Italian police have arrested six people for trafficking in defective Airbus spare parts that are suspected of causing the November 12 American Airlines crash in Queens, New York, in which 265 people died.

Officers of the Italian Finance Police, working in conjunction with the FBI, checked over six aging Airbus A300s that were parked in a hangar at Leonardo da Vinci airport in Rome. Officers said the planes had been dismantled for spare parts by an Italian company, Panaviation, to sell to American, Canadian and other airlines, using false documentation claiming they were airworthy. Police have seized three container loads of aircraft spare parts in Naples that Panaviation was shipping to the United States for sale.

The six Airbuses seized by the police had been sold to Panaviation by the Italian national airline Alitalia in 1992, and were due to be demolished as obsolete. When police, acting on a tip from an informer, broke into Hangar No 8 at Leonardo da Vinci airport, they found that the aircraft had been stripped partially for spare parts, some of which were in containers packed ready for export to the U.S., while other parts were lying on the ground.

The multimillion-dollar scam came to light after an investigation of another plane crash, at Christopher Colombus airport in Genoa on February 25, 1999, in which four people died. The FBI is examining documents from Panaviation seized by Italian police that are linked to the American Airlines disaster, while Italian magistrates are studying other documents that are linked to the crash at Genoa.

This scam may also be linked to the theft of jet electronic equipment worth several million dollars from a Meridiana airline hangar at a Sardinian airport in 1993. Several months after the theft, the equipment was found to have been sold with an authentic airworthiness certificate. Police believe the certificate was used as a model for creating the fraudulent documentation that Panaviation issued later to cover the sale of obsolete parts.

Airlines faced with fewer fares and less revenue after September 11 have increasingly been tempted to cut costs by buying spare parts of dubious provenance.

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