American Airlines Grounds Hundreds of Flights

American Airlines cancels more than one-third of its daily flight schedule Wednesday as more inspections of wiring are conducted. The flight cancellations are creating backups for passengers.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The main thing soaring today for American Airlines was the number of angry passengers. The airline spent another day making sure the wiring in some of its jets meet standards set by the Federal Aviation Administration. In doing so, American has cancelled more than a thousand flights with another 900 to be canceled Thursday.

NPR's Cheryl Corley traveled to O'Hare Airport to see how passengers there were coping.

CORLEY: The departure flight boards at O'Hare tell the story with cancelled destinations highlighted in bright yellow - Dallas, Fort Worth, New York, Rochester, Phoenix, Indianapolis, Boston, the list goes on and on. Judy and John Walker(ph), traveling with friends to Tel Aviv via New York and London, were lucky to be able to book a flight on another airline.

Mr. JOHN WALKER: When we have the ticket in our hand, then we'll be a little more comfortable.

CORLEY: For pharmaceutical manager Karen Bowen(ph), the enormous lines snaking around O'Hare were a bit of deja vu. In trying to get back to Dallas, her flight had been cancelled twice.

Ms. KAREN BOWEN: So I was thinking it's the weather and then we found out it wasn't the weather, it was, you know, mechanical things. And so now, I've been cancelled again. So I figured I'll get home, you know, maybe Saturday.

CORLEY: American operates about 2,300 flights a day, more than a third with MD-80 jets. Those are the planes American began abruptly grounding yesterday. According to American, what's at issue is the spacing and direction of cords used to secure bundles of wire that are stowed in the wheel wells near an auxiliary hydraulic system.

The Federal Aviation Administration began cracking down on airlines after admitting its inspectors were too lax last year with Southwest Airlines. This is American's second bout with inspections-related cancellations in less than two weeks. While the airline says it was a matter of compliance not safety, passenger Karen Bowen wasn't so sure.

Ms. BOWEN: It's indicative of the industry right now. We saw Southwest get raked over the coals and now American is going through it and then it'll probably be United or Delta after this. And, I think, it's unfortunate for the travelers, because we get stuck in, you know, inconvenience. But, you know, I'd rather be alive on the ground than not.

CORLEY: Hector Tusera(ph) says he'd rather be safe too, but he's not pleased with the inspections routine that has cancelled his flight.

Mr. HECTOR TUSERA (Traveler): All of sudden yesterday, out of nowhere, all flights cancelled. Why wasn't this done two weeks ago when the warning was out, when they did the same thing?

CORLEY: As the lines at O'Hare Airport crept slowly forward, agents tried to placate travelers with juice and cookies.

Ms. MEAGAN HEWITT(ph) (Traveler): We just got handed some snacks and we're trying to be patient, trying to get to California today.

CORLEY: But Meagan Hewitt says it would take more than snacks to soothe her and others waiting in line. With that in mind, American Airlines' president apologized again today and said the company would compensate passengers who stayed overnight somewhere other than their final destination.

At O'Hare, American Airlines spokeswoman, Mary Frances Fagan, said the company was doing its best to book passengers on American Eagle or other airlines willing to honor American's tickets.

Ms. MARY FRANCES FAGAN (Spokeswoman, American Airlines): Will some people not get where they want to go? Absolutely, and I'm awfully sorry. I'm terribly sorry, but the airline needs to make sure it's in compliance with FAA standards. Safety is very important to us and that's what we have to do.

CORLEY: So that means as the inspections continue, so does the nightmare for thousands of passengers.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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