Aircraft seat manufacturer Zodiac has not had a particularly good run over the past several months. After significant challenges meeting delivery targets – so bad that American Airlines killed its contract and filed a lawsuit – the company went in to this week’s earnings call with another potential debacle on its hands. The FAA issued a notice of proposed rulemaking indicating that the agency would force airlines to repair or replace 10,000+ “seating systems” on aircraft covered by the US regulator. Once formally approved (the comment period closes the first week of June) airlines will have five years to address the product faults. Both the FAA and the manufacturer emphasize that the action is not as a result of any accidents but the explanation in the FAA document suggests that the injuries caused in an accident could be much more severe than the agency permits.
The impact of the head onto a typical transport passenger seat back during seat qualification testing normally results in an initial contact followed by an unimpeded sliding motion down the back of the seat. That type of interaction does not typically result in excessive neck loading or direct concentrated loading on the neck. The design of the affected seating systems introduce new injury mechanisms such that the chin can catch on the seat, causing high neck bending loads and direct concentrated loading on the neck. This interaction between the head and the seat during forward impacts can result in serious injury to the occupant.
The FAA estimates the cost to resolve the issue at just under one million dollars, though that seems to be based simply on removing the seats from the aircraft, not replacing them with something else. Repairing or replacing the seats is likely to cost significantly more than this estimate.
And then there’s the response of Zodiac’s CEO during the earnings call on Wednesday, suggesting that the FAA directive is “business as usual” and that it has known of the problem for months, giving the company time to come up with a plan to resolve the problem on the installed seats. The CEO also suggested that far fewer seats are affected, perhaps as few as 6,000 rather than 10,000 sets.
Zodiac re: seats FAA AD: not a surprise. "Business as usual". Working closely with authorities. Has known for months about safety risks.
— John Walton (@thatjohn) April 20, 2016
Among airlines impacted expect that Delta will be forced to act on its fleet of 717s and the various regional operators running E70, E75, CR7 and CR9 aircraft. American Airlines also has Embraer 190 aircraft which are likely affected.
This does not appear to be nearly the same in breadth or significance as the Koito debacle of a few years ago where flammability test data was falsified and far more seats were affected. But it is still a significant challenge to the company in terms of convincing the industry it can deliver a safe product reliably, even as it suggested during the call that the manufacturing delays which have plagued the company are nearly resolved, down to days rather than months.
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