American Airlines Expects 900 Cancellations Thursday


AMR's American Airlines canceled more than 900 flights Thursday to fix faulty wiring in hundreds of jets, marking the third straight day of mass groundings as company executives offered profuse apologies and travel vouchers to calm angry customers.

American Airlines aircrafts.
Tony Gutierrez

American, the nation's largest carrier, has now scrubbed more than 2,400 flights since Tuesday, when federal regulators warned that nearly half its planes could violate a safety regulation designed to prevent fires.

That's more than one in three flights canceled over the last three days.

Daniel Garton, an executive vice president of American, said cancellations could extend into Friday.

AMR shares fell $1.15 to $9.17 on Wednesday.

A return to normal operations depends on how quickly mechanics can inspect and fix the wire bundles. Airline spokesman Tim Wagner said late Wednesday afternoon that 60 planes had been cleared to fly, 119 were being worked on, and 121 planes had not yet been inspected.

The fallout could be seen at airport ticket counters, where frustrated customers bickered with American employees, and on the stock market, where shares of American's parent company tumbled more than 11 percent Wednesday.

American estimates that more than 100 passengers would have been on each of those canceled flights. That means a quarter-million people have been inconvenienced this week.

Airline executives said they thought they had fixed the wiring two weeks ago, when they canceled more than 400 flights to inspect and in some cases fix the shielding around the wires in their MD-80 aircraft.

But this week, Federal Aviation Administration inspectors, who have been conducting stepped-up surveys of airline compliance with safety rules called airworthiness directives, said 15 of 19 American jets they examined flunked. That left the airline no choice but to ground all 300 of its MD-80s, the most common jet in American's 655-plane fleet.

AMR Cancels More Flights

"We have obviously failed to complete the airworthiness directive to the precise standards that the FAA requires, and I take full responsibility for that," Gerard Arpey, American's chairman and chief executive, said at an industry event in California.

AMR Facing Big Loss

Back at American's headquarters in Fort Worth, Garton apologized for the snafu and vowed the airline would fix the problem this time.

"We simply cannot put our customers through this again," he said.

Garton added that for American, "this certainly couldn't have come at a worse time." The airline faces record fuel prices and fear of a recession, and analysts forecast that parent AMR lost more than $300 million in the first three months of the year.

American declined to say how much it would spend on $500 travel vouchers and hotel rooms for stranded travelers and overtime for mechanics, or how much revenue it would lose by putting some displaced customers on other airlines. But Garton said it would be "significant."

American's problem -- and Alaska Airlines' cancellation of 14 flights Wednesday to inspect its nine MD-80s -- stems from an FAA order in 2006 covering the bundling of wires in the backup power system for the fuel pump of the MD-80. The FAA says improperly bundled wires could rub, leading to an electrical short or even fire.

American officials said the safety of their planes was never jeopardized, and the FAA said no serious incidents have been blamed on poorly bundled wires.

Some passengers took a jaundiced view toward American's promise to fix the problems.

Kathy Neer of Santa Fe, N.M., was caught up in both waves of cancellations to and from a vacation in Paris. She and her husband were stranded in Dallas on Tuesday on the final leg of their journey home. American gave the Neers a voucher for a hotel room and seats on another flight home Wednesday.

"They say our flight is leaving at 3:55 p.m., but do you think we trust them?" Neer said. "After being burned twice, we're a little skeptical."