More Turbulence for American Airlines

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LM Otero / AP

An American Airlines ground crew work an aircraft before departure at Dallas-Fort Worth International airport in Grapevine, Texas, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012. American Airline corporate leadership is having closed door meetings with union representatives about the future of jobs and the pension for workers

American Airlines has ordered more than 500 new jets—Airbus A320s, Boeing 777s and Boeing 787s— and they probably can’t get here soon enough. Earlier this week the company, which is operating in Chapter 11, had to yank eight of its workhorse Boeing 757s from the fleet after seats came loose in the cabin on three separate flights. In the first mishap, on a Boston to Miami flight on Saturday, a fitting holding the front of a row came loose, sending the entire row of seats into an unexpected recline. Less severe mishaps occurred on a New York-to-Miami flight on Monday. A Dallas-to-Vail flight last week had a similar experience.

Although no passengers were seriously injured, it’s a potentially dangerous situation—and very rare, especially given the number of seats in the air on any day. American said it had widened its inspection to 47 of its 757 aircraft that had the same kind of seats and locking mechanism as the ones involved in the incidents. The company says it identified six jets with improperly secured seats and fixed the problem. “Our maintenance and engineering teams have discovered that the root cause is a saddle clamp improperly installed on the foot of the row leg. These clamps were used on only 47 of our 102 Boeing 757 airplanes,” said American spokesperson Andrea Huguely. American uses three types of seats/locking mechanisms. Few cancellations were expected as a result.

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The loose seats are just the latest incident in what’s turning into a calamitous autumn for American. The carrier is already mired in a showdown/slowdown with its pilots over a court-approved, company-imposed temporary contract that has resulted in awful on-time performance. Hundreds of flights have been canceled, and the company has reduced its schedule 2% or so for October to improve its flexibility and timeliness. The pilots, while denying any coordinated action, have been writing up maintenance tickets just as planes are preparing to leave the gates, causing delays, and calling in sick at a rate that has further bogged down the system.

Passengers, of course, are seriously ticked off. American has threatened court action but at the same time asked the Allied Pilots Association, which represents its 10,000 flyboys and flygirls, to have a chat about resolving their differences.

The incident was not unrelated to the broader profitability problems facing the company. American, like other airlines, is reconfiguring its fleet to provide more premium coach seats, which offer more legroom, at a higher price. In this case, American removed a row of seats and redistributed the space. The faulty seats were reinstalled by an outside contractor. The seat rows are attached to front and rear anchor points on tracks that run along the floor, and screwed into place at a specified torque. The reconfiguration means there were new anchor points for nearly every row.

The mishaps occur at a time when more of American’s maintenance work is being outsourced. Although the company reached agreement with the Transport Workers Union on a new contract for its own ground workers, the new agreement includes layoffs and shutdowns of some American maintenance facilities. American may eventually lay off more than 5,000 employees as it seeks to shed costs in bankruptcy.

In the meantime, it may also be shedding customers, as its service quality slips along with the seats.