(AP, ABC7) - American Airlines says improperly installed clamps caused seats to come loose on some planes, and it's expanding an inspection to cover dozens of jets.
In the past week, rows of seats have come loose on three separate flights, two of which made emergency landings. American said Tuesday the problem was caused by improper installation of a clamp used to attach each row of three seats to tracks on the aircraft floor.
The airline had planned to inspect eight of its Boeing 757 jets, but says instead it already inspected 36 and plans to check 11 more. All have the same model of seats in the main cabin.
The airline acknowledged Tuesday that seats came loose on a flight last week from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to Vail, Colo. The same thing happened aboard the same plane Monday and a second plane Saturday, according to the airline.
Separately an American flight on Tuesday from Chicago to London was diverted to Shannon Airport in Ireland after a report of smoke in the cabin. An airline spokesman said it turned out to be a faulty cooling fan in an entertainment system, and the plane was expected to continue on to London Tuesday night.
The reports of smoky cabins and seats coming loose during flights raised questions about safety on the nation's third biggest airline. Aviation industry experts said publicity about the problem could make passengers stay away from American and fly on other airlines instead.
Matt Ziemkiewicz, president of the safety-advocacy group National Air Disaster Alliance, said passengers could be hurt or killed in an otherwise survivable crash if seats break loose from their moorings.
"What if it's a little kid or an old person in the row behind them?" he said. "That seat becomes a projectile with people on it."
The spate of loose-seat reports prompted American to inspect eight of its Boeing 757s that share similar seat assemblies.
Airline spokeswoman Andrea Huguely said an initial review indicated that there could be a problem with the way the seats fit into tracks on the floor of the Boeing 757, but technical teams from the airline "are looking at everything."
Asked if seats had ever come loose on an American flight before last week, Huguely replied, "Not that I'm aware of."
Huguely was adamant, however, in saying that the incidents were not the result of sabotage by workers. American's union employees are unhappy about pending layoffs and cuts in pay and benefits that American has imposed since filing for bankruptcy protection in November. American accuses some pilots of conducting an illegal work slowdown that has caused a jump in canceled and delayed flights.
The problem planes were worked on by several crews in different cities. After seats came loose the first time, a crew in Vail tightened them and the plane made a return flight to Dallas. It flew to Boston later that day, where the seats were tightened again, according to American.
No further problems were noticed until a flight Monday from New York to Miami, which returned to Kennedy Airport. Another plane making a Boston-to-Miami trip on Saturday made an emergency landing in New York after a row of seats came loose in flight.
The seats on both planes had been removed and reinstalled during recent maintenance at an American Airlines maintenance base in Tulsa, Okla., and a Timco Aviation Services facility in North Carolina. In both cases American employees were the last to touch the seats, Huguely said.
A Timco spokesman declined to comment beyond saying that the company is still investigating.
The Transport Workers Union, which represents American's maintenance workers, said the company often uses Timco rather than its own employees to install seats. Union official Robert Gless blamed the seat problem on American trying to cut costs by outsourcing maintenance.
The Federal Aviation Administration said it is looking into the incidents. In a statement, American Airlines spokeswoman Andrea Huguely stated:
“Overnight, a group of engineers, tech crew chiefs and inspectors from American's Tulsa Maintenance Base evaluated airplanes at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport while other airplanes were inspected at other facilities around the country. Originally, American planned to evaluate the seats on eight Boeing 757 airplanes, but out of an abundance of caution, the decision was made to proactively evaluate a total of 47 Boeing 757 airplanes that have the same model Main Cabin seats with a common locking mechanism. Thirty-six airplanes were evaluated by maintenance personnel overnight and another 11 airplanes will be evaluated to finish the inspection.
“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. These clamps were used on only 47 of our 102 Boeing 757 airplanes.
“The issue does not seem to be tied to any one maintenance facility or one workgroup.
“The FAA is aware of our internal review and its findings, as well as the steps we are taking to proactively address the issue. We continue to work closely with the FAA.
“American regrets the inconvenience that this maintenance issue may have caused customers on affected flights. Safety is – and always will be – American's top concern.”