Was Airline Chaos Avoidable?

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Peter Wynn Thompson / New York Times / Redux

Passengers wait on a long ticket line at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago on April 10, 2008.

Here's a little secret about inspecting an airplane: it only takes a few days to do it, and airlines routinely take planes out of service to check them without stranding hundreds of thousands of passengers or costing themselves tens of millions of dollars.

So why are both of those things happening in the current airlines' chaos? Did the friendly skies suddenly become too dangerous to fly? Not at all. The massive flight cancellations at American Airlines — about 1,200 flights, more than half of its daily schedule, affecting 273,000 passengers after the Federal Aviation Administration ordered the carrier to ground 300 planes for inspection — are the aviation equivalent of a traffic cop behind on his quota blanketing a street with tickets to avoid catching heat from his sergeant. Woe unto thee unlucky enough to double park.

The cop in this scenario is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The agency responsible for policing the safety of the nation's airlines has been under intense pressure over the last few weeks, ever since an investigation by the House Transportation Committee revealed in March that an FAA supervisor allowed Southwest Airlines to fly 46 planes that had missed inspections. Congress has been holding hearings on aviation safety, during which Robert Sturgell, the FAA's acting administrator, who is up for the permanent position, has had to answer charges, from whistle-blowers and lawmakers, of excessive coziness with and lax oversight of the nation's commercial carriers.

And so he did, by ordering American, the nation's largest carrier by revenue, to ground all of its MD-80s after finding that their wiring wasn't fastened precisely according to FAA rules. No one, including the FAA, is saying that any of these planes were unsafe to fly. But rather than allow American to ground a few planes at a time and phase in the fixes and re-inspections (as it had done just two weeks earlier), the FAA chose to ground all the planes at once. The agency has said that it's simply enforcing the rules, and American's CEO, Gerald Arpey, has been careful to avoid any criticism of the FAA. (A spokesman for the airline would only say that American would follow the rules "to every jot and fiddle.") Industry observers have not been so shy. "They were making a statement to the traveling public," says Rick Seaney, CEO of Farecompare.com, a travel website.

The consequence of this abundance of caution is a disruption that Seaney compares to "22 snowstorms in the middle of spring." American, like just about every major airline in the U.S. these days, is flying packed planes and fewer of them. Knock out half of its schedule, and there's nowhere for those passengers to go because other carriers don't have the empty seats to absorb them. American handed out $500 travel vouchers to passengers who had simply given up.

The canceled flights and compensation add up, but this won't be a knockout punch for American, which expects to be back to normal service by Sunday. A much bigger worry for every airline is fuel costs, which have doubled over the last year. That's what's behind the troubles of ATA, Skybus, Aloha and Frontier Airlines, which have all filed for bankruptcy protection within the last three weeks. The FAA is continuing its by-the-book campaign with audits of other airlines, but there may not be another inspection-related shutdown of this magnitude anytime soon, since no other carrier is as dependent on the MD-80 as American. Having made its point to the industry, the FAA can still choose to allow airlines (particularly those in more precarious financial health than American) to take just a few planes out of service at a time for inspections rather than going through another round of mass cancellations.

Unfortunately, stricter enforcement by the FAA — something that passenger advocates certainly welcome — will not necessarily mean a better summer travel season. Airlines are under even greater cost pressure than they were last summer, when one in three flights suffered delays. And changing the culture of the FAA so it's less reliant on airline self-regulation, as the Department of Transportation's Inspector General recommended this week, will require significantly increased funding for inspectors — something that's unlikely to happen by Memorial Day. Kate Hanni, who became an outspoken activist for a still-pending passenger's bill of rights after being stuck for hours on a notorious American Airlines flight in December 2006, says this week's upheaval has only been a reminder of what travelers in the U.S. have learned to put up with. "After a while, when you don't get anything you ask for, you get resigned to it."