Thursday, October 4, 2012

AA Shifts Attention From Pencil Whipping on Airplane Seats

Seats at the American Airlines maintenance center in Oklahoma
It is not just the airplane seats that are shifting, American Airlines is doing its best to shift public attention away from what sure looks like failure on two levels by whoever is doing the work on the carrier's Boeing 757s.

If the economy class seats installed on the planes were not properly attached to the floor track, as American spokeswoman Andrea Hugely suggests, that would   indicate that not only was the installation work not done properly but also that whoever inspected and signed off on it failed to assure it was as properly performed - a practice known as pencil whipping.


The former RunwayGirl turned APEX magazine editor-in-chief Mary Kirby doesn't let much get by her pretty red head, and today she reports that TIMCO may be the maintenance center that performed the installation. You can read her post here.

AA passengers may have paid for the cheap seats but in the last week, a few of them got a thrill ride thrown in for free as their seats came loose from the attachment to the floor and everyone on the planes got to ride along when the pilots made emergency landings.


As I reported in a previous post, airplane seats are a critical survivability component and if you don't believe me or Nora Marshall formerly of the National Transportation Safety Board (now happily retired) then tune in this Sunday when Discovery Channel program Curiosity airs a program in which a Boeing 727 is crashed, filmed and the effects of impact documented.

Cindy Bir and Tom Barth, biomechanical engineers participated in the documentary and in answering the questions of readers of the auto website Jalopnik, they did their part to explain to disaster aficionados and aerophobes that the majority of air accidents are survivable and that seats are a critical safety component.

"Most crashes are survivable and occur in the take off or landing phases. In these accidents, it's important not to fly through the cabin," Barth said and Bir added, "wearing the lap belt and bracing makes the biggest difference in surviving a plane crash." 

These are Weber economy seats, not necessarily the seats affected
Of course the seats have to remain attached to the floor and that's what was most troubling  to American and the Federal Aviation Administration about this small rash of loosened seats. 

Last night, American's Andrea Hugely released a statement saying the airline believes improper installation of the seats caused the fuss. 

"A factor" according to Andrea was with "seat tracking and locking mechanism" adding  that where the work was performed was not the issue. 

This is important to American because during this time of labor instability and outsourcing of maintenance, anything that makes it look like cost-cutting compromised the safety of passengers would throw more wood onto the fire of bad publicity American is now not enjoying.  But where the work is performed is very much an issue.

Bart Crotty, an aviation safety consultant with experience as an aircraft mechanic and a member of the International Society of Air Safety Investigators says for aircraft and power plant mechanics the repetitive work of seat installation "is boring and given low safety attention."  Installation of seats requires going belly down face to the floor in a poorly illuminated area but when it's done, the worker should get up, "grab the back and vigorously shake the thing, that tells you it's really engaged." 

This may or may not be the practice at whatever maintenance center installed the seats, but it remains curious that seats on at least two planes were released to passenger flights with such a basic problem undetected. 

Mary Kirby is reporting the possibility that TIMCO did the work, but obviously American knows. The question they'll need to ask next is why this flawed installation was not caught and whether any other work was similarly pencil whipped.






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