Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Meltdown At American Airlines

Half of American Airlines' flight schedule collapsed today as the troubled airline said it had canceled more than 1,000 flights for the day because of problems associated with safety inspections of its MD80 fleet of aircraft.

At 6.30 p.m. Central time, American had canceled 1,092 of its 2,262 scheduled departures. Only 865 flights had departed, and they were running at a 57 percent ontime arrival rate nationally -- all according to

Additional cancellations were expected through the evening.

It was the second day of massive flight cancellations by American over the MD80 safety-inspection problem. Yesterday, American canceled issue 495 flights. American had said it expected some cancellations today as it continued inspections on the MD80s, but gave no indication yesterday of the magnitude of the disruptions ahead.

And more bad news may be ahead for fliers: severe thunderstorms are forecast.

Here's a rather dire report on Egad! Lookit that nasty red blotch hovering over North Texas where American lives. Some days you just can't catch a break.

Severe weather would, of course, affect other airlines besides American. But American, the world's largest carrier, is already on the operational ropes because of its own problems with sidelined, out-of-position airplanes and crews -- not to mention frustrated, furious passengers unable to fly and, in many cases, unable to get out of airports.

Today, the American Web site continues to insult passengers' intelligence by playing down the chaos, as if no one knew the reality. "Aircraft inspections affect some AA travel," it says breezily, adding that a mere "several hundred flights" have been canceled in the last two days. Read it for yourself. [Update: They fiddled with the language after I first linked to this earlier today. Now it says that "a portion" of the schedule has been canceled, rather than "several hundred flights." The current version also has some customer-service information that wasn't there earlier today]

With its dearth of honest information on its Web site, American officials show that they just don't understand how a world has changed. They're relying on techniques that maybe worked back in the glory days of the New York Central Railroad: Send the PR guy out after the train wreck to jolly up the house reporters and get the best spin on things. The house reporters, after all, do in fact need their stinking badges for access.


"American Fixes Its MD80s" -- The Dallas Morning News, today's online headline ...

"American Airlines Offers Vouchers, Reimbursements to Passengers" -- The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, today's online headline ...

But the world don't always work the way it used to, boys.

And oh, here's a real PR coup, showing an American spokesman handling questions from a TV reporter. American: Get. A. Grip.

Much better executed is an honest American Airlines press release that went out not long ago on the PR Newswire. Then again, American's customers don't usually consult the PR Newswire. This is what they should have put on line, where the customers go.

For the second straight day, tens of thousands of American Airlines passengers -- current estimates are that 100,000 passengers overall have been affected -- have been left scrambling for re-accommodations. Those flying from American's hubs at Dallas/Fort Worth and Chicago O'Hare were most affected yesterday and this morning. American flight cancellations also were mounting at New York LaGuardia today.

The flight cancellations were caused by continuing problems with the re-inspection of American's fleet of 300 aging MD80 line of aircraft.

American has now canceled over 1,500 flights in less than 24 hours. That is by any definition an operational catastrophe, with perhaps serious consequences for the financial footing of the world's largest carrier.

Anyone with plans to fly American today and tomorrow, and perhaps for the rest of this week, needs to do some serious contingency planning, or simply bail out.

Yesterday, American abruptly started canceling a large number of flights in mid-afternoon after ramp inspections on 9 MD80 at Dallas/Fort Worth showed problems in compliance with a previous FAA safety directive regarding bundled wiring near a fuel tank. In late March, American yanked the 300 MD80s off line, cancelling hundreds of flights, on the same issue.

By the end of the day yesterday, American had canceled 495 of the 2,172 total flights it had scheduled for the day. Tens of thousands of passengers were tossed into a chaotic scramble for re-accommodations that continues today.

American’s 300 aging MD80s are the medium-range workhorse of its mainline fleet, which numbers 655 aircraft.

Airline maintenance and safety-inspections issues have grounded well over 1,500 flights on a half-dozen airlines in the last two weeks, after a disruption at Southwest airlines during which FAA safety inspectors were charged with overlooking maintenance problems, partly because of fear that they would be disciplined if the airline complained.

The FAA’s cozy relationship with airlines — the FAA routinely refers to airlines as its “customers” — has become a national scandal.

In a letter released yesterday, the House Committee on Transportation rebuked three FAA officials who had testified before the committee last week for providing “inaccurate and misleading information” about airline safety inspections and procedures. The letter also grumbles about the FAA’s habit of referring to airlines as its “customers.”


It’s signed by three ranking committee members. [The loquacious John L. Mica, the Florida Republican who is usually the first to board any bullet-train for publicity, did not sign the letter.]

By the way, the FAA testimony was given under oath. Used to be, Congress would do more than whine about being jerked around by witnesses under oath.

---Meanwhile, following these mounting flight cancellations for two days feels like being trapped in a public television station fund drive. Can we hit 1,000 cancellations today? Hit 1,000 and you get an AA-logo amenities kit and a Gerard Arpey bobble-head doll!


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