Crunch time for V Australia as 777 seats face mandatory removal

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Koito economy seats on V Australia’s 777-300ER VH-VOZ. These Koito seats and others worldwide face removal for possibly being unsafe. 


V Australia this morning joins 42 airlines around the world considering their next steps after the Federal Aviation Administration issued an airworthiness directive overnight for airlines to determine if their passenger seats meet safety specifications and, if not, to bring them up to standard or replace them within 2-6 years.



The AD only applies to carriers with certain seats manufactured by Japanese supplier Koito, who supplied the economy class seats on V Australia’s first four Boeing 777-300ER aircraft. The carrier elected to have Recaro supply economy seats for its fifth 777-300ER, VH-VPH, after it emerged Koito falsified test data. The carrier’s narrow-body and Airbus A330 fleets are unaffected.


With the FAA estimating the cost of an economy class seat to be approximately US$2,300, V Australia is potentially looking at a bill of $2.6m to replace the 288 Koito economy seats on each its four 777-300ER if it is not able to, or elects not to, replace affected parts. The actual cost could be higher once installation time, aircraft lost revenue time, and IFE changes are considered, and worldwide could amount to half a billion dollars.


“V Australia believes this will cause significant issues for operators as no replacement seats are available to fill the gap. In addition, significant reworks are required to cater for IFE systems and airline booking systems due to the removed seats,” Virgin Blue general manager for engineering Michael Hockin told the FAA last November in response to its proposed rule making, which has differed little to today’s AD.


“In the event the seats need to be replaced, airlines will have less than two years to retrofit aircraft with different seats. Seat acquisition programs commonly takes at least 18-21 months, and therefore, V Australia feels the two years will not be achievable,” Hockin said. A retrofit would also require notable ground time for V Australia’s small and tighly-schedueled 777 fleet.


The FAA said V Australia, and Cathay Pacific, requested the two-year compliance time be extended to four years while Boeing and other airlines requested extensions of other lengths.


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The AD’s timeframe for replacement depends what regulatory and safety requirements the seats do or do not meet. While the FAA says its proposed rule making may have been misinterpreted, it will require seats removed within two years only “in the event that the seat model  is not capable of withstanding the minimum static forward and side loads”. The two years starts from the AD’s effective date, which is 60 days after the AD is formally published in the federal register.


After V Australia had Recaro economy seats installed, a spokesman said the carrier was not pursuing damage payments from Koito and nor was it planning to retrofit its fleet, but noted: “We will always air on the side of caution where safety is concerned and we will comply with any directives necessary to confirm the relevant economy seats in our aircraft are fully compliant with all required certification standards.”


To recap, in early 2009 a whistleblower notified Japan’s safety regulator, the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau, that there were discrepancies between the materials Koito tested for flammability and the materials used in production models. Later that year Koito admitted it had falsified static, dynamic, and flammability testing on delivered seats. These tests are critical and legally required to ensure seats and withstand high force impacts and fires, and protect their occupants from the same events. “Failure of the seat in combination with an emergency landing is considered catastrophic,” the FAA says.


The AD requires airlines, or an aircraft manufacturer acting on their behalf, to fully test in-service seats to ensure they meet requirements. The FAA notes airlines may be unable to cooperate with each other as each airline’s fabric covering may be unique and require its own testing.


The industry is divided on the FAA’s strict, zero-tolerance if you like, approach to the AD. Parties made requests including for the proposed rule be removed (no); the FAA and its European counterpart, EASA, to harmonize their guidelines (no, EASA has a 10-year limiting requirement); certain seat models to be excluded (no); and Koito primary evidence computer data considered (no).



Airbus, Boeing, and multiple airlines including V Australia asked for more comment time so new data from Koito and the JCAB could be evaluated. The JACB says the data showed that new seats of an unspecified vintage manufactured in accordance with Koito’s (certified) production drawings displayed after a tear-down inspection no significant differences that could impact testing.

The FAA agreed new-build seats could stand in for in-service seats for the static test but not the dynamic test. Having to remove in-service seats for testing will create “holes” in cabins, a problem Boeing raised as removing a row means tray tables and other amenities are mis-aligned, and in the case of IFE systems and overhead lights, could throw the entire cabin off-kilter due to the systems being daisy-chained.



Air New Zealand, Jetstar, Qantas, and Tiger Airways do not use Koito seats, according to data from Flightglobal’s ACAS database and first published by sister Flightglobal blog Runway Girl. But other regional airlines, including ANA, Cathay Pacific, China Southern, EVA Air, JAL, Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines, and Thai Airways do use Koito seats. You can view the complete list of affected airlines and aircraft here.


Update: A V Australia spokesman says: “We have reviewed the FAA directive (AD 2011-12-01) and will comply with the directive within the required timeframes.” He notes that “there will be no impact on our normal operations as the directive allows the existing seating system to continue in service while testing is completed” but the carrier has no comment yet on what, if any, impact there will be if testing shows the seats need to be removed.

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