Defective Airliner Seats Under Scrutiny

Wed, Feb 17, 2010 — David Evans


Let us pause and give thanks to whistleblowers. One such, in airline seat manufacturer Koito Industries of Japan, filed a complaint with the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau (JCAB) alleging the company faked test results on seats and made unauthorized design changes. The seats are installed by both Airbus and Boeing on their aircraft. About 150,000 seats in 1,000 jets operated by 32 airlines are affected, and Airbus has issued a telex to operators advising that the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has suspended Koito from producing seats or seat parts “for airborne use.”

The president of Koito formally apologized at a press conference in Japan this week. President Takashi Kakewaga said the company and the management were responsible for the falsification of fire resistance data for tens of thousands of airplane seats. He also indicated the company may pay compensation because of the seats. The company’s stock plummeted 33% on the Tokyo stock exchange.

"Considering the safety of the users first, this seat achieves a remarkably low weight," declares Koito Industries on its website.

"Considering the safety of the users first, this seat achieves a remarkably low weight," declares Koito Industries on its website.

Fixes to the seat problem are unknown at this point. A major problem is the fabric covering of the seats. There is the distinct possibility the fabric may not have passed the fire certification standard. In addition to the fire resistance of the outer fabric, the internal seat structure and foam may have failed fire certification as well. All components have to meet rigorous burn-through standards, because one of the major killers in an air crash is smoke.

EASA spokesman Daniel Holtgen said:

“I am not excluding an airworthiness directive on this. The agency for its part at this stage cannot confirm the precise scale of the issue. Neither can it, with any degree of certainty, say to what extent safety is negatively affected. I can, however, say that on the evidence we have from the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau (JCAB), three things are affected – 16G, 9G [deceleration test data] and flammability [data].”

Japan’s transport ministry gave an oral warning to Koito last year after Japan Airlines received seats covered in a material that wasn’t certified by the authorities.

A Boeing official said the company learned of the situation last year. “We worked with our customers at that time to rectify it,” said the official. “When the same issue cropped up again last fall, we sent a team to Koito to help them with their quality management system. Our engineering tests determined that it is not a safety of flight issue, so we notified our customers individually.”

The Boeing official said the Koito issue applies to all classes of seats: first, business, premium-economy and economy. The company has not yet issued an operator message.

Koito seats are one of the options for Boeing’s new B787 airliner.

Airbus has provided an “Operators Information Telex” to all of its airline customers, saying in part:

“[An] Airbus team is on site at Koito to support the recovery of the Koito [production certificate] and Airbus Supplier Approval.

“In parallel, in relation with the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), a dedicated Advisory Board, involving Airbus, Boeing, Koito, the Japanese Civil Aviation Bureau (JCAB) and 3 operators, has been set up. This team is currently reviewing the available data, in order to determine if an issue exists on Koito seat models installed on in-service aircraft.”

An EASA statement says:

“EASA is working in close collaboration with the Japanese authorities and aircraft manufacturers to establish the extent of the issue and potential corrective action.”

In other words, the situation is presently in a state of flux. But this much is evident: the authorities were galvanized into action by the whistleblower. The regulatory authorities did not uncover the seat problems by themselves; the whistleblower provided a guiding hand.

From the extant data, the identity of the whistleblower is unknown, as is his tenure with the company.

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