If only it happened in the movie “Airplane,” not real life

by Ned Levi on October 15, 2012

American Airlines Boeing 757, photo by Simon_Sees, http://www.flickr.com/photos/39551170@N02/

It could have been a scene right out of the movie “Airplane!”

An airplane takes off from Boston’s Logan Airport, headed to Miami International. While climbing, a row of seats starts tipping backwards into the legs and laps of passengers behind it. Feet fly up into the air.

On the intercom, Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty) exclaims to the passengers, “There’s no reason to become alarmed, and we hope you’ll enjoy the rest of your flight.”

We then hear Rex Kramer (Robert Stack) say, “Don’t be a fool, Striker, you know what a landing like this means, you more than anybody. I’m ordering you to stay up there.” Ted Striker (Robert Hays) replies, “No dice, New York. I’m giving the orders and we’re coming in.”

A scramble by passengers in the loose seats ensues, trying to find seats that are actually bolted to the floor. At last, the plane makes a successful emergency landing at New York’s JFK Airport. All is well, the audience is screaming with laughter.

The trouble is, this wasn’t a scene from the movie “Airplane.”

Other than the dialog, this happened. The seats coming loose, the passengers having to find other seats which were still actually bolted to the floor, and the emergency landing, is what happened on American Airlines’ flight 685, a Boeing 757 flight from Boston to Miami, which was forced to make an emergency landing at New York’s JFK International Airport.

On flight 685, the actual dialog went like this,

Air Traffic Control – “685, what can I do for you?”
Pilot – “Got an unusual one for you.”

It went on, with the pilot explaining why he wanted to land immediately.

Pilot: “We don’t want that thing flying around and hurting the passengers behind it, the seat is loose and can rotate pretty quickly.

That was September 29th. To make matters worse, on American Airlines’ flight 443, a Boeing 757, from New York’s JFK Airport to Miami International, essentially the same thing happened. In this case the plane returned to New York.

When American Airlines inspected these two planes it found more loose seats.

Coincidence, you’re thinking. Any thought of coincidence was shattered when American Airlines admitted a third Boeing 757 flown by the airline on a flight from Vail, Colorado to Dallas, Texas, on September 26th also had seats come loose.

I wonder if the pilot of flight 685 would have thought the incident unusual, if his would have been the third of the three planes, all with the same problem of loose seats?

After the third incident, American Airlines took the remaining 48 Boeing 757s, which used the same locking mechanism to lock the seats to the floor of the planes out of service, to inspect and repair the seats.

American Airline spokeswoman Andrea Huguely said in a statement,

“American’s internal investigation has focused on one of three types of main cabin seats on the 757s and how the rows of these three seats fit into the track that is used to secure the rows to the floor of the airplanes. Our maintenance and engineering teams have discovered that the root cause is a saddle clamp improperly installed on the foot of the row leg.”

Apparently, the clamp was installed backwards by American Airlines’ maintenance personnel.

The FAA stated of the 48 Boeing 757s inspected, “The airline’s initial inspection of each aircraft found other rows of seats that were not properly secured.”

Now American has apparently changed its mind about the cause of the problem. They’re more or less blaming sloppy passengers, the ones who spill soda, coffee and juice on, and through, their seats.

According to David Campbell, American Airlines’ vice president for safety, security and environmental, the airline initially blamed incorrectly installed saddle clamps, but the real cause was that a buildup of residue from spilled sodas, coffee and juice had kept locking pins from remaining in place. Apparently, the spills caused the seat lock plungers to go into the unlocked position.

It appears to me that Campbell has missed the point. It really doesn’t matter whether the clamps were installed backwards, or spills caused the locking pins to go into the unlocked position. The point is still maintenance!

According to the FAA, the aircraft which had recent in-flight incidents had undergone maintenance during which the seats had been removed and re-installed.

Assuming that’s true, how good could American Airlines’ maintenance be? Can you believe that American reinstalled the seats with gunked-up locking mechanisms? How come after years of flying, the seats are coming loose now, after new maintenance?

If it’s not maintenance, is it defective hardware, or even tampering? Whatever it is, I think it’s clear there are too many unanswered questions, too many unanswered serious questions.

Why is it serious?

It’s serious because airplane seats are designed to withstand a great deal of force without coming loose from their floor tracks. In an emergency, if the seats become loose, they could become missiles in the cabin, killing passengers.

Are you still flying American?

