What American is Discovering About their Grounded 737s as More Aircraft Turn Up with Problems

Yesterday American Airlines grounded 14 Boeing 737-800s. These are planes that have undergone the ‘Oasis’ modification – to replace interiors with more seats; less comfortable seats; less distance between seats; less recline; no seat back video; and smaller lavatories plus bigger overhead bins.

All of the planes were modified by the same vendor, Aviation Technical Services, and American Airlines said there were issues with the overhead bins. Two planes initially had issues identified, and so they are inspecting 12 more planes that were modified at the same facility. The airline continues to cancel about 45 flights a day related to this issue.

I’m now learning more about issues with the aircraft being inspected.

  • Overhead bin issues were being reported on aircraft and when they were inspected mechanics found bolts missing and half-tightened and zip ties used to hold things in place.
  • I’m told that life vest compartments were installed upside down and as a result the compartment doesn’t come all the way open.
  • In addition wiring was run improperly from the E&E compartment (electrical and electronic) aft of the cockpit.

Gary Schaible, president of Transportation Workers Union local 591 which represents American Airlines mechanics, explained to me that in the old configuration 3 wires would be routed together, but with the new overhead bins closer to the top of the fuselage there’s less clearance and so part of the modficiation is to unbundle wires and route them separately so they don’t rub against the fuselage or the new brackets being installed.

Previously the wiring was in a 3-inch thick bundle, but this is reduced to ¾ inches for each of the 3 wires to have the appropriate clearance. This is important because metal rubbing against the wires can eventually arc and cause a fire.

Schaible says that 4 planes were spot-checked in Dallas last night and issues were found. The airline would not confirm this.

This is all happening while the airline and mechanics have been unable to agree on a post-merger contract, with issues focusing primarily on the airline’s desire to outsource maintenance work and to move legacy US Airways mechanics over to the less-generous legacy American health plan. So the union argues the problem here is outsourcing.

Commercial aviation, though, is safe the world over. Airlines in Asia and South America have strong safety records, and doing maintenance locally has not raised flags for them. Moreover when maintenance is less expensive airlines can afford more of it. Expensive maintenance is what raises concerns around skimping.

Here though mechanical work to retrofit aircraft was outsourced less expensively helping to make the Oasis retrofit project possible, leading to the issues we’re seeing with some of the work that was done and leading to far greater passenger discomfort, aircraft fitness issues aside.

What concerns me most though is that according to an American Airlines spokesperson “we are focused on these 14 [aircraft] right now” and they are not inspecting the 55 other Boeing 737-800s which have gone through the same modifications at other facilities.

In my view they ought to be popping the security panels off the overhead bins to look inside and see whether re-wiring was done correctly, and whether all of the bolts are in place. To be sure, we do not have evidence at this point that there are issues with modifications done elsewhere, but it would seem prudent to check.

I imagine the FAA is going to be looking not just at the production line used to retrofit American’s 737s but at other work ATS has done for other carriers as well.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. The “Oasis Project” should be the defining point for evidencing the failure of Parker’s regime, sacrificing passenger comfort and the plane’s safety, for what?

    Only Parker and his USAir team could fork-out bonuses to the mechanics, and end up with serious labor issues.

    Regrettably, AA today is a far cry from the days of Smith and Crandall.

  2. Missing bolts? Zip-Tied components?

    Wasn’t there a post-installation inspection before these aircraft flew from the facility? Who signed off on these at the airline prior to flight?

    What is going on here?

  3. I’m sure what was meant to be a cost-saving venture will turn into a costly failure. Skimp on the customer product, skimp on the design, skimp on the materials, skimp on the labor, and you have a Pinto.

  4. I hate to say it, but I think it will take loss of life before they admit oasis is an absolute disaster. I thought it would be from 180 souls not being able to evacuate in 90 seconds. Sounds like it may come sooner than we think.

  5. Perhaps the Leadership of AA will take this incident as a lesson and re-think their long term plans of outsourcing aircraft maintenance. Stepping over dollars to save pennies now will eventually be their doom.

  6. I assume the cancellation of 45 flights per day due to this issue places a crimp in the extra revenue AA receives from the new densification of their aircraft!

  7. @KimmieA: Remember the guy who turned a Pinto into a flying car ? This wa OK until the bad publicity of the wing falling off. There’s that, and he died too, which sort of ruins the uptake for the idea. At least it wasn’t a rear-end collision!

    As to the wiring tunnel being reduced from 3 inches to .75, at least AA is treating inanimate objects worse than their passenger seat pitch. I’m not sure I can stand a reduction in seat pitch from 30 inches to 7.5.

  8. I use LH to almost any destination I travel to, EU, asia or ME. I trust them with my safety because they inspect. They literally have personnel stationed and watching as their aircraft are built for them. I kind of imagine that when the LH employee is nearby mistakes are carefully resolved by the book.

  9. The person(s) accountable for this gross negligence need(s) to be identified…but I suspect that AA will get away with conducting an “internal investigation” by the persons responsible for this mess in the first place.

    The mantra will be ,”This too shall pass.”

  10. By far, the largest customer for ATS in Everett is Southwest Airlines. They have been outsourcing maintenance on their airplanes there for years. Maybe someone should look into that…

  11. The only way to force AA to double check ATS work on our planes is to cancel current reservations on 737 MAX 8 or just book on other airlines. I would only fly AA because of their maintenance but once they started outcourcing I became concerned. Now I feel like I’m playing Russian Roulette!

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