The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is looking into what went wrong and even the airline’s own examiners have found evidence that confusion reigned at Timco and Certified Aviation Services, the two contract maintenance sites where work on American’s airplane seats was being conducted.
The fallout so far? I understand that at least one maintenance supervisor at American in Boston has been retired. And the outsourced maintenance that was intended to be a cost saving move for the airline has morphed into an extensive and expensive public relations disaster.
Even in a year of informational picketing by pilots, significant flight delays triggered by work slowdowns, an international lampooning of its flight attendants by the gadget-addled actor Alec Baldwin and a year-long effort to climb out of bankruptcy – the case of the collapsing seats was big news.
LACK OF COMPREHENSION
Over the course of a week this fall, American Airlines grounded 48 Boeing 757 airliners after seats disengaged from the floor tracks on four flights causing two unscheduled landings. After interviewing workers at Timco’s headquarters in Greensboro, North Carolina and Boston, Edward Macaskill, a maintenance manager at the airline wrote a damning assessment of the company that had worked on both of the airplanes that had flight interruptions caused by the loose seats. “There was no consistent understanding of how the seats were supposed to be installed,” he wrote, thereby summarizing a large chunk of the story. American Airlines declined to make Macaskill available for this story.
Air safety experts say the majority of airliner accidents are not fatal – a fact that is attributed in part to the design of airplane seats, seat restraints and how seats attach to the floor. Under relatively new certification standards seats must be capable of withstanding 16 times the force of gravity. Passengers are more attuned to seat comfort. So, like other airlines, American has begun selling an economy seat with more legroom by removing one row of seats from a section of four and selling space in the three remaining rows for more money.
Timco’s workers reconfigured the seats and did heavy maintenance on the airplane with the tail number N635AA in Greensboro, North Carolina between 23 September and 25 September. On 29 September, the plane took off from Boston on a flight to Miami when the pilot was informed seats had fallen backwards.
“During climb out, passenger seats D, E and F got loose,” the pilot reported from the cockpit. “They’re unable to sit in that seat. We’ve moved two passengers and we’ve got one passenger sitting in the flight attendant jump seat.” In his call to the operations desk at American, the pilot explained his decision to land in New York. “The row of seats could be a hazard later in-flight if we hit turbulence,” he said.
On the plane with the tail number N639AA, it was Timco workers operating from a mobile maintenance truck at Boston’s Logan Airport who removed and re-attached row 14 seats A, B, and C when it repeatedly became loose on 26 September. Still, on 1 October, the row of three seats came loose for the third time on a flight from JFK to Miami prompting an emergency return to the airport.
Emergency landings, diversions, international headlines; American had many reasons to want to get to the source of the problem, especially since it was not confined to the Boeing 757s, or Timco, though that was still a secret.
In reality, Macaskill’s assessment of the environment at Timco echoed another report written by an unidentified maintenance supervisor a month earlier, when seat reconfiguration on an American Boeing 767 was not done correctly. The 767s were having enhanced economy seats installed at Certified Aviation Services (CAS) in California.
All these problems began this summer when the airline opted to outsource some of its maintenance to Timco and CAS – both well established companies that also work for other carriers. The after-the-fact reviews, however, show that despite their experience, workers were baffled by the process of creating three rows of seats with enhanced legroom from four rows in the economy cabin, a process called re-pitching.
The companies were assigned to “reconfigure a portion of our 767 and 757 fleet to accommodate the Main Cabin Extra product,” American Airlines spokeswoman Andrea Huguely explained in an email.
Work on the first plane, a Boeing 767 used for international flights, was completed on 24 August. But within days, CAS notified American that 30 seats – three rows of ten across – were not properly secured to the floor. The plane was grounded where it was in Montevideo, Uruguay until it could be fixed.
“The issue with the first aircraft was discovered as soon as CAS began work on the second aircraft,” Huguely said. “After this was disclosed we immediately worked with all parties to evaluate why the issue occurred.”
American’s review, which was sent to me by someone with access to the airline’s maintenance records, said workers “mis-interpreted” the aircraft maintenance manual. “The entire CAS vendor crew was coached and counselled” about the importance of asking for help when there is doubt about how to accomplish a task, the report said.
Even though American determined that seat installation was challenging to CAS, the concern didn’t make its way to Timco, which was re-pitching seats and doing heavy maintenance on 48 of the airline’s narrow body 757s.
In his analysis of events, Macaskill was unable to determine exactly what happened when N635AA was in Timco’s custody. Even after interviewing workers he could not say which seats were removed, when, or in what order. Were seats installed and then uninstalled for the heavy maintenance? Macaskill heard different answers.
“The mechanic who signed for installation of the seats,” he wrote, “stated that seats were never removed or loosened.” He added, “This contradicts answers that were given from other mechanics interviewed.”
As complicated as it appears to have been to properly turn four rows of seats into three with 36 inches of pitch, it was equally difficult to move the associated seat components, in-flight entertainment wiring to the armrests and passenger service units overhead which consisted of emergency oxygen masks, and reading and flight attendant call lights. I understand that on some of the 757s, these modifications were not properly performed with wires running unprotected through rough plastic holes in the arms of the seat.
