October 3, 2012
American Airlines, struggling to emerge from bankruptcy and fighting with a pilots union that prefers a merger with US Airways, now faces a new problem after weeks of delays and flight cancellations: a flurry of reports of maintenance problems, including at least three reports of loose seats, aboard its planes.
It’s unclear how serious the incidents have been—whether seats “slid around like a carnival ride” before a Miami-bound flight made an emergency landing Saturday at JFK International Airport as the New York Post reported, or were merely wobbly. “They were loose on the tracks, and if you sat on them, they jiggled,” an airline spokeswoman told Bloomberg News.
Sam Mayer, an American Airlines captain and a spokesman for the union representing American’s pilots, said the airline was downplaying potentially serious problems. A Federal Aviation Administration spokesman said the agency is investigating a similar incident Monday, also involving a Miami-bound flight, and one last month on a flight from Dallas to Vail, CO.
“We have a picture of the airplane that has the seats completely unbolted and laying on the row behind it,” Mayer said of the Saturday landing. He said the photo was taken by maintenance workers at JFK, whose union complained Tuesday about American’s use of outside contractors. “Obviously, seats having come unbolted from the floor of the airplane is a serious issue.”
Mayer said although no one was hurt, unmoored seats are a threat for the same reason heavy items need to be stowed during flights. In an emergency, such as turbulence or an aborted landing, “if those seats became loose, the seats and everyone in them become a missile in the cabin,” he said.
Mayer and other union officials said the incident was not directly linked to American’s financial and labor troubles, and rejected suggestions of sabotage. But they drew indirect links to the airline’s broader troubles, as did industry analysts and passenger advocates. Airline officials did not return calls for comment.
Gary Leff, author of the “View From the Wing” blog, said he planned to fly to Chicago on Thursday on American and was largely unconcerned about the problems. “It’s beat-up-on-American week,” Leff said. “There are a variety of minor inconveniences. That’s what we’re facing at the moment. No doubt this will pass. They’re still operating 95% of their flights every day.”
Leff praised American’s response to delays and cancellations, especially its willingness to go beyond requirements and put passengers on competing carriers for delays of two hours or more, or one hour for elite-status fliers. “They’re bending over backward,” he said.
Leff and others said one side effect of the dispute was that airline workers were overzealously delaying flights by reporting problems, such as broken coffeemakers or burned-out lights, that would usually be dealt with at the end of a day.
“My understanding is that they’re reporting every single defect,” said Christopher Elliott, a columnist and reader advocate for National Geographic Traveler. “A loose seat is not the same as a loose wing—the plane is still going to fly with it.”
Industry analyst Robert W. Mann Jr. said American was facing problems, including highly adversarial relations with unions, brewing for more than a decade. “It’s not a safety issue. Things come loose on airplanes all the time; that’s just a fact,” said Mann, who was an executive at American during the 1970s and 1980s.
Mann said many of American’s workers, who took a 30% cut to pay and benefits in 2003 to avert earlier threats of bankruptcy, “don’t have a lot of trust, respect or regard for the senior management team.”
“There have been 15 years of strategic-decision-making errors and a lot of tactical mistakes as well,” Mann said. “There are a lot of employees who’d tell you, ‘We’ve given them a shot, and a lot of it has been at us.’”
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