Transparency – it’s time

Rotation

Last year in the aftermath of the Asiana Flight 214 crash, when it became evident that economy class seats had collapsed on each other and left the tracks; and evacuation slides had deployed inside the cabin, pinning two flight attendants, some journalists ran into roadblocks when trying to cover the Boeing 777-200ER accident.

Who manufactured the seats? Who manufactured the slides? The answers to these questions weren’t readily available. Why? Because there is a huge lack of transparency in the aircraft interiors world, and seat companies, slide manufacturers and other interiors providers enjoy a level of secrecy (and protection) that other parts of the airline industry can only envy.

The reason for this is simple, says a top PR representative with a major legacy airline who – somewhat ironically – asked not to be named. “The specs that we lay out in a press release [about new interiors] are all about our customer experience; the things that get into that spec are not as important as the spec itself so things like seat pitch, what the cabin configuration is going to be, the elements being updated and upgraded – those are passenger comfort and passenger conditions that are important elements from our perspective, but manufacturers have different perspectives [on disclosure],” he says.

“We don’t believe in disclosing who all our vendors are. Obviously [such disclosure] has an impact to vendors and their bottom lines. They’re free to disclose [the information] once we’ve made announcements.” Of course, few of them rarely do.

This attitude must change for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, from a safety standpoint, the only way to ensure that interiors firms keep their noses clean is complete transparency. We already have evidence that not everyone plays by the books. Cast your minds back to the Koito Industries debacle. The company falsified test data on some 150,000 seats in the world fleet – going so far as to rubber stamp JCAB approval on its own paperwork – and, crucially, managed to get away with this ruse for several years.

When the Asiana Flight 214 crash occurred, journalists should have been able to confirm immediately whether or not economy class seats on board the 777-200ER had been manufactured by Koito. We knew who made the plane and the engines, but the cabin was a mystery. Indeed, many questions about the interior remain unanswered (side note: judging by the pictures released by the NTSB, Panasonic Avionics’ System 3000i IFE hardware held up remarkably well; the same cannot be said for the seats and seat tracks!)

From a business standpoint, it behooves reputable interiors companies to be more transparent about their products and, importantly, how their products work. Consider the fact that some families are now suing Boeing over the Asiana Flight 214 crash, alleging that economy class passengers suffered more serious injuries than business class travellers because the former were wearing lap belts while the latter had three-point harnesses.

In an article posted on Runway Girl Network, we talked to an aircraft interiors expert about the viability of offering three-point harnesses on economy class seats. “That will never happen,” he said. “Aircraft seat tracks today aren’t made to accommodate a 200-pound man, at 16Gs, wearing a three-point harness. If you take a first class seat with a three-point harness, those seats are much bigger and longer and can spread the load on a track much better. An economy class seat is smaller, more upright and the center of gravity is much higher.”

In short, aircraft cabin structures would need to be completely redesigned.

Nonetheless, litigators are making the case that Boeing was negligent for not providing three-point harness seatbelts. Lawyers think it’s likely there will be a preemption defense meaning that Boeing will argue the claim is barred because federal law – vis-a-vis the FAA – governs rules and regulations as to seats, etc, which preempts negligence claims (which are based on state law). However, as we well know, the plaintiffs could hire an expert in a case to say otherwise so it would be a battle of the experts in the courtroom. To “sue” the FAA for negligence, the plaintiffs would have to bring a Federal Tort Claims Act claim before filing a lawsuit, which of course is not out of the realm of possibility.

However, since Asiana is a foreign carrier subject to the requirements of its own civil aviation authority – and because Part 129 regulations don’t cover anything like this – the FAA fails to see what the basis of such a suit would be. “I don’t know how they could say the FAA was negligent when the aircraft wasn’t under our requirements, though obviously there is a type certificate issued for it.”

Beyond safety, interiors transparency would be beneficial to the travelling public. Thanks to services like Seat Guru and Routehappy, passengers are growing increasingly knowledgable; they know, for instance, what seat width, seat pitch and amenities to expect on board. But some truly savvy travelers – among them, prominent bloggers – are paying even closer attention, and are eager to know who made the seat and what series it comes from, because they know this will impact their passenger experience.

The Recaro slimline seats on United Airlines’ Airbus A319s and A320s, for instance, are receiving far less favorable reviews than the B/E Aerospace Pinnacle seat being installed on some 500 aircraft at United. When United confirmed that it had chosen Pinnacle for the bulk of its fleet, some travelers rejoiced – something virtually unheard of five years ago. “Perhaps the only good news out of the slim-line seats addition is that the seats will be the B/E Aerospace Pinnacle model. Relative to the other options on the market these receive the best reviews from passengers on a consistent basis,” suggested one commenter to Seth Miller’s popular Wandering Aramean blog.

I made all of these points – and then some – in my conversation with the aforementioned major legacy airline this week. The spokesman said his company would take the information on board. “As the industry has changed, it’s going to be all about the difference in the product so that will take on a different perspective as we move forward,” he said.

3 Comments

  1. As a pilot, and an aircraft engineer, it is entirely fair to say that today’s lightweight modern aircraft have no chance of being retro fitted with a three or four point harness.

    As Mary states, the aircraft simply aren’t designed to manage the loading imposed by a multi-point harness. In your car, the vertical shoulder strap is bolted through a main pillar, or the top of your seat structure. These hard points are sufficiently strong to take the loading imposed by an accident.

    Aircraft seats are so lightweight, the seat backs are simply not capable of sustaining the loading imposed during an accident sequence. Hard points like the car’s pillars, are also not available to aircraft designers.

    Years ago, a simple solution to this issue was proposed but was declined due to passenger perception; REAR-FACING seats. Structurally these are easier to manufacture, and can be made light and strong enough to be commercially viable. The seatbelt issue becomes mute, and the forces involved during an accident are lessened by a reduction in acceleration effects.

    Maybe the time is right to review rear facing seats?

  2. Aaron

    Where do you draw the line on disclosure of manufacturer? You state that “We knew who made the plane and the engines, but the cabin was a mystery. ” Do you really know who manufactured all of the engines? There are dozens (if not hundreds) of manufacturers of parts for these engines, from nuts and bolts right up to major accessories. Airframes and aircraft systems are the same.
    Do you want complete disclosure of every manufacturer that was involved with each aircraft? Who is going to maintain this registry?
    Or do you want all of the information that the FAA have, which is what type certificated components were fitted?

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