“The wires were pulled and crimped where the wire meets the plastic,” I was told by an experienced mechanic who viewed the airplane but did not want to be identified as providing details for publication. The PSU covers also showed signs they had been removed carelessly. The FAA is investigating these lapses.
Not surprisingly, American’s unionised mechanics are working hard to keep the story in the public eye. Until this summer, seat re-pitching was their job, performed by FAA licensed mechanics at a cost American calculated at $96 per mechanic, per hour according to Larry Pike, president of the Transportation Workers Union (TWU) local 567. Now, Pike is telling reporters he won’t fly on an American 757. “These airlines are going for cheaper labour to save costs and it’s really concerning to me as a mechanic,” Pike said in a phone interview. “I don’t know what it could lead to, but it is a big safety concern to me.”
Outsourcing maintenance saves money and this is the primary reason cash-strapped American as well as many other airlines are moving work away from their in house mechanics to Timco, CAS and other companies.
“While most of our maintenance work is – and will continue to be – performed at our own facilities, our competitors have forged a path of having their maintenance completed where it is most cost effective,” American’s Huguely explained. “In order to compete, we must similarly adapt.”
Under TWU’s contract with American, nearly every task performed on the airplane requires an FAA licensed – and therefore well-paid – aviation mechanic. This restriction does not apply to work performed by outside contractors, though union leaders like Pike think it should.
“You can’t have just anybody doing that maintenance. You can’t pull over in the sky and fix something if you hear something go thump,” he said.
At Timco, not only do unlicensed mechanics work on airliners some are still studying at the National Aviation Academy in nearby Bedford, Massachusetts.
“Students that want to work in the free market outside of school can do that on their own time,” said Mike Wisniewski, president of the school, who says performing maintenance on in-service airliners is not part of the academy’s curriculum. “None of it is school sponsored and none of it is unacceptable to the school. It’s up to the aviation company whether they want students or certificated mechanics.”
American is aware that students are working on its planes and defends the practice, as does Timco. “Physicians use non-medical-degreed personnel to perform certain tasks, providing learning and development opportunities, but the doctor oversees their work,” said Leonard Kazmerski, a vice president at Timco.
In response to questions sent via email, Kazmerski said the company “only assigns technicians that have been determined to have the ability to perform the respective task. Most importantly, all non-certificated work is supervised and fully inspected by certificated technicians before the aircraft is released to the customer airline.”
Just why two levels of oversight – the certified supervisor and the aircraft return-to-service inspector -failed to catch the errors in the work performed by Timco is not clear from the documents I’ve seen but this is an important part of the FAA investigation. Laura Brown, a spokeswoman for the agency said the MRO and the airline for which it works are ultimately responsible for the quality of the work.
Could American now face a fine? The FAA isn’t saying, but if the agency determines that an airline does not exercise proper oversight, the airline can be subjected to civil penalties under federal regulations (up to $2,500 per flight). The length of time that American flew aircraft with loose or potentially loose seats will ultimately help to determine what type of fine it will receive should the FAA’s final determination find fault with the carrier’s oversight.
“The airline is essentially responsible for maintenance performed if it is at its own maintenance facility or a contracted maintenance facility,” she said.
This could be one reason that even after it found a number of additional airplanes with seats improperly installed American gave evolving explanations for the lapses; first blaming faulty attachment clamps and then soda and debris jamming the seat attachment in the tracks. Six weeks after the grounding of the 757s, Huguely was still maintaining the position that “the issue on the 757 is not the installation of the work done, it was actually that part that did not work the way it was designed to work”, even while her airline’s maintenance documents were reporting that contract mechanics didn’t know what they were doing and sometimes, neither did the supervisors.
According to Macaskill, when asked to describe how they would assure seats were properly attached to the track, some Timco workers said shaking the seat would do while others suggested checking the torque on the connection on a sampling of seats. In barely disguised surprise, Macaskill writes, “no one referenced a visual check”, as in down on all fours to eyeball whether the clamp is seated and the plunger engaged.
That Timco workers didn’t know the right way to install seats or inspect installation might have been avoided if the failure at CAS in California one month previous had been communicated. But American saw the first lapse at CAS as separate, unlikely to be repeated. Even the FAA characterized the situation at CAS with 767 seats as unrelated to its investigation of the 757 seat problem.
The agency appears to see it differently now. In November, the FAA issued a Special Airworthiness Information Bulletin (SAIB) recommending that American and all other operators of planes with the same type of Weber-made seats inspect for loose seats and incorrectly installed fittings replacing the track fittings if necessary. In the case of American, 757s, 767s, 777s, DC-10s, F100s, MD 80s and MD 11s are all listed as having Weber seats with this kind of track attachment. Airlines from Aeroflot to Varig are among the 26 carriers mentioned, but the FAA says it has not received any other reports of problems.
Rollie Reaves, a union mechanic at American said after the CAS event, maintenance supervisors should have notified all mechanics that a problem had been discovered, but it did not.
“They should have printed a maintenance alert and hung it in a work area,” he said, raising the warning in early September. It was not until 15 October that mechanics learned that some workers were having trouble distinguishing when seat fasteners were properly secured. But by then, mechanics, American Airlines passengers and anybody following the onslaught of news had already discovered that.