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  • Anonymous

    Yes, I am still flying American Airlines. Not to make light of any of these events, the following are the headlines of news services (not blogs) from this year only:

    “The Federal Aviation Administration said it fined Alaska Airlines’ regional carrier $777,000 Friday for not properly testing its airplanes’ lights in 2009.”

    “The FAA is proposing a civil penalty of $13.57 million against the Boeing Company for failing to meet a deadline to submit required service instructions.”

    “The FAA is proposing a $681,200 civil penalty against Fedex for violations of DOT hazardous materials regulations.”

    “Delta Air Lines faces almost $1 million in fines for allegedly flying two jetliners without making required repairs, including repairs to the chipped nose cone of a Boeing 737, the Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday.”

    “The regional airline involved in a deadly crash near Buffalo, N.Y., that raised concerns about pilot fatigue would have to pay $153,000 for failing to give crews on other flights enough time to rest, under a fine proposed Friday by the Federal Aviation Administration.”

    I suggest you look at an airline’s overall safety record. I also suggest that some bias could be present, given that I do not recall Ned writing, “Are you still flying Delta?”, “Are you still flying Alaska Airlines?” etc.

  • AKFlyer

    Has America outsourced maintenance like many other US airlines? Cheap non-union labor (no pensions or many other benefits) and QA/QC problems. Doesn’t make me very confident that even more critical components are installed and functioning correctly.

  • Anonymous

    Union or non-union is not really a major factor in terms of quality of work at airlines (different story in the education field).

    Delta Air Lines is a good example of non-union mechanics being paid industry comparable wages with all work being done domestically except heavy teardowns.

    Based on the current state of labor relations at American I wouldn’t rule out union shenanigans in the Loose Seat Caper.

  • Anonymous

    You are certainly right that many airlines encounter maintenance error periodically, and make maintenance blunders every once in a while. We are all only human.

    Yet, fortunately, most of these errors haven’t caused anyone serious problems in the air. And fortunately the maintenance chiefs of the airlines don’t seem to have been in denial about the work being done poorly or not at all.

    Of the instances you list, and at least a dozen other of which I’m aware, the airlines took from them the necessary information that they had to do a better job, and that they had to institutionally change their system to find these problems themselves, before corrections became necessary. At Alaska and Delta, that’s what they did, some redesign of their systems for maintenance. (I don’t know about FedEx as they don’t carry people, so I don’t follow them particularly closely.

    At American, if they are to be believed, they have no widespread maintenance problem, but that flies in the face of reality, and that’s of great concern. American has said the maintenance on these planes was accomplished at various locations in their system, not just one place. If we believe sugary drink spills caused the problem, I question how good their maintenance was, as these seat rows were only reinstalled in recent months and it’s impossible to believe that so many spills occurred on these seat fasteners in that time that so many rows in the 48 757′s worked on were loose or were completely free of the tracks to which they are supposed to be connected, unless maintenance workers didn’t clean the gunky locking systems, which is very hard to believe, but either way, maintenance needs major improvement.

    To me, this is an institutional maintenance problem whatever the actual cause, or it’s a problem of defective hardware or tampering. I think we can likely rule out defective hardware or there would be many more seat rows with problems, and on more airlines than just American. So, one way or the other, it’s my belief that American has not come to grips with the problem, and that is far more serious to me than the other incidents you listed.

    And to be clear, I’m not flying American at this time, and recently specifically chose to fly United for a particular flight, instead of American, despite United not being in my preferred list of airlines.

  • Anonymous

    “So, one way or the other, it’s my belief that American has not come to grips with the problem, and that is far more serious to me than the other incidents you listed.”

    Is it far more serious than inadequate rest at Colgan, when fatigue was proven to be a major contributing factor in the Colgan crash? People died.

    I didn’t see reports of anyone injured in the seat incidents.
    Your speculation that maintenance is inadequate, even though you cite no experts in the field (and you are not one whatsoever) is extremely serious when you are challenging the basic safety of an airline. On top of Charlie’s “seats flying out of the plane” in this same column yesterday and your accusation today that loose seats for whatever reason are more serious than a fatal Colgan crash, the incredible bias of this column is factually confirmed.

    Consumer Traveler is degraded to just another of the many wildly opinionated blogs which rearrange “facts” to suit their opinions. I am stopping my readership. Facts do count. Self-appointed airline maintenance experts do not.

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