Seats from an American Airlines 757 were carried before receiving “Main Cabin Extra Refurbishment” at Logan Airport last month.

Wbz-Tv, Associated Press - Ap

Contractor errors led to loose jet seats

  • New York Times
  • November 23, 2012 - 9:19 PM

Last month, American Airlines grounded dozens of Boeing 757 airliners after passenger seats came loose on four flights. Just a few weeks earlier, another American plane, a Boeing 767, was grounded after a problem was reported with the installation of some seats, although in that case no seats came loose.

Why the seat problems?

American, like other carriers, is in the midst of reconfiguring its coach section to give more legroom to some economy seats. To get the extra space, it is creating three rows in a space that one held four. The airline then charges more for the seats, which it calls Main Cabin Extra.

But the airline, in trying to cut costs during bankruptcy, hired outside maintenance companies this summer for the first time to modify its cabins. And airline documents show that those workers did not understand how to properly install the seats.

The Federal Aviation Administration has opened an investigation into the seat problems.

The airline has acknowledged that it is responsible for the quality of work done on its planes, whether by its workers or outside contractors.

"All U.S. airlines are required to monitor maintenance work at the vendor worksite, regardless of where the contractors are located," said Andrea Huguely, a spokeswoman for the airline. "We have employees on site at any facility that performs maintenance on our aircraft."

The mechanics union has argued that American's switch from its own unionized mechanics is putting passengers at risk.

"You can't have just anyone doing that maintenance," said Larry Pike, president of Transportation Workers Union Local 567, which represents the airline's mechanics. "You can't pull over in the sky and fix something if you hear something go thump."

The airline countered that it never put passenger safety at risk.

"We never have -- and never will -- compromise the safety and reliability of our fleet," Huguely said.

Evolving explanations

But since October, it has offered an evolving set of explanations for the seat problem, blaming first the clamp used to hold the seats in place and later an accumulation of soda and dirt in the seat tracks that prevented the clamp from locking properly. It now says that a part "did not work the way it was designed to work," although the airline said in an advisory to mechanics that a contributing factor was the "incorrect installation of the seat to the seat track."

Huguely defended the use of contract workers as necessary if the airline is to remain competitive.

The FAA is looking into whether the contractors' work was properly supervised by American, according to several people with knowledge of the investigation. It is also investigating the rewiring of arm rest controls and the relocation of overhead lights and oxygen masks -- which had to be done along with moving the seats -- because some of that work was not done correctly, these people said.

Although the four flights with loose seats made news in October, the airline already knew that one of its contractors had had trouble installing seats. That contractor, Certified Aviation Services of San Diego, told American on Aug. 28 that it might have installed Boeing 767 seats incorrectly.

In its review, American wrote that workers "misinterpreted" the aircraft maintenance manual.

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