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Just as regulators face questions about their oversight of financial markets, regulators face questions about their oversight of airlines. After a scandal, the government intensified its inspections of commercial planes, and that explains why American Airlines is canceling hundreds of flights day after day. NPR's Kathleen Schalch reports.
KATHLEEN SCHALCH: It's the biggest disruption yet. Evelyn Richards and Skip Ackerman were among the more than 100,000 passengers stranded yesterday. They were stuck at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. They told NPR it was better to be safe than sorry.
Ms. EVELYN RICHARDS: Well, I think they better take every precaution they can.
Mr. SKIP ACKERMAN: But they should have done it a long time ago, before I was trying to catch a flight.
SCHALCH: American is re-inspecting its fleet for wiring problems in the wheel wells. American spokesman Charlie Wilson called it a technicality.
Mr. CHARLIE WILSON (American Airlines Spokesman): And this is related to the bundling of some wires in the wheel well of the MDA-80 aircraft, and also the direction of how some clasps were facing. We felt like we addressed it two weeks ago.
SCHALCH: But FAA inspectors checked for themselves and disagreed.
Mr. LES DORR (FAA Spokesman, Washington): When we issue an Airworthiness Directive with very specific instructions, we do that for a reason.
SCHALCH: Les Dorr is a spokesman for the FAA in Washington. He says bundles of wires have to be secured properly, or they could rub against each other and cause an electrical arc to jump from a wire.
Mr. DORR: It's possible that could cause a fire within the wheel well itself.
SCHALCH: The heightened security has come since last month, when the FAA admitted that it had allowed Southwest Airlines to fly planes that had missed required inspections. American's Charlie Wilson says the airlines used to have more leeway to interpret the FAA's safety rules.
Mr. WILSON: However, in recent weeks, we feel like that leeway is not built into the process and we don't want to - we don't want go over the line.
SCHALCH: Other airlines are feeling the same way. Delta and Alaska Airlines also cancelled dozens of flights yesterday over the same wiring issue, and these are just the latest in a rash of recent groundings. Lawmakers have noticed. Minnesota Democrat Jim Oberstar, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, listed some of them.
Representative JAMES OBERSTAR (Democrat, Minnesota): United Airlines grounds its entire triple seven fleet for further inspections, Delta Airlines grounds its MD-88s for further inspections, Northwest holds back its 757s for slats inspections, and Southwest grounds another 38 aircraft for further inspections.
SCHALCH: At a hearing last week, Oberstar accused the FAA of allowing the airlines to police themselves, putting the public at risk. Acting FAA Administrator Bobby Sturgell insists his agency is being vigilant. He says its recently completed audit found a 99 percent compliance rate.
Mr. BOBBY STURGELL (FAA Administrator): What this means is that the fact that we are currently experiencing the safest period in aviation history is no accident or miracle.
SCHALCH: He also defended his agency's approach to uncovering potential safety problems. It asks airlines to report them. If they come forward, they're usually not punished. Sturgell says the FAA can't be everywhere and needs the airlines' help.
Mr. STURGELL: Silence puts the public at risk. Without these programs, we will drive safety issues underground, and that is a result we cannot afford.
SCHALCH: But critics like Oberstar say the pendulum has swung too far in favor of collaboration and away from enforcement. Now they say both the FAA and the airlines are scrambling to come clean. American says it will hire an outside company to check compliance. And in the meantime, it's paying for meals, hotels, and doing the best it can to get stranded passengers on their way.
Kathleen Schalch, NPR News, Washington.
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