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Q&A | Airline cancellations

Airline says planes flying by weekend

TAMPA — Their patience worn thin as another 21 flights to and from Tampa were grounded on Thursday, airline passengers finally got a glimpse of a less grating future.

American Airlines expected to have all 300 of its grounded aircraft flying by Saturday night. Its regular flight schedule, which has suffered about 2,500 cancellations since Tuesday, could resume as early as Sunday.

The cancellations, sparked by Federal Aviation Administration concern about possible electrical fires in the wings of MD-80 jets, were the industry's worst in at least 30 years, if you exclude the Sept. 11 attacks and severe weather, said Alan Bender, a professor of airline economics and operations at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.

As of Thursday, the troubles at American had stranded about 270,000 passengers. Midwest, Delta and Alaska airlines had the same problem, but to a lesser degree. Two Midwest Airlines flights between Tampa International Airport and Milwaukee were scrubbed.

"There's been nothing of this magnitude since the early jet era of the 1960s and '70s," when engines were less reliable," Bender said.

The cost to American Airlines in hotel bills, refunds and vouchers will run into tens of millions of dollars. But hundreds of passengers deprived of flights at Tampa International on Thursday continued to ask the $64,000 question: Couldn't the airlines have given them advance notice of delays?

Linda Johnston, heading to Dallas for a real estate conference, took the precaution of checking her flight status online before going to the airport. Nothing indicated trouble ahead.

"We printed the boarding passes no problem," she said. "Then we arrived."

Showing up at 7:45 a.m., she discovered her flight had been scrubbed. She scrambled to make new travel arrangements.

Other passengers waiting for makeup flights because of Wednesday's 19 cancellations, worried the same thing would happen again at a moment's notice.

All Ian and Barbara Bullock wanted was to get back to the United Kingdom. Their flight had been canceled 35 minutes before boarding.

"It's the not knowing if the flight is delayed," Barbara Bullock said. "Fingers crossed."

In large, regulated businesses like American Airlines, the nation's largest carrier, cancellations due to mechanical flaws are hard to predict, said David Field, U.S. editor of Airline Business magazine.

"American doesn't always know when an airplane will be allowed back in service by the FAA," Field said. "My understanding is there's no natural line of communication between guys on the floor of the hangar and folks on the front line dealing with customers."

As on Wednesday, 19 American Airlines flights were canceled on Thursday. Most were to and from Chicago and Dallas. The addition of the two canceled Midwest Airlines flights made a total of 21. No Delta flights involving Tampa were canceled.

The airplane at the center of the controversy, the MD-80, is a twin engine, single-aisle jet that seats about 150. Most were built by McDonnell-Douglas in the 1980s, before the company merged with Boeing in the 1990s.

"These were built during the early Reagan administration, which for an airplane is middle aged," Field said. "They have a universal reputation as a solid, pleasant, robust airplane."

American Airlines executives assumed they had fixed the wiring problems in their MD-80s two weeks ago, when they canceled more than 400 flights to inspect and in some cases fix the shielding around the wires.

But this week, FAA inspectors, who have been stepping up oversight of airplane maintenance, said 15 of 19 American jets they examined flunked. The airline had no choice but to ground all 300 of its MD-80s, the most common jet in its 655-plane fleet.

"This is kind of a spanking, and that's certainly better than an accident," said James Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

On Thursday, American's executive vice president Daniel Garton apologized for the foul up and vowed that the airline would fix the problem this time.

"We simply cannot put our customers through this again," he said.

Information from Times wires was included in this report. James Thorner can be reached at (813) 226-3313 or thorner@sptimes.com.

When will flight schedules return to normal?

American Airlines said 130 of its 300 questionable MD-80s had completed inspections and were back in service Thursday. That number should rise to 210 by tonight and by Saturday night, all 300 MD-80s are expected to be in service. But other airlines could be cited for noncompliance through June, when the FAA's current round of inspections ends.

What exactly is this wing wiring everyone keeps talking about?

In 2006, the FAA ordered stepped up inspections of bundles of wires in the backup power system for the fuel pump of the MD-80. The FAA says improperly bundled wires could rub, leading to electrical shorts or even fire in the 25-year-old jets. No such fires have occurred.

Why can't airlines switch to another make of aircraft when one type of plane is grounded?

In lean financial times airlines don't keep many spare planes sitting around hangars. What's more, union rules require pilots be informed in advance what type of aircraft they'll be flying for the upcoming month.

Why don't passengers learn about cancellations until the last minute?

Blame airline bureaucracy. Mechanics inspecting planes in hangars don't communicate directly with the boarding agents who handle customers. Add the extra layer of governmental intervention from the FAA, and cancellations aren't always predictable.

What should I do if I have a flight?

Monitor airline news for more cancellations and check with the airline the night before you fly. Check again two hours before you leave for the airport. Airlines try to call passengers to alert them when a flight has been canceled. All airlines will send an e-mail alert if you signed up for advance flight notification on their Web site.

Airline says planes flying by weekend 04/10/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 11, 2008 1:35pm]

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