STEVE INSKEEP, host:
American Airlines has cancelled more than 3,000 flights since Tuesday when it grounded nearly half its full-size passenger planes. The Federal Aviation Administration says the jetliners hadn't been properly inspected, and several other U.S. carriers have had to cancel flights as well.
To get through all this chaos, airlines are shuffling - they're shuffling passengers, empty planes, mechanics, inspectors, and a lot of paperwork. We have more this morning from Chicago Public Radio's Diantha Parker.
Ms. DIANTHA PARKER (Chicago Public Radio): The American terminal at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport is full of people who've known for a long time their flights are grounded. Hope Carter has known that for two days.
Ms. HOPE CARTER: And 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.
Ms. PARKER: Carter's flight to Austin, Texas was cancelled on Wednesday. She's sitting in a wheelchair with her infant, two-year-old, and four-year-old grandchildren all hitching a ride.
Ms. CARTER: Even when I told them I was handicapped. And then I said my daughter is going to have to come and she has seven kids, a newborn baby, and she said she was really sorry but that was all they could do.
Ms. PARKER: Carter is one of tens of thousands of passengers that American Airlines has been saying sorry to this week. Some of them are standing around an automatic check-in kiosk at O'Hare that Onivi Kotovo(ph) is trying to restart. It crashed trying to process more than 500 cancellations at once.
Mr. ONIVI KOTOVO (Check-in Kiosk Worker): They just stop working. All of a sudden, you can't scan passports anymore so I'm here to reprogram, load the software and have it working.
Ms. PARKER: 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.
Ms. MARY FRANCES FAGAN (American Airlines): I hate to use the word grounded; temporarily not in service is the vernacular I choose to use.
Ms. PARKER: American spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan says there are still a few dozen planes at O'Hare's facility. She says the airline's been sending mechanics here from places like Kansas City and Tulsa.
Ms. FAGAN: Making sure that each airplane meets the very precise, detailed, specific standard of the FAA in order to be in complete and utter compliance with the airworthiness directives.
Ms. PARKER: Planes need to fulfill a number of these airworthiness directives, or ADs, before they're allowed to carry passengers. This AD applies to all airlines and concerns bundles of wires in the wheel wells in a protective plastic sleeve that's covering them.
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.
Mr. NICK LACEY (Former Director of Flight Standards, FAA): So in case there was a spark or fire, it wouldn't leap, you know, over into, you know, there's a lot of hydraulics and fluids in that area.
Ms. PARKER: 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. This could take minutes or hours. Then the work has to be okayed by an inspector and written up before the plane can be pressed back into service.
While Lacey says there wasn't any immediate danger, FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory says any non-compliance, no matter how small, is a safety issue and the alternative is unthinkable.
Ms. ELIZABETH ISHAM CORY (Spokeswoman, FAA): You may be inconvenienced for a few hours, you may be inconvenienced for a day, but you have that day and you'll have another day.
Ms. PARKER: Corey agrees that it's very 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, though she won't say which did and which did not. The nation's largest carrier is still apologizing and saying it hopes to have all its planes back in the air this weekend.
For NPR News, I'm Diantha Parker in Chicago.