NEW: Expert Bill Waldock calls the airline's explanation "curious"
NEW: Airline says it will install "industrial-strength" metal ties to keep seats in place
American Airlines: Seat fittings "get gunked up over time with people spilling"
Seats on at least three American Airlines flights became loose recently, unnerving passengers
American Airlines has come up with a new explanation for The Mystery of The Falling Down Seats in some of its Boeing 757 airliners.
Part of the explanation is – well – kind of out there.
The answer? Soda pop. Coffee. Snacks.
Something called the seat lock plunger mechanism can “get gunked up over time with people spilling sodas, popcorn, coffee or whatever and that can affect that locking mechanism on the ground that locks the seat to the floor,” airline spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan said Friday.
Apparently, worn locking pins can get stuck when food and beverages spill onto them, allowing seat rows to come unhinged, she said.
American earlier said saddle-shaped clamps installed to hold the seats down were put in backwards.
While the clamps may have played a role, the soda and snack gunk now seems to be among the culprits, Fagan said.
And while that explains what happened to the three American flights that experienced loose seats, it doesn’t explain why the problem has affected only American flights in recent days, or why it’s happened so many times in such a short period.
“My question is, why haven’t we seen this before?” said Bill Waldock, professor and crash lab director at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott, Arizona, campus. “Did the gunk start building up and decide to falter in the planes at the same time? I kind of doubt that honestly.”
Waldock called the airline’s explanation “curious,” adding that it “seemed to be unique to the 757, and to the ones that they reconfigured.”
“What would make more sense is if (the seats) were improperly installed,” he said.
Besides presumably cleaning out the gunk, Fagan says American mechanics are “taking extra steps to ensure that the seats do not dislodge from the track.”
That includes installing industrial-strength metal ties as a backup, airline spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said.
Later Friday afternoon, airline spokeswoman Andrea Huguely said that the company plans to have “all 48 of our Boeing 757s back in service” by Saturday, noting that 42 of its airplanes had already been repaired and that there were will be no disruptions to service.
“We have identified the issue, and our maintenance teams are securing an FAA-approved locking mechanism to ensure no seat can be dislodged,” she said.
American insists after these newly installed mechanical ties are in place, no more seats will be dislodged.
The problem first surfaced on a September 26 flight from Vail, Colorado, to Dallas, according to the airline.
On Saturday, three seats came loose shortly after takeoff on a flight from Boston to Miami that was carrying 175 passengers. That plane diverted to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport.
Another incident occurred Monday on a flight from New York to Miami with 154 passengers. It returned to JFK without further incident.
While rare, such incidents are not unprecedented. In 2008, according to media accounts, a United Airlines flight had to make an emergency landing when a row of seats came loose on takeoff.
The National Transportation Safety Board – which investigates U.S. civilian aircraft accidents – does not track loose-seat incidents, spokesman Peter Knudson said.
When asked about gunked seat-track fittings, a Delta spokesman said, “We are not seeing what our competitor has described on the same scale by any means.”
The coffee and snacks suggestion also didn’t sit well on airlinesforums.com, an online gathering spot for pilots and airline maintenance crews.
“Must have been ‘Alien’ blood to dissolve metal,” posted one user, referring to the film with the space monster with acid blood. Suggestions on the site are rampant that American’s maintenance contractors bore responsibility for the problems.
American, however, has said maintenance work was not to blame for the problems. Vice President David Campbell also dismissed the possibility that the problems could be linked to an ongoing labor dispute.
Last month, a judge threw out American’s contract with its pilots union. Since then, pilots have staged what the airline calls a slowdown that has caused the number of flights that are delayed and canceled to skyrocket.
More than 1,000 American flights have been canceled and 12,000 delayed in the past month alone.
Airline management has blamed the situation on pilots filing what it says are frivolous reports about aircraft problems. The pilots union has denied management’s assertion.
“I really have a difficult time believing that it’s actually sabotage,” Campbell said.
American Airlines also filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection late last year.
CNN’s Vivian Kuo, Carma Hassan, Jim Barnett and George Howell contributed to this report.