Wary air travelers have one more thing to worry about after American Airlines stranded more than 110,000 travelers Wednesday by grounding almost half of its domestic schedule.
The specter of broader flight cancellations will hang over the airline industry through this spring.
That's because after grounding 2,300 flights on five carriers over the past month, the Federal Aviation Administration said its stepped-up scrutiny of wiring inside the wings of MD-80 aircraft will not be complete until June 30. Meanwhile, American, which had only 30 of its 300 MD-80s flight-ready by midmorning Wednesday, warned there would be 900 more cancellations today, after Wednesday's 1,094.
Alaska Airlines grounded three flights on Tuesday and 14 Wednesday after a failed MD-80 inspection. Delta Air Lines canceled two dozen flights Wednesday and may cancel more today.
American uses the MD-80 as the workhorse of its fleet, so it has been more exposed to potential cancellations. The FAA's industrywide safety audit wants to know why some MD-80s that failed wiring safety inspections were still flying.
Southwest grounded more than 40 Boeing 737s and canceled 126 flights last month and faces a $10-million FAA fine for flying dozens of planes in 2007 that had not been properly inspected for fuselage cracks. After complaints from an underling of lax standards and bosses getting "too cozy" with Southwest maintenance people, a North Texas FAA inspection supervisor was transferred Monday to administrative duties, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Southwest suspended three employees pending an internal investigation.
Wednesday's cancellations were announced early in the morning, leaving many passengers to learn they faced a long day only upon arrival at many airports. Those with nonrefundable tickets had little choice but to wait for the airline to decide their fate.
"It would have been good to know in advance," said Bishop Bernard Jordan, a Harlem minister with 4-million frequent flyer miles trying to get from Dallas to Atlanta, where he was scheduled to preach. "I would have booked another airline."
Even checking in at 4 a.m. for a 7 a.m. flight didn't help Doug and Mary Berryes, a couple from the Villages retirement community near Orlando, whose two-week Italian vacation got off to an inauspicious start.
Their Tampa International flight wasn't canceled. But American changed their itinerary, sentencing them to the end of a line with 200 frustrated American passengers whose flights were grounded.
American, still recovering from canceling 460 flights for the same reason on Tuesday, took the blame for the mess. It agreed to pay for airport meals and up to $400 in travel vouchers for canceled flights and hotel bills for travelers stranded overnight.
"We apologize for the inconvenience," said Gerard Arpey, chairman and CEO of Dallas-based American. "We will do whatever it takes to assist those affected, and our employees will help ensure we remain their choice for air travel."
The prospect of more cancellations for passengers comes on the heels of the latest report on airline quality that said 2007 was the worst year ever, and as the airline industry is bracing for more huge losses later this year. Already airlines have been jacking up fares to pay higher fuel bills, trimming threadbare amenities and canceling or delaying more flights than ever by shifting more airline carrying capacity to regional carriers that fly smaller planes.
At Tampa International, long ticketing lines snaked back to the escalators Wednesday after American canceled seven of its 20 departures and 10 of its 20 arrivals at Tampa.
Most flights affected in Tampa were to American hubs in Dallas and Chicago, along with one flight to St. Louis. American flies about 2,800 seats in and out of Tampa daily.
Tuesday night, American stranded about 500 people at the airport thanks to earlier cancellations.
Dan McClain, 52, a lawyer from Dallas, came to Tampa to visit family for three days. He already had waited one day for a flight back to Texas and was still in Tampa Wednesday afternoon.
"It looks like maybe it might be tomorrow," McClain said. "I just don't want to fly again."
Dave Caputo wore a white back brace and sat in a black vinyl chair across from the American Airline ticket window. He worked at his laptop and waited for new arrangements to get home to Santa Fe.
"You wonder what would those people do in this situation," Caputo, 47, said. "I am finding out firsthand."
While many passengers were stuck, Tim Tata had better luck getting out of Tampa — eventually.
Tata, 55, a businessman from St. Louis, got to the airport an hour early for his 7 a.m. flight. Canceled. He scheduled a noon flight to New York, which would eventually take him to Missouri. Canceled. He was booked on a direct flight. Canceled. Eight hours after getting to the airport, American Airlines booked Tata on a 6 p.m. Delta flight to Cincinnati with a connection to St. Louis. The American attendant asked Tata if he was satisfied.
"Well, I get home today," he said.
Information from the Associated Press and Bloomberg News was used in this report. Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or 727-893-8252.
What should I do?
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, but often they get voice mail. All airlines will send an e-mail alert if you signed up for advance flight notification on their Web site.