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American adds fuel to frustration

More grounded planes affect the travel plans of 100,000. Some are re-booked on flights that are later canceled.

April 10, 2008|Martin Zimmerman and Andrea Chang | Times Staff Writers

More than 100,000 air travelers across the nation wrestled with flight cancellations, long lines and ruined vacation plans Wednesday as American Airlines continued to ground planes for maintenance inspections and said more disruptions were coming in the days ahead.

American Airlines canceled 1,100 flights Wednesday and said it expected to scrub at least 900 more flights today while it inspects and makes adjustments to wiring bundles on its fleet of 300 MD-80 aircraft. There has been a string of air travel disruptions caused by maintenance inspections in recent weeks.

The latest cancellations that began Tuesday created chaotic conditions at several major airports around the country, including Los Angeles International, where American is the biggest carrier in terms of passenger boardings. Passengers complained of jammed phone lines to American ticket agents and a lack of warning from the carrier's computerized travel update system.

"We know we have to fly and we have no say-so," said Ron Ensz, 52, who was trying to get home to Wichita, Kan. "They tell us to wait in line like cows, we wait in line like cows."

Adding to the problems: Alaska Airlines canceled 25 flights -- including one at LAX -- while it performed checks on its MD-80s.

American said the inspections were prompted by a Federal Aviation Administration spot check Monday related to the agency's airworthiness directives, which spell out precise procedures for keeping the nation's air fleet in top condition.

Many travelers waiting at LAX said they didn't understand why the airline would inconvenience so many travelers if there wasn't any danger. And one travel expert said the repeated maintenance-related cancellations were taking a toll.

"Travelers cannot count on the air travel system as it stands right now," said Kevin Mitchell, head of the Business Travel Coalition. About 40% of members responding to a survey this week said they would be less likely to fly because of safety issues, Mitchell said.

At LAX, where American scrubbed 25 of its 92 scheduled departures, hundreds of travelers waited in a line that snaked through Terminal 4 to re-book their flights. American employees set out cartons of orange juice, bottled water and coffee on a nearby table and handed out slips containing an apology and an 800 number, but few customers were mollified.

American Chief Executive Gerard Arpey, in Marina Del Rey to attend a conference of airline executives at the Ritz Carlton, apologized "for the inconvenience that we have caused our customers because of the continued inspections of our MD-80s."

"We are doing everything possible to reaccommodate customers on other American Airlines flights or on other airlines. We obviously failed to complete this airworthiness directive to the precise standards that the FAA requires, and I take full responsibility for that."

Many passengers said their biggest complaint was the lack of advance warning from the airline. Although American said Tuesday that it was automatically notifying affected passengers, many said they didn't find out about their travel disruptions until they arrived at the airport.

"They didn't get a message to me at all," said Colleen Betts, 63, who was flying from Sydney, Australia, to visit her son in Denver. "For them to not let anybody know is just disgraceful. It's just common courtesy to let people know."

Joe Sanders, owner of a home healthcare business, arrived at Palm Springs International Airport on Wednesday morning to find his flight to Omaha had been canceled. Sanders, 69, said the airline hadn't contacted him by phone or e-mail to warn him.

"In fact, I got an e-mail from them this morning that said, 'Wouldn't you like to print your boarding pass here before getting to the airport?' " he said.

American re-booked him on a flight from LAX to Omaha with a layover in Dallas, and shuttled Sanders and other passengers to LAX.

"However, now that I'm here, they've informed me that Dallas to Omaha is now canceled," Sanders said. "So now I'm not where I want to go, and I don't know what's happening. I'm sure tired of standing in line."

American reportedly had to shut down its automated flight re-booking system after the computer began assigning passengers to MD-80 flights that were then canceled.

As the cancellations rolled through American's schedule, some customers received e-mails saying they had been rebooked on another flight, only to receive a subsequent e-mail saying that flight had been canceled too. And passengers at LAX said the 800 number they were told to call to re-book their flights was jammed with calls.

Although American said it would re-book passengers on its flights and on those of other airlines, it's tough to find empty seats as carriers cram more people on planes. American's flights were 84% full in March.

Flights were also canceled at airports in Orange County, San Diego, Ontario and Burbank.

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