Loose Seats Bring Airline Heat

Last November American Airlines (AAL) in the midst of its Chapter 11 proceeding got hit with a series of loose seats in some of its first line 757 and 767 aircraft. American had decided to reconfigure these planes to provide more leg room for the passengers by removing a row of seats and re-spacing the remaining. There were seats that came loose on at least four flights and a later incident where a ship was grounded because of installation problems. Nobody was ever injured, but we ask …why seat install problems?

I have personally seen passenger seats stacked in rows on the hangar deck while awaiting repairs, painting, or new upholstery … seat maintenance and installation is no mystery to those accustomed to doing it … it is a fundamental part of the airline business. Indeed, pilots in some airlines are also permitted to remove and replace seats on some small commuters to provide for changes in passenger or cargo loads. Well, that’s precisely where investigators found where the problem was: training and experience.

Company technicians for years have been installing and removing seats. AAL’s mechanics complained that they should have been given the job rather than sending it to outsiders.

AAL like many other carriers has had to reduce costs to stay alive. That usually includes outsourcing. It hired an outside company to make the seat installation changes. The FAA found out that the workers provided to do the work did not understand how to properly install the seats. Some were unlicensed and some were students supposed to be under supervision of licensed mechanics and AAL personnel.

Reports regarding the contractor personnel focused on the fact that most of them in some areas were temporary workers hired when the contract presented itself. They were usually on-call people who did not hold regular daily employment until a contract came along. This fact was usually a relevant factor in determining the quality of the work to be performed.

Whether or not the air carrier evaluated the background and experience of the contract workers was also a question raised by regular staff mechanics. There are at least two FAR sections that bear directly on this area as follows:

FAR 121.363 Responsibility for airworthiness

“(a) Each certificate holder is primarily responsible for (1) the airworthiness of its aircraft, (b) A certificate holder may make arrangements with another person for the performance of any maintenance or alterations. However, this does not relieve the certificate holder of the responsibility specified in paragraph (a) of this section.”

Time and again, this FAR has been used to require the air carrier to provide on site licensed inspectors to verify that the work is done in accordance with the company’s maintenance manual. In this case AAL said that the workers misinterpreted the manual. (The workers don’t get to interpret the manual, they are supposed to be told precisely what to do by people who do know the manual.)

Further details of the investigation revealed that one of AAL’s 767 aircraft had been grounded in Uruguay (South America) until it was fixed. An expensive event to say the least.

FAR 121.373 CAS program

An air carrier’s continuing analysis and surveillance (CAS) program should also include continual analysis and surveillance of any outside contract work to ensure its oversight and detection of any faults or errors. These ongoing analysis programs require routine audits to determine the status of the contract repairs or other work. FAA ASIs are supposed to examine CAS programs to ensure compliance.

My personal experience as a director of safety at a 121 air carrier was simply that we had to have our people on site at all outsourced locations to provide double inspection oversight (RII) of the work being done, to be sure it matched our maintenance manual requirements. Obviously this was not done in these cases. It might seem that here, AAL would have been much ahead of the game and spent less money and time if it had let its own trained technicians handle the work.

The FAA has also failed to provide staff for the oversight to enforce the requirements of the FAR. It often speaks of the work that it does but the fact is it has failed to police the outsourcing area (among others) with any degree of accuracy, especially in overseas applications, until after the fact. One of the Inspector General reports stated that it had identified weaknesses in maintenance practices and concluded that a lack of FAA oversight contributed to the deficiencies. The FAA then, finally follows up with new requirements for outsourced contract maintenance.

Air carrier contract maintenance requirements (NPRM)

On top of the noted FAR, the FAA proposes additional requirements which makes 121 airlines (10 seats or more) ”develop policies, procedures, methods, and instructions for performing contract maintenance, that are acceptable to the FAA and to include them in their maintenance manuals.” The new rule would also require them to list all persons with whom they contract out their maintenance.

The proposal goes on to say that contract maintenance now exceeds 70 percent of all carrier maintenance. The proposal says that the rule would help ensure consistency between in-house and contract maintenance and enhance the oversight capabilities of both air carriers and the FAA.

If you are in the air carrier maintenance business you hopefully sent in a comment on this (details are in 77 Federal Register 67,584). Comments were due by Feb. 11, 2013 unless extended (you are probably reading this after the date, but send it in anyway).

History

While the new rule has been in the works for some time, its origin was probably the infamous Valujet accident in the Florida Everglades, in May 1996, where all were lost in the DC9 crash when a fire started with empty O2 canisters in a baggage compartment. They were prepared for shipment by a contract labor group some of whom did not speak or understand English and thus were unaware of the dangerous nature of the canisters.

Three Inspector General Reports followed and constitute the basis for this new outsourced contract work regulatory effort: (1) Review of Air Carriers’ Use of Aircraft Repair Stations, #AV-2003-047, July 8, 2003; (2) Air Carrier’s Outsourcing use of Non-Certificated Repair Facilities, #AV 2006-031, Dec. 15, 2005; and (3) Air Carrier’s Outsourcing of Aircraft Maintenance, #AV 2008-090, Sept. 30, 2008.

New proposed regulation

The new proposed regulation will be numbered 121.368. It is quite a bit longer and detailed than 121.363 and 121.367. You can find it set out in the proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register.

A significant part defines such words as maintenance provider, covered work, regularly scheduled maintenance, directly in charge, and supervision and control. Clearly, there is significant emphasis on the air carrier supervising, and being directly in charge of the work at the work site. Primary focus is obvious.

For some time there has been a need for this new regulatory statement. It seems to be very comprehensive and complete but we shall have to wait and see what the comments bring forth for further consideration.

Stephen P. Prentice is an attorney whose practice involves FAA-NTSB issues. He has an Airframe and Powerplant certificate and is an ATP rated pilot. He is a USAF veteran. Send comments to aerolaw@gmail.com.

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