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Cost-Cutting Cited in Loose Plane Seats

Photo by Darren Booth for CNBC.com

Last month, American Airlines grounded dozens of Boeing 757 airliners after passenger seats came loose on four flights. Just a few weeks earlier, another American plane, a Boeing 767, was grounded after a problem was reported with the installation of some seats, though in that case no seats actually came loose. (Read more: More Loose American Airlines Seats Found)

Why the seat problems?

American, like other carriers, is in the midst of reconfiguring its coach section to give more leg room to some economy seats. To get the extra space, it is creating three rows instead of four. The airline then charges more for the seats, which it calls Main Cabin Extra. (Read more: American Announces New Aircraft, Cabin Upgrades)

But the airline, in trying to cut costs during bankruptcy, hired outside maintenance companies this summer for the first time to modify its cabins. And airline documents show that those workers did not understand how to properly install the seats.

The Federal Aviation Administration has opened an investigation into the seat problems.

The airline has acknowledged that it is ultimately responsible for the quality of work done on its planes, whether by its workers or outside contractors. "All U.S. airlines are required to monitor maintenance work at the vendor work site, regardless of where the contractors are located," said Andrea Huguely, a spokeswoman for the airline. "We have employees on site at any facility that performs maintenance on our aircraft."

The union argued that American's switch from its own unionized mechanics was putting passengers at risk. "You can't have just anyone doing that maintenance," said Larry Pike, president of the Transportation Workers Union Local 567, which represents the airline's mechanics. "You can't pull over in the sky and fix something if you hear something go thump."

The airline countered that it never put passenger safety at risk. "We never have — and never will — compromise the safety and reliability of our fleet," Ms. Huguely said.

But since October, it has offered an evolving set of explanations for the seat problem, blaming first the clamp used to hold the seats in place and later an accumulation of soda and dirt in the seat tracks that prevented the clamp from locking properly. It now says that a part "did not work the way it was designed to work," though the airline said in an advisory to mechanics that a contributing factor was the "incorrect installation of the seat to the seat track."

Ms. Huguely defended the use of contract workers as necessary if the airline was to remain competitive. "Our competitors have forged a path of having their maintenance completed where it is most cost-effective," she said. "We must similarly adapt."

The F.A.A. is looking into whether the contractors' work was properly supervised by American, according to several people with knowledge of the investigation. It is also investigating the rewiring of arm rest controls and the relocation of overhead lights and oxygen masks — which had to be done along with moving the seats — because some of that work was not done correctly, these people said.

Although the four flights with loose seats made news in October, the airline already knew that one of its contractors had had trouble installing seats. That contractor, Certified Aviation Services of San Diego, was hired to work on Boeing 767s. It told American on Aug. 28 that it might have installed seats incorrectly.

Ms. Huguely said, "The issue with the first aircraft was discovered as soon as C.A.S. began work on the second aircraft." The first plane was grounded in Montevideo, Uruguay, until it could be fixed, according to a document outlining the internal investigation that American conducted afterward.

In its review, American wrote that workers "misinterpreted" the aircraft maintenance manual. "The entire C.A.S. vendor crew was coached and counseled" on Sept. 4 about the importance of asking for help when there is doubt about how to accomplish a task, the report said.

But the same issue came up again on Sept. 26, when a seat came loose on an American 757 on a flight from Dallas to Vail, Colo. In that case, the work had been done by a second contractor, Timco of Greensboro, N.C. In Vail, Kip Blakely, vice president of industry and government relations at Timco, told The Greensboro News & Record, the seat was tightened and the plane flew on to Boston. "The same seat was loose again," he said. "American fixed it." It went from Boston to Miami, and the seat came loose again. According to Mr. Blakely, "That's when the pilot declared an emergency" and made an unscheduled landing at Kennedy Airport in New York.

Rollie Reaves, a union mechanic at American, said after the problem was found at Certified Aviation Services in August, maintenance supervisors should have told all workers about the issue. "They should have printed a maintenance alert and hung it in a work area," he said. But it was not until Oct. 15, he said, that mechanics were warned that seat fasteners could appear to be secure even when they were not.

Both Certified Aviation Services and Timco are well-established airplane maintenance companies, and Timco's Web site indicates that part of its business comes from installation of airplane seats. Both companies work for other airlines as well as American.

In an e-mail, Leonard Kazmerski, a vice president at Timco, said technicians in Boston "properly installed the seats on the aircraft" and that "the seats were inspected by certified technicians." Asked for further specifics, he said in an e-mail, "We are going to honor our agreement with AA and not address details about work we perform for them."

Officials at Certified Aviation did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Some of the Boeing 757 installation work at Timco in Boston was done by students at National Aviation Academy in Bedford, Mass.

American and Timco defended the use of students to do work on airliners. "Physicians use nonmedical-degreed personnel to perform certain tasks, providing learning and development opportunities, but the doctor oversees their work," Mr. Kazmerski said.

The F.A.A. licenses mechanics but does not require a license to work on airliners. It allows anyone deemed qualified by their employer to work under the supervision of a licensed mechanic. The plane must also be inspected before it can be returned to service.

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