instrument. In essence, instead of the aircraft owner saving money, he actually paid for this twice.
There are many names that we could call this type of behavior, but “foolish” is probably the best one. A smart aircraft owner would have asked his maintenance provider what FAA-approved replacements could be obtain for the original Piper gauge. In this scenario, Alcor had an FAA-approved replacement that was identical to the original.
What you need to know
As a director of maintenance for any respectable aviation facility, there are some things you need to know about distributors, and most of the mail-order providers. Several years ago, many of the major aircraft parts manufacturers included language in the majority of distributor agreements forbidding distributors from selling direct. In order to get around this, some distributors signed agreements to sell parts at very cheap prices to online retailers. To make matters worse, two very large parts distributors have set up Web sites to sell directly to pilots and aircraft owners, bypassing maintenance shops and FBOs who are struggling to make ends meet. These distributors use Web sites that have names which are completely unrelated to their distributor companies. You see online retailers don’t need to carry any Net30 accounts. They do not offer any warranty replacement or help. They don’t send their employees to IA renewals, and they probably don’t know a wheel half from a drain valve. They don’t care who you are, so long as you have a part number and a credit card. Sadly enough, there are many maintenance shops that are participating in undermining their own businesses by supporting these online mail-order suppliers.
There are several good reasons to use a mail-order supplier, particularly when you are involved with antique or experimental aircraft. This vast array of kit-plane building supplies, pilot products and experimental parts lend well to online catalogs. The problem and deception has occurred because one or two have decided to take their experimental aircraft catalogs and lure unknowledgeable aircraft maintenance technicians and aircraft owners into a false sense of safety. After all, these companies look so big and their catalogs are so flashy — what could be wrong?
A lot is wrong. I am surprised that the FAA has yet to suggest a NPRM towards the mandatory certification of parts distributors and suppliers. These people are gaining financially from the aviation community, who under false pretenses believe they are buying certified aircraft parts. Do not assume that any part you are purchasing from an online retailer or mail-order catalog is FAA approved. More than likely, it is not.
How has this happened?
You may ask, “How do they get away with this?” Well, there are two ways this has been accomplished. First, several retailers will sprinkle their pages with some parts that are FAA PMA-approved. This helps to provide a sense of safety. “See, page one has an instrument marked FAA-PMA approved, so page two must have them as well.” Not so.
The second reason why they are getting away with this is because the FAA does not certify, regulate or inspect aircraft parts distributors. Many other countries around the world require some type of registration or certification for aircraft parts providers. In the United States, we do not. Many distributors self-certify under FAA AC56, which is a voluntary accreditation system. Others use Airline Suppliers Association, which is also a good self-certifying method.
As a wise and concerned DOM, you are probably asking yourself how in the world should you know who to buy from? It actually isn’t very hard to determine. Start visiting aircraft part manufactures Web sites. There will typically be a link that says “distributors.” This link will tell you who the distributors for its product will be. After a while, you should be able to compile a list of manufacturers and their related distributors who you like to use.
As a distributor myself, I routinely get asked from our customers where to purchase products that we are not able to supply. Frequently, we can refer them to another distributor who specializes in distributing certain instruments, engines or certain specialty items. This is all part of good customer service. There are some FAA-approved product lines that, although we may not be an approved distributor for them, we often have agreements in place to acquire these properly for our customers. Many distributors support one another on certain product lines, as we can’t all be experts on everything.
We have all heard the age old saying, “buyer beware!” This is true for the reasons of safety, liability and just plain common sense. As a respected and concerned DOM, ensure your staff is procuring all of their parts from authorized parts distributors. The next time someone like Barney Stormer comes in, perhaps you should think twice about how much his business is really worth!
Norman Chance is President and CEO of Chance Aviation, an international aircraft parts distributor headquartered in Indianapolis. He graduated with a degree in Aircraft Maintenance from Vincennes University and has a degree in Aeronautics from Embry-Riddle University. Chance holds an FAA A&P certificate.