By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 11, 2008
American Airlines' chief executive apologized yesterday for stranding tens of thousands of passengers this week as his carrier continued to reinspect hundreds of jets for wiring that failed to meet federal safety standards.
American, which had been forced to cancel nearly 1,000 flights yesterday, had put 123 of its 300 Boeing MD-80 jets back into service by the afternoon. The carrier has scrubbed nearly 2,500 departures since Tuesday and expects to cancel 570 more today. At the Washington area's three major airports yesterday, the airline scrapped 26 flights, affecting about 2,500 passengers.
Delta Air Lines, Alaska and Midwest airlines have also cancelled flights to inspect for wiring problems in the wheel wells of some of their planes.
American's representatives said they expect the airline's schedule to be back to normal by Saturday night.
Gerard Arpey, the carrier's chief executive, said the groundings, customer service problems, inspections and repairs to its fleet of MD-80s will cost American "tens of millions" of dollars.
"I take full personal responsibility," Arpey told reporters, adding that he was "profoundly sorry we have gotten ourselves into this situation."
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the Federal Aviation Administration continued to take a drubbing from lawmakers over alleged lapses in oversight of airline maintenance practices.
"The FAA is an agency that's spiraling downward and approaching the losing of the confidence of the American people," Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the chamber's aviation subcommittee, said during a hearing on FAA oversight practices.
Rockefeller and other lawmakers said they were concerned over revelations from whistle-blowing FAA inspectors that a supervisor improperly allowed Southwest Airlines to operate planes in need of important safety checks last year. The supervisor, who worked in the FAA's Dallas office, which oversees Southwest, has been transferred to other duties, as has a top official in the agency's Washington headquarters. Lawmakers said the incident proved that the FAA was too cozy with the airlines.
FAA officials countered that air travel has never been safer and that they were taking steps to ensure problems in the Dallas office are not present elsewhere.
"We are working very hard to get this right and to review our processes in the future so we don't have a repeat" of such problems, said Nicholas Sabatini, the FAA's top safety official.
The FAA has fined Southwest $10.2 million for flying planes in need of safety checks, and it has launched two audits of the nation's air carriers to ensure they are complying with safety directives. Airlines including United and Southwest have been forced to ground planes in recent weeks to conduct inspections.
Delta Air Lines and American parked hundreds of MD-80s, MD-88s and MD-90s two weeks ago to conduct checks of wire bundles in the wheel wells. The FAA had issued a safety directive in 2006 designed to prevent wires in the bundles from becoming chafed. Regulators expressed concerns that such wear might result in an "ignition source close to the fuel tanks, which . . . could result in a fuel tank explosion," records show.
American executives said the carrier's mechanics inspected its MD-80s when the directive was issued and made requested repairs.
Arpey, American's chief executive, said yesterday that mechanics had been concerned with ensuring there were no signs of chafing on the wires during the first round of inspections. When none was found and some other minor repairs were made, the planes were put back into service, the airline has said.
However, as part of a second audit of the airlines, FAA inspectors recently found that 15 of 19 MD-80s did not meet the wiring requirements. The MD-80 was built by McDonnell Douglas, which later merged with Boeing.
Inspectors found slack wires, clamps in the wrong position, insulation that was too thick and ties that were spread too far apart, the airline has said.
The FAA then denied American's request to space out inspections and repairs over several days while continuing to operate the fleet.
Airline industry representatives have expressed surprise at the FAA's stance toward American. In the past, they said, the agency would likely have allowed the carrier to make the fixes over a period of days or weeks. They noted the 2006 directive on the MD-80 wiring gave airlines 18 months to comply with the order. That means that regulators, while concerned about the wiring, didn't believe that making the changes was a pressing safety matter.
"I think it would be fair to say the FAA is stepping up surveillance," Arpey told reporters at a news conference.
Safety experts said other carriers should be conducting in-depth reviews of their records and planes to ensure they do not suffer the same problems as American when FAA inspectors begin poking around.
"The airlines are all in this business to make money, and certainly they have gotten the message now that they need to clean up their act," said Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "If they tend to those problems and adhere to the regulations, hopefully this is just a limited amount of turbulence. . . . I think you will see the airlines pay attention."