Airlines Scramble as Grounded Planes Cause Chaos

American Airlines has canceled thousands of flights this week for safety checks on its passenger planes. The FAA says the jetliners hadn't been properly inspected, and several other U.S. carriers have had to cancel flights as well. To get through the logistical chaos, the airlines are shuffling passengers, empty planes, mechanics, inspectors — and a lot of paperwork.

The American terminal at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport is full of people who knew their flights would be grounded. Hope Carter has known for two days.

"They said that we had to come here to the airport to get everything straightened out, that they wouldn't do it over the phone," she says. Carter's flight to Austin, Texas, was canceled Wednesday. She's sitting in a wheelchair, with her infant, 2-year-old and 4-year-old grandchildren all hitching a ride.

"Even when I told them I was handicapped, and I said my daughter's going to have to come and she has seven kids, a newborn baby, she said she was really sorry but that was all they could do," says Carter, one of tens of thousands of passengers that American Airlines has been apologizing to this week.

Repairing Equipment, Not Relations

Some of them are standing around an automatic check-in kiosk at O'Hare that Onivi Kodovoh is trying to restart. It crashed trying to process more than 500 cancellations at once.

"It stopped working on someone — it couldn't scan passports anymore — so I am here to reprogram, load the software and have it working," Kodovoh says.

American is trying to fix the planes, too. One of the airline's eight maintenance sites is at O'Hare, where some of its MD-80s are being inspected.

"I hate to use the word 'grounded' — 'temporarily not in service' is the vernacular I choose to use," says American spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan. She says a few dozen planes are still at O'Hare's facility. The airline has been sending mechanics from places such as Kansas City and Tulsa to make sure each plane "meets the very precise, detailed, specific standard of the FAA in order to be in complete and utter compliance with the airworthiness directive," Fagan says.

Planes need to fulfill a number of these airworthiness directives, or "ADs," before they are allowed to carry passengers.

This AD applies to all airlines and concerns bundles of wires in the wheel wells and the protective plastic sleeves that cover them.

A Matter of Compliance

The FAA's former director of flight standards, Nick Lacey, says that sleeve is there because the wires in some planes were starting to smoke, "so in case there was a spark or fire, it wouldn't leap over into ... hydraulics and fluids in that area."

Although the fire hazard sounds alarming, Lacey says, it's less about safety than compliance.

A mechanic has to look into the wheel wells of each plane and see if the wires are secured to the sleeve at all the right points. That could take minutes or hours. Then the work has to be approved by an inspector and written up before the plane can be pressed back into service.

While Lacey says there was no immediate danger, FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory says any noncompliance — no matter how small — is a safety issue, and the alternative is unthinkable.

"You may be inconvenienced for a few hours, you may be inconvenienced for a day. But you'll have that day. And you'll have another day," Cory says.

She agrees that it's unusual for the FAA to tell U.S. carriers to do a self-audit but that 99 percent of airlines have passed the first stage. Cory wouldn't say which did and which did not.

The nation's largest carrier is still apologizing and saying it hopes to have all of its planes back in the air this weekend.

Diantha Parker reports from Chicago Public Radio.

Grounded: What's Behind the U.S. Flight Delays?

An American Airlines arrivals list. The airline has canceled around 2,500 flights since Tuesday i i

An American Airlines arrivals list at New York City's LaGuardia Airport on Thursday. Mario Tama/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mario Tama/Getty Images
An American Airlines arrivals list. The airline has canceled around 2,500 flights since Tuesday

An American Airlines arrivals list at New York City's LaGuardia Airport on Thursday.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

American Airlines has canceled thousands of flights since Tuesday, disrupting travel plans for hundreds of thousands of people. Here, a guide to the safety issues involved and how travelers can navigate the disruption.

Why is American canceling so many flights?

American has grounded the flights while it inspects its fleet of MD-80 airplanes to make sure the wiring in the wheel wells is properly protected from chafing. Unprotected wires potentially could result in a short or spark that might ignite, explains Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura J. Brown. "It's a very low-probability risk, but it's an extremely high-consequence issue," she says.

Is this a new safety concern?

No. Brown says the FAA first asked American and other airlines to check the MD-80s in their fleet back in 2006. But the issue took on new urgency in March, when Southwest Airlines got threatened with a penalty of $10 million for continuing to fly while failing to address problems with its fleet of 737s. This prompted the FAA to initiate a check on all U.S. airlines — more than 100 carriers — to ensure that they are complying with the agency's safety directives.

Why are the delays hitting American so hard?

Because it has 300 MD-80s in its fleet — the most by far of any U.S. airline.

Are other airlines canceling flights for safety concerns?

Yes. Alaska, Allegiant Air, Delta and Midwest Airlines also use MD-80s. All of them have canceled flights to check on the wheel-well wiring.

Southwest Airlines previously grounded planes to check on fatigue cracking in its fleet of 737s. The company says it now has no related delays or cancellations. And United voluntarily canceled flights earlier in April to check the fire-suppression system on its 777s.

Are American's canceled flights causing a "domino effect" of delays and cancellations?

No. But a spokesman says Southwest has seen a spike in last-minute bookings — likely from people whose flights were canceled by other carriers.

And even though it filed for bankruptcy protection on Friday, Denver-based Frontier Airlines still expects to operate normally, with no cancellations.

Are flights in other countries also being affected?

"At this point, it doesn't appear to be a widespread problem abroad," says Marisa Thompson, an equity analyst for Morningstar. "The foreign carriers, from what I've seen, have not been dealing with the same types of issues because their fleet is much younger."

If you're planning to fly abroad on a domestic airline, you shouldn't experience the same kind of delays. Thompson says companies like American and United are using younger planes for overseas flights.

What if my flight got canceled?

The vast majority of cancellations have been on American. A notice on American's Web site says travelers whose flights were canceled can request a full refund or rebook. The airline is also allowing customers who were scheduled to fly on any MD-80 flight between April 8 and April 11 to rebook their flight. Passengers must initiate travel by April 17 to avoid paying a fee.

Travelers who had an overnight layover because of a flight cancellation should e-mail American about compensation for hotel stays.

How many travelers have been affected?

At least 250,000 passengers were affected by this week's cancellations on American Airlines alone. The carrier canceled nearly 600 additional flights on Friday, bringing total cancellations for the week to nearly 3,100.

When will the cancellations end?

American said cancellations will continue through Saturday.

Are all these flight delays behind the recent fare increases?

No. A number of airlines increased their fares by substantial margins this week. The fare hikes are an attempt by carriers to pass along more of their costs — especially rising fuel costs — to consumers as they struggle to stay in business.

The higher fares are "unrelated to the main inspections and the grounding of the aircraft," says Chris Mainz, a spokesman for Southwest. "It's a direct result of the record-high fuel costs."

Which airlines raised their fares?

On Friday, American joined the other five major airlines in the U.S. — United Airlines, Delta Airlines, Continental Airlines, Northwest Airlines and U.S. Airways — in raising airfares by up to $30 roundtrip, according to Bestfares.com, a travel Web site that tracks airfares. The most expensive increases are for flights that are coast-to-coast.

Southwest Airlines has raised roundtrip fares $4 and $12.

With reporting by Kathleen Schalch and Joshua Brockman. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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