Airline Mess Leaves Fliers in the Lurch

It's been a rough week for airlines — and for travelers. American Airlines grounded thousands of flights and Frontier became the fourth airline in two months to declare bankruptcy. Aviation expert George Hobica talks to Andrea Seabrook about what passengers can do to protect themselves.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

American Airlines is at last flying at full strength today. The Federal Aviation Administration okayed the safety checks of all but three of the hundreds of planes it grounded earlier this week. That led to more than 3,000 cancelled flights. American Airlines promises normal service by tomorrow.

That's good news for the thousands of travelers who've been stranded, like Hope Carter. She was Chicago's O'Hare Airport trying to get to Austin.

Ms. HOPE CARTER (Stranded Traveler): They wanted to send me to Dallas, and I told her it was three-and-a-half hours to Austin and it would be the same as being in another state.

SEABROOK: Even when American Airlines returns to normal, the industry as a whole will not. Four other airlines have gone bankrupt in the past two months. ATA, Aloha, Skybus and yesterday Frontier Airlines based in Denver. All this means more headaches for weary travelers, like Twila McKee(ph) of New Mexico.

Ms. TWILA MCKEE (Traveler): Now you have to get to the airport so early and you wait and you wait and then the plane's late, your bags don't get where they're supposed to be.

SEABROOK: So, what's a traveler to do? Let's ask George Hobica. He's the creator of Airfarewatchdog.com. It's a Web site that tracks low airfares. He joins us now from our New York bureau. Hi there, George Hobica.

Mr. GEORGE HOBICA (Creator, Airfarewatchdog.com): Hey, how are you?

SEABROOK: So, to get a look at this from the passenger's point of view, let's say you're one of those people who could be stranded later today who has a ticket on American Airlines. What do you tell them to do?

Mr. HOBICA: What they should have done is had a backup plan and I know that's not always what people do. But I were flying in today's environment and I really had to go somewhere, if I had a wedding, an important business meeting, a funeral, a reunion, a cruise, I would buy a backup ticket…

SEABROOK: Really?

Mr. HOBICA: …on another airline. Absolutely. You can buy fully refundable fares. And I would show up with a fully refundable fare on another airline and just have that in my pocket, you know, the same flight times in case my flight on the first airline didn't go anywhere.

And, you know, if all goes well on your original airline then you just ask for a refund.

SEABROOK: When I'm planning to go on a trip, I'm thinking, okay, how do I get the best fare? I'm not thinking, buy two tickets.

Mr. HOBICA: I know, but these are perilous times. You know, this is a whole new world out there. It's the worst situation the airlines have been in in years.

SEABROOK: Is it the same situation of the airline you are flying - say you're flying to Honolulu on Aloha Airlines, which went under last week. What should those passengers do or have done?

Mr. HOBICA: I think a lot of airlines are on the danger list, and people should probably know that. I mean, Frontier Airlines just filed for bankruptcy. And, you know, I say if an airline stock is selling for the same price as the Sunday newspaper, you might want to think twice.

Of course, if somebody had bought a ticket with a credit card, the Federal Fair Credit Billing Act protects. If you buy anything with your credit card and fail to receive it, you'll get your money back.

SEABROOK: So, for those of us who don't travel all the time, what is it like to fly out there?

Mr. HOBICA: Flying these days is no fun. I remember I used to fly with my parents when I was a kid. I remember all the flight attendants were nice and the seats were comfortable. That's gone by the wayside. But what do you expect? You can fly between New York and L.A. for $200. I mean, it's crazy. Adjusted for inflation, that is, you know, 20 years ago, that's like flying, like, $49 roundtrip.

The airlines just don't price their product sufficiently and then what happens is they shortcut maintenance and then they end up with, you know, $10 million worth of fines and, you know, lost revenue.

SEABROOK: You know something that's occurred to me, it seems like American Airlines is taking a lot of flack for canceling all these flights. But at the same time they're also building the brand that they've tried to build in the past for being super concerned with safety precautions.

Mr. HOBICA: If they were super concerned with safety precautions, you know, this would never have happened. Yeah, I don't buy that. I think, you know, a lot of airlines - not necessarily American - outsource their maintenance, they're not spending enough on maintenance, and also the FAA is in bed with a lot of these airlines.

Like, the airlines can choose which FAA inspector they like. Look, airline travel is very, very safe compared to any other mode of travel but we shouldn't take chances.

SEABROOK: George Hobica is the creator of AirfareWatchdog.com. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. HOBICA: Thank you.

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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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