CHICAGO — Airlines scrambling amid increased regulatory scrutiny to ensure safety have caused a wave of schedule disruptions.
The latest complication came Wednesday, when United Airlines temporarily grounded dozens of Boeing 777s to test their cargo fire-suppression systems. Testing was expected to be completed today. The planes fly mostly from Chicago O'Hare, Denver, Washington Dulles, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
United said it canceled 41 flights and delayed dozens of others as it carried out work on the long-haul jets after a review of maintenance records showed that a test hadn't been performed.
The move affected thousands of passengers around the world, as United's 777s mostly fly international routes from its major hubs. Among those grounded was a 777 used by many members of the White House press corps, who were traveling with President Bush in Romania — though it wasn't set to fly again until Friday.
Schedule foulups due to inspections have been commonplace since early March, including hundreds of flights canceled last week by American Airlines and Delta Air Lines as they checked wiring bundles on some planes. Stepped-up inspections began when the Federal Aviation Administration ordered a check of maintenance records at all domestic carriers after revelations surfaced about missed safety inspections at Southwest Airlines Co.
The FAA said Wednesday that four U.S. airlines are under investigation for failing to comply with federal aviation regulations, but it would not name the carriers. Officials said three airlines had missed inspection deadlines and that penalties could be levied, though it will be several months before the investigation is complete.
Industry experts warned that passengers can expect more headaches as the FAA and airlines work to guarantee safety amid the rise in air travel — though federal officials are quick to note that this has been one of the safest periods in aviation history.
"The bottom line is … flying is safer today than at anytime in the past," acting FAA administrator Robert Sturgell said Wednesday. "It's no accident or miracle."
The last U.S. crash of a jumbo jet was Nov. 12, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587 lost part of its tail and plummeted into a New York City neighborhood, killing 265 people.
Independent airline consultant Robert Mann said that while the issue with the 777s should have been detected beforehand, passengers shouldn't be worried about the increased maintenance glitches.
"It's clearly inconvenient for passengers, but it's a matter of the system working as designed," he said. "Carriers are now being prompted to check their own records and check the facts vs. the records, and the FAA is doing the same thing from its end."