An interesting series of events unfolded on a recent flight. When I downloaded the dispatch release and flight plan, there was a write-up from a previous day stating that two seats in the first class cabin were out of service. The seats themselves were not the problem.
The issue was damage to the mechanism that activates the oxygen generator when the overhead masks are deployed and then pulled. If supplemental oxygen isn’t available, the seat(s) are not useable. This is not at all a common problem, but it isn’t the first time I’ve seen it.
The problem came when the information regarding the situation didn’t make it from the maintenance side of the house to the reservation system. I still am at a loss to understand how this occurred, but it did, and it created a whole series of issues. When I mentioned it to the gate agent, she told me she was unaware, and showed me on her computer screen what it should have looked like had the seats been blocked or taken out of service.
Because first class seats are a valuable commodity, she needed to get a supervisor to come to the gate to make the changes in the reservation system. The issue then became unnecessarily complicated due to some creativity that was used to try to get as many people as possible on the airplane. The result was a final passenger count that showed one of the affected seats being occupied. The explanation was that the seat was empty (it was) and that the extra person was a lap child. Unfortunately, the final count didn’t stipulate that we had any lap kids, and a lap kid can’t be both in a lap and in a seat. I don’t pretend to understand the workings of airline reservation systems, but as the PIC, I couldn’t take off with anything that showed a conflict with the condition of the seats available to use. This whole mess took an hour to sort out, and fortunately the only affected passengers were non-revenue employees, not folks that bought tickets.
There are a number of items in the minimum equipment list (MEL) that can take seats out of service. Some examples include broken seatbelts, broken recline functionality, and tray tables that can’t stow. Indirectly, an inoperable flight attendant jumpseat can take a seat out of inventory as well, since the affected attendant will need to use a passenger seat. Typically, there is no problem in getting this information to the customer service folks. In this case, I’m not sure what happened, but I learned a long time ago to be as proactive as possible and give the agents a heads up in case they haven’t been made aware. The heads up didn’t help in the way it should have this time. The efforts to get as many people on the airplane as possible were commendable, but the long delay for the paying folks was totally unnecessary and didn’t need to happen.