Friday, November 23, 2012

Readin', Writin' and Re-pitchin' Seats at American

As the mother of an aspiring transportation writer (cars, unfortunately, not airplanes) I'm all for on-the-job-training. But I've got to wonder just how much supervision some airplane mechanic students are getting while working on American Airlines airliners.

The students, hired by Timco Aviation Services were part of the work force doing contract maintenance and seat re-pitching as I report in Saturday's edition of The New York Times. They are participants in "carefully managed, highly structured, continuing education programs not unlike other learning arrangements in quality critical fields" according to Leonard Kazmerski, an executive with Timco.


American's pesky saddle clamp
Let's consider the  striking coincidences associated with last month's rash of loose airplane seats on American's airplanes. I'll start with a previously unreported case of improperly installed seats on three rows of a Boeing 767 in August.

  • American decides to have outside contractors re-pitch seats on its Boeing 767 and Boeing 757 airliners.
  • On the very first plane it touches, Certified Aviation Services, a contractor in California reports to American that it has incorrectly installed three rows of 30 seats on an airplane already returned to service and flying in South America.
  • Two of the airline's 757s which have seat re-pitching performed by Timco have seats come dislodged during flight.
  • A re inspection of forty eight 757s turns up more than a dozen airplanes with incorrect seat installation.

And all these events follow the decision by American to take seat installation work from its own unionized and licensed mechanic work force and subcontract it to non unionized and only partially licensed contract maintenance workers, where at least one company is using students who are enrolled at National Aviation Academy, a school for aviation mechanics with a branch in Bedford, Massachusetts.

One would have to be extremely naive to believe these things are unrelated.

I am told by people in the know that the Federal Aviation Administration has opened an investigation into the case of the slippery saddle clamp and it has more than the bankrupt airline in its sights. Here's why.

As anyone who has ever flown on a plane knows, where one puts ones' tushy is just part of the passenger seating area. Moving seats means re positioning the overhead reading light, flight attendant call button and oxygen mask compartment, or what's called the passenger service unit. Wiring to the arm rest also has to be moved.

Several people who have seen the troublesome 757s say these modifications were poorly performed. Holes were punched in the sidewall of the arm rest to run the wires and the protective grommet which is designed to keep the wire insulation from being damaged by the rough plastic was not installed.

"The wires were pulled and crimped where the wire meets the plastic," I was told by an experienced mechanic who viewed the airplane the day after its arrival in Boston and who did not want to be identified.

Overhead, the PSU covers also showed signs they had been removed carelessly. "Removing the overhead panels takes a special technique," my mechanic friend said. "These passenger service units, they can frustrate the hell out of you," it takes some finesse to loosen them correctly, he said.

Keep in mind that in an earlier post, Bart Crotty, an aviation safety consultant, told me that installation of seats is boring, repetitive work often given to the person with the least seniority. Timco and CAS and any other MROs doing this work must balance the peculiarities (boring versus finesse) of the tasks.  But it should go without saying that when using students and other non licensed mechanics, supervision is critical as is a thorough final inspection.

American and Timco have told me six ways to Sunday that all work is supervised, inspected, checked, scrutinized, yada, yada, yada. Tell that to the passengers headed from Boston to Miami on Flight 685 who found the row of seats in front of them collapsing into their laps.

Two weeks later American's engineering department produced a full color, illustrated advisory for workers.

DON'T assume tightening screws will secure the seats if the clamp is not properly installed, is one tip. DO refer to the documentation for proper installation is another. To these, I'd add one more.

When your workers are unfamiliar with the assignment or the parts, inexperienced, unlicensed or currently matriculating in mechanic school DO follow common sense and federal regulation and check that their work is performed correctly.









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