American Airlines Boeing 757, photo by Simon_Sees, http://www.flickr.com/photos/39551170@N02/

It could have been a scene right out of the movie “Airplane!”

An airplane takes off from Boston’s Logan Airport, headed to Miami International. While climbing, a row of seats starts tipping backwards into the legs and laps of passengers behind it. Feet fly up into the air.

On the intercom, Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty) exclaims to the passengers, “There’s no reason to become alarmed, and we hope you’ll enjoy the rest of your flight.”

We then hear Rex Kramer (Robert Stack) say, “Don’t be a fool, Striker, you know what a landing like this means, you more than anybody. I’m ordering you to stay up there.” Ted Striker (Robert Hays) replies, “No dice, New York. I’m giving the orders and we’re coming in.”

A scramble by passengers in the loose seats ensues, trying to find seats that are actually bolted to the floor. At last, the plane makes a successful emergency landing at New York’s JFK Airport. All is well, the audience is screaming with laughter.

The trouble is, this wasn’t a scene from the movie “Airplane.”

Other than the dialog, this happened. The seats coming loose, the passengers having to find other seats which were still actually bolted to the floor, and the emergency landing, is what happened on American Airlines’ flight 685, a Boeing 757 flight from Boston to Miami, which was forced to make an emergency landing at New York’s JFK International Airport.

On flight 685, the actual dialog went like this,

Air Traffic Control – “685, what can I do for you?”
Pilot – “Got an unusual one for you.”

It went on, with the pilot explaining why he wanted to land immediately.

Pilot: “We don’t want that thing flying around and hurting the passengers behind it, the seat is loose and can rotate pretty quickly.

That was September 29th. To make matters worse, on American Airlines’ flight 443, a Boeing 757, from New York’s JFK Airport to Miami International, essentially the same thing happened. In this case the plane returned to New York.

When American Airlines inspected these two planes it found more loose seats.

Coincidence, you’re thinking. Any thought of coincidence was shattered when American Airlines admitted a third Boeing 757 flown by the airline on a flight from Vail, Colorado to Dallas, Texas, on September 26th also had seats come loose.

I wonder if the pilot of flight 685 would have thought the incident unusual, if his would have been the third of the three planes, all with the same problem of loose seats?

After the third incident, American Airlines took the remaining 48 Boeing 757s, which used the same locking mechanism to lock the seats to the floor of the planes out of service, to inspect and repair the seats.

American Airline spokeswoman Andrea Huguely said in a statement,

“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.”

Apparently, the clamp was installed backwards by American Airlines’ maintenance personnel.

The FAA stated of the 48 Boeing 757s inspected, “The airline’s initial inspection of each aircraft found other rows of seats that were not properly secured.”

Now American has apparently changed its mind about the cause of the problem. They’re more or less blaming sloppy passengers, the ones who spill soda, coffee and juice on, and through, their seats.

According to David Campbell, American Airlines’ vice president for safety, security and environmental, the airline initially blamed incorrectly installed saddle clamps, but the real cause was that a buildup of residue from spilled sodas, coffee and juice had kept locking pins from remaining in place. Apparently, the spills caused the seat lock plungers to go into the unlocked position.

It appears to me that Campbell has missed the point. It really doesn’t matter whether the clamps were installed backwards, or spills caused the locking pins to go into the unlocked position. The point is still maintenance!

According to the FAA, the aircraft which had recent in-flight incidents had undergone maintenance during which the seats had been removed and re-installed.

Assuming that’s true, how good could American Airlines’ maintenance be? Can you believe that American reinstalled the seats with gunked-up locking mechanisms? How come after years of flying, the seats are coming loose now, after new maintenance?

If it’s not maintenance, is it defective hardware, or even tampering? Whatever it is, I think it’s clear there are too many unanswered questions, too many unanswered serious questions.

Why is it serious?

It’s serious because airplane seats are designed to withstand a great deal of force without coming loose from their floor tracks. In an emergency, if the seats become loose, they could become missiles in the cabin, killing passengers.

Are you still flying American?