Flying anytime soon? | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Flying anytime soon?

Posted on Thu, Apr 10, 2008 at 10:10 AM

The New York Times sees more big trouble in the next couple of weeks for airline passengers:

By MICHELINE MAYNARD and MATTHEW L. WALD

Air travelers, whose plans have already been disrupted by thousands of canceled flights recently, may face continued chaos in coming weeks as the Federal Aviation Administration and the airlines expand their scrutiny of passenger planes.

Passengers waited in lines at an American Airlines ticket counter at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago on Wednesday.

The groundings at airlines like American, Alaska, Delta and Southwest resulted from a broader round of inspections, ordered by the F.A.A., to determine whether the airlines have complied with past directives to check airplane structures, wires, electronics and other components.

A second wave of audits began on March 30 and will continue through June 30. Laura J. Brown, a spokeswoman for the F.A.A., said it could not rule out further groundings. “We don’t know,” she said. “We find what we find.”

That will do little to reassure travelers, who face difficulties switching to other flights because planes are generally flying full on popular routes.

The agency turned up new problems Monday, when nine MD-80 jets operated by American failed an F.A.A. check, prompting American to ground 300 planes. American canceled more than 1,000 flights on Wednesday, on top of 430 cancellations on Tuesday, while its fleet of MD-80s was inspected.

American Airlines canceled more than 900 flights Thursday to fix faulty wiring in hundreds of jets, The Associated Press reported, and Daniel Garton, an executive vice president of American, said that cancellations could extend into Friday.

Airports hit hardest by the canceled flights were Dallas-Fort Worth International, O’Hare in Chicago and La Guardia.

Yoree Koh, 25, arrived at La Guardia on Wednesday to find her American flight to Chicago had been canceled, meaning she will miss an orientation at Northwestern University. “It basically ruined my week,” she said.


Ms. Koh said she was advised by an American employee to return at 6 a.m. Thursday to join the standby list for a 12:40 p.m. flight. “I’m not holding my breath,” Ms. Koh said.

The F.A.A. and airlines are responding, in part, to heightened scrutiny by Congress, led by Representative James L. Oberstar, Democrat of Minnesota and chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, who is a longtime activist on aviation safety.

Congress’s stance toward the industry has shifted from benevolence after the terrorist attacks in 2001 to a more combative approach after a string of passenger disruptions and recent revelations about lax oversight.

Mr. Oberstar said on Wednesday that his criticism was “an effort to get them back on course, to being the gold standard in the world for aviation safety oversight and maintenance oversight, and to re-establish a safety mind-set and culture with the agency, instead of this coddling of the industry.”

There has not been a crash of a big jet in the United States since an American Airlines plane broke up in flight over Queens in November 2001 — a point repeatedly made by federal administrators and airline executives as proof that the air system is safe.

That attitude could be dangerous, however, Mr. Oberstar said. “Time passes, and ‘Oh, we haven’t had an accident, and now we can be cozy and play patty-cake with the airlines,’ ” he said, describing what he fears could be the attitude of the F.A.A. “As soon as you do that, you lose the enforcement mind-set, and you lose the sense of the margin of safety.”

Travelers are left to grapple with the twin — and now conflicting — desires to have an aviation system that not only is safe and quick to respond to concerns but also gets them to their destinations on time.

On Thursday, a Senate aviation subcommittee will meet to raise safety concerns, one week after a hearing by a House subcommittee into the failure by Southwest to stop flying 40 planes that had not been properly inspected.

The agency has recommended a $10.4 million fine against Southwest, whose co-founder, Herbert D. Kelleher, and chief executive, Gary C. Kelly, were questioned for hours by the subcommittee.

The prospect of such fines and of damage to public confidence is the motivation behind the airlines’ widespread flight cancellations, industry experts said Wednesday.

“The overreaction is unreal,” said a senior executive at one major airline, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the situation.

Mr. Oberstar’s criticism coincides with greater scrutiny of a number of regulators and the industries they oversee, including Wall Street firms.

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