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American Airlines struggles to get its jets back in the air

The carrier's CEO says costs for customer care and inspections of its MD-80s will total tens of millions of dollars.

April 11, 2008|Peter Pae and Martin Zimmerman | Times Staff Writers

American Airlines renewed its apologies Thursday to more than 200,000 passengers whose travel plans were disrupted this week. Almost 600 more flights were expected to be canceled today, and the airline said it would be at least Sunday before things were back to normal.

As the airline struggled to get its planes flying again, new details emerged on the events that led to the massive flight cancellations and the Federal Aviation Administration's newly aggressive role in policing the nation's airlines.

While nervous airline executives refused to publicly criticize the FAA, they privately grumbled that the agency had been taking a harder line with airlines on complying with airworthiness directives. They said the extraordinary number of flight cancellations might not have been necessary if the FAA hadn't gotten "unreasonably" tougher in recent weeks.

"I'm not sure I would characterize it that way," a more cautious Gerard Arpey, chief executive of American Airlines, said. He stopped short of criticizing the agency for its role in one of the nation's worst air travel debacles but added, "It would be fair to say that the FAA is stepping up surveillance."

He estimated it would cost American "tens of millions of dollars" in expenses for customer service as well as for inspecting and repairing the aircraft.

The final cost could easily exceed $30 million, said Philip Baggaley, an industry analyst at Standard & Poor's Corp.

On Thursday, American canceled about 930 flights as some of its fleet of 300 MD-80 jetliners remained grounded for a third day so wiring bundles could be inspected to ensure compliance with FAA maintenance directives. American normally operates about 2,300 flights a day.

Including the 570 cancellations expected today, American has scrubbed about 3,000 flights since Tuesday, creating chaotic conditions at some of the nation's busiest airports and raising the ire of passengers.

American canceled 15 of its 92 scheduled departures at Los Angeles International Airport on Thursday. Fewer than 10 flights are expected to be scrapped at LAX today. American also canceled a small number of flights today at Burbank, Ontario and San Diego airports.

Many passengers were more knowledgeable about what was happening at the airports yet no less irate.

Andrew Cerber flew into LAX from Australia with his wife, Kathy, only to find that their connecting flight to Las Vegas had been canceled.

"That is just really poor management; this is the last for me for American," said Cerber, 42. "If they had a customer-first mind-set they should've been looking at the planes already. That should be the first priority."

But airline and industry sources said American Airlines had little time to anticipate or prepare for the kind of disruption that erupted as a result of an obscure wiring requirement.

Executives of American said that on Monday, FAA inspectors initially found that nine MD-80s were not in compliance with an airworthiness directive. Subsequently, the airline agreed to have all of its 300 MD-80s inspected to make sure that wiring running through the plane's wheel well was bundled properly and posed no fire hazard.

But to avoid a massive disruption to its network, the airline said it requested that it be allowed to inspect the planes on a "rolling" basis, perhaps temporarily grounding 15 to 20 planes at a time rather than all at once.

Arpey said he left Dallas on Tuesday morning for a gathering of airline chief executives in Marina del Rey thinking the airline and the FAA had settled on a less disruptive plan.

But shortly after landing at LAX, Arpey said, he got a telephone call saying that the plan had been rejected and that the airline's entire MD-80 fleet had to be grounded for inspection. The airline, which initially planned to cancel two dozen flights per day, was suddenly facing the prospects of canceling thousands of flights.

"I left for Los Angeles with a brief heads-up that we had another issue with the MD-80s, and when I arrived in L.A. I learned that we were in fact going to have to re-inspect all of the airplanes," Arpey said. "Dynamically trying to figure out how to manage through that has certainly not been perfect."

An industry source said that the airline also initially believed the inspections would take 20 minutes or so, but they have been taking up to eight hours as FAA inspectors have had to sign off on any changes made to the wiring bundle.

FAA officials said that the agency had not gotten tougher and denied that American grounded the planes at its prompting.

The FAA has been under attack in Congress, where some lawmakers in recent weeks have accused the agency of being too lax with inspections and too cozy with the industry.

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