FORT WORTH (CBSDFW/AP) - Fort Worth-based American Airlines says passenger seats on a third flight came loose during an airborne flight recently, and now says it's continuing to inspect other jets with similar seating.
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.
American says it has pulled 47 planes from its 757 fleet out of service for inspection following the three incidents. The airline found 4 other planes with same potential problems during inspections.
The airline is still checking 11 other planes, the others that were found to have no issues were returned to service.
On Tuesday, the airline officially blamed the seating problem on an improperly installed seat locking mechanism.
"Was it properly installed, was there wear, was there tear? At the end of the day, that's the mechanism that will allow the seats to stay secure or if it fails, will it become dislodged?" AA's VP of Safety David Campbell told CBS 11 News.
But local workers like Gary Peterson still have questions. "It only started popping up in the last couple of weeks."
Peterson is President of the Transport Workers Union local 565 in Bedford. He says the seats aren't new, and American started outsourcing work to reconfigure its seats last month.
"We've been doing these seats forever, and we haven't had problems with them done in house, so it's definitely a question of what's being done in the outsourced facility."
"We don't believe its an issue tied to outsourcing or internally to our maintenance team here. It's a failure that we've not yet understood," said Campbell.
Denny Kelly, a retired airline pilot and now aviation consultant says regardless of who does the work, "American's people are supposed to supervise. This is right, that is wrong."
In a separate incident Tuesday, an American flight from Chicago to London was diverted to an 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.
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 DFW. It flew to Boston later that day, where the seats were tightened again.
Tuesday night, American CEO Thomas Horton sent a letter to employees to address issues raised by recent incidents.
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 Federal Aviation Administration said it is looking into the incidents.
Update: October 2, 2012 3:30 PM
A statement from American Airlines reads: "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."
American says it regrets any inconveniences that passengers faced. The company has been outsourcing more of its maintenance to save money so it can exit bankruptcy.
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