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.


Oussama's Take said...

Working in the cabin was never trendy with technicians and mechanics. They all want to work on a sexy engine or aircraft system. The sad thing, the cabin plays a great part in defining an airline, but it is the least cared for.

Unknown said...

Good discussion and commenting!
However, we need to understand the wide spectrum involving seats installation. As a Quality Control Inspector, who spent 20+ years crawling into many bays and compartments in a variety of airframes and power plants; I found it to be more effective and safe to have a dedicated, qualified crew for cabin tasks with stringent and documented requirements and procedures, not just for seats installation, but for any primary structural article in those cabins. Regardless of the tediousness of seat installation's tasks; it is very crucial to have a documented Inspection Buy-off redundancy in a form of torques witnessing and mount physical security check.
I recommend for seats installation airworthiness requirements to not only be a RII item, as it is the case now with most FAR Part-121 carriers, but also to consider applying the ETOP's "Human Factor" technique: one man per one mount?!
Quality escapes induced by MROs, can be prevented if Airlines/ Carriers apply their ownership, preventative measures and verification mechanism and NOT throw the entire load on the MRO,since it is their ultimate liability after all?!
At the end of the day,there are several factors need to be considered to avoid quality escapes: Human factors, design flaws, tooling and proper documentation are few to mention.

Christine Negroni said...

Thank you both for your insight. It this entire situation doesn't make the case for proper SMS in maintenance, I don't know what does.

Steve Knight said...

Whilst I agree mainly with Tareq's comments I think you can't escape the fact that it was a failure of the MRO's quality assurance system that is the main cause of this issue.

Across the other side of the Pond, working with EASA regs the concept and application of independent (duplicate) inspections is slightly different. Cabin and galley equipment are often seen as secondary to airworthiness, after all the seats being adrift will not directly affect the airworthiness of the aircraft or its ability for safe flight. However it is a obvious contributor to passenger safety and as such, a wider interpretation of RII intent needs to be understood by the MRO and applied.

In terms of EASA operators, for sure they are responsible for the continuing airworthiness of the aircraft and sufficient oversight should be applied to make sure ordered maintenance is performed to the required standards in accordance with the contract/workorder. However lets not forget here that the MRO is responsible for the maintenance that it performs. I would suggest that the MRO needs some soul-searching to identify cultural and policy issues that allow quality failings of this order. And yes that could sit nicely inside an SMS but don't forget basic QA activities.

Anonymous said...

All of these comments are true there is a responibility and someone made an error or omission. However all the rules and regulations of a 1000 countries will not solve the problem if the technician does not have pride in his/her work. I come from an era of Aircraft mechanics that came to work with pride, purpose and a desire to to the best possible job. Over the last 40 some years I have seen the aircraft technician be reduced to nothing more than pawn in a game of chess. What we really need in this industry is to redevelop the respect factor. OH I know there are good people working on airplanes and are giving 110 percent however respect of people is paramount to guaranteeing quality work. Respect of position gives a person a reason to do their absolute best. Building respect of the job is the responsibility of every manager, they must trasmit to their people Pride, purpose and self worth.
Maybe before we start hammering airlines with all the regs and leveling fines we who make up the real aviation industries, Managers, take a look around at the people we manage and the company we oversee and ouselves. Do we portray pride in our work? Do we send the mesage be proud to be an Aircraft Technician or are we poart of the problem. Are we managers or do we just hold a title. I was taught many years ago and to this day do not forget. "If your going to work on an airplane your resposible to make sure it is the absolute best possible job, Cause your family could be flying on it".
It has been a while since I have turned a wrench,allot has changed and avaition has become a big business, money is sometimes pushed to far in front. But building good technicians with pride in their work is still the most important part of avaition. Have we become so corporate minded and become so dependent on comuters that we have lost pride in accomplishment?

G.Kosbab said...

In the meantime, AA reports to local news in Dallas that spilled soft drinks and coffee are major contributing factors to seat attach failures. Was this the outcome of 5 Why's Root Cause Analysis or Marketing spin? In the mean time, my DFW departure is delayed 1 hour when the captain promptly announces (at the scheduled time of departure) that a maintenance log entry is not correctly signed off. True? Probably, but this industry icon is suffering from as much of a credibility gap as any carrier I can think of in recent history.

Unknown said...

You are welcome Christine!

I totally agree with you as far as MRO accountability, but as we know the carrier is ultimately responsible of the overall oversight of the airworthiness of their aircrafts. When I was a 145, RII inspector I had a 121 RII inspector sampling my buy-offs and the cabin had its own inspection personnel, who shook every seat post maintenance....Again, that was that particular carrier's policy with MRO activities.

You have hit it on the head and put pressure on a bleeding wound!
Yes, unless you start from the bottom of the ladder turning wrenches, you wouldn't know the type of bubble Techs and engineers had to go through!
I think we need to have a regulated and federally controlled pay-scale commensurate with qualification, training and experience with consideration to the "Sensitivity, Importance and level of Responsibility" of the functions techs and engineers bare on a daily basis.
It isn't just to underpay someone, whose actions literally play a significant role in public safety...Look at the medical field for comparison?!

As spelling your drink could cause a chemical reaction (corrosion) to the aluminum seat tracks, which interlock with seats mount fittings; it is imperative for any person operating an aircraft to have a Preventive and Non-Routine Maintenance and Inspection actions to correct discrepancies found or induced.
For AA pilot to announce that embarrassing pretext for the delay is only defacing the airlines rep and professionalism. However, recording such a reason on a voice recorder makes some pilots feel much better being a MX not a Flight OPs delay?!
For the pilot's defense: "Yes, an incorrect sign off in Aircraft Log Book will disqualify its airworthiness till that particular entry is corrected".