By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 10, 2008
American Airlines canceled more than 1,000 flights yesterday, stranding tens of thousands of passengers as the carrier's mechanics scrambled to reinspect wire bundles on jets grounded as recently as two weeks ago for similar checks.
The inspections came in response to Federal Aviation Administration concerns about how bundles of wires were installed in the wheel wells of American's 300 Boeing MD-80 jets, the 140-seat workhorses of the carrier's fleet.
Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines also canceled more than 30 total departures yesterday to conduct inspections of similar jets. American slated another 900 cancellations for today, and airline representatives said the carrier's operations would not be back to normal until Saturday.
The groundings were the latest in a series of cancellations by several carriers after problems were discovered with how airlines comply with federal safety mandates. Members of Congress from both parties have accused the FAA of lax oversight of the airlines.
The cancellations stranded thousands of American's passengers at Washington's three major airports, where the carrier scrubbed 29 of 49 departures, a spokeswoman said.
At Reagan National Airport, dozens of passengers lined up at American's ticket counter in the early afternoon to rework travel plans.
"I'm quite angry," said Brad Weiss, a lawyer whose flight had been canceled and who was worried about making it home to Chicago to watch his 9-year-old daughter present a school science fair project. Weiss said he was particularly annoyed that American had inspected the same planes two weeks ago and deemed them safe to fly. "They should be following the rules," he said. "You don't try to follow the rules, you follow them. This isn't golf or horseshoes."
Travelers' migraines extended beyond flights scrubbed at Washington's airports. Most planes departing from the area were headed to American's hubs in Dallas-Fort Worth or Chicago, where the airline canceled 504 of 725 departures.
Rebekah Matter, 26, a District lawyer, was trying to visit family in New Mexico. But her morning flight to Chicago was canceled. The airline rebooked her through St. Louis and Dallas-Fort Worth but canceled her last leg, to Albuquerque.
"I'm perturbed," Matter said as she inched through a line. "I could have been at work today. I feel like I'm in limbo. I'm not traveling, and I'm not at work. It was just a wasted day."
Faced with an influx of stranded passengers, airport officials at American's Dallas-Fort Worth hub kept restaurants open Tuesday night and handed out baby formula and diapers to families who ran out of such essentials, spokesmen said. American representatives said they were doing everything they could for their passengers, including helping them rebook flights on other carriers and giving them hotel and food vouchers.
Airline maintenance and the FAA's oversight of carriers' compliance with safety directives have become major issues since problems with lax safety checks at Southwest Airlines became public last month. FAA inspectors have accused a supervisor of improperly allowing 47 Southwest planes to keep flying last year after the carrier reported that the jets were late for inspections of potential cracking in their skins.
Under congressional pressure, the FAA fined Southwest $10.2 million for that violation and launched an audit of how well air carriers comply with safety directives.
In recent weeks, several other carriers grounded planes to conduct inspections. United Airlines grounded its fleet of wide-body Boeing 777s to test fire-extinguishing systems in their cargo holds. And Southwest grounded 38 planes to make up for missed checks of cracks near windows.
On March 27, American and Delta grounded hundreds of MD-80s, MD-88s and MD-90s to conduct checks of the wiring bundles, located in the plane's right wheel wells and connected to auxiliary hydraulic pumps.
A federal safety directive required inspections and proper repairs to the wire bundles to "reduce the potential of an ignition source adjacent to the fuel tanks, which, in combination with flammable fuel vapors, could result in a fuel tank explosion," federal records show.
In American's case, FAA inspectors found that lace cords surrounding the bundles were not spaced one inch apart, as regulations dictate, according to the airline.
The airline's representatives said they thought mechanics had fixed those lacing problems. In recent days, FAA inspectors rechecked American's work and found that wire bundles on 15 of 19 jets still did not meet safety standards.
Among the problems identified by inspectors: the lace ties were still not one inch apart, clamps were in the wrong position, some wires had too much slack, and insulation was not properly installed in others, according to the airline and regulators.
The airline said that the wiring problems were not dangerous. In the past, the airline's representatives said, they would have been allowed to fix the problems over 10 days to limit the impact on operations and customers.
But with the FAA under fire, times have changed, they said. "We now understand there is a desire for compliance with the strictest guidelines," said Daniel P. Garton, the carrier's executive vice president of marketing. "There is a requirement for greater adherence to the strict letter of the law as opposed to just accomplishing the goal" of ensuring that repairs improve safety.
An FAA spokeswoman, Laura J. Brown, said that regulators' attitude has not changed. "We always want the airlines to follow the rules and to be in compliance" with safety mandates, she said.
Safety experts are divided on whether the wire bundling problems pose a safety threat. But most agreed that the FAA, embarrassed by the Southwest lapses, has recalibrated how it handles such enforcement issues.
"This represents a sea change in philosophy about how best to achieve aviation safety" by regulators, said Thomas R. Anthony, director of the Aviation Safety and Security Management program at the University of Southern California.