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American Hopes to Resume Full Service By Sunday

American Airlines accelerated inspections and related work Friday to get its MD-80 planes back in service after a nightmare week for the carrier that saw it cancel 3,000 flights over a recurring safety issue, affecting 300,000 travelers.

American Airlines
AP
American Airlines

American, a unit of AMR, said it hoped to have all of its 300 MD-80 aircraft ready to go Saturday afternoon, with expectations it would run its first full daily schedule in nearly a week Sunday.

The new timetable was a change from Thursday, when AMR chief executive Gerard Arpey said it could take several days to run inspections and complete related work that has twice failed to satisfy the requirements of a Federal Aviation Administration safety order.

"Something quickened last night," said American spokesman Tim Wagner of the schedule for getting American back on its feet.

Safety experts largely agree the FAA, despite claims it may have overreacted to politically charged assertions of lax oversight, acted prudently in forcing American to ground planes Tuesday to reinspect and better secure wiring.

The White House also acknowledged the agency's decision- making on safety issues Friday.

Presidential spokesman Scott Stanzel said President Bush has faith in the FAA under acting administrator Robert Sturgell.

"First and foremost we want airline passengers to be safe," Stanzel said.

"We have a safe airline transportation system." Stanzel said Bush will get an update next week at a Cabinet meeting on the state of the airline industry, including safety matters.

WIRES, CLIPS FAA officials were adamant American deserved what it got for failing to ensure that safety concerns with wiring in the right wheel well of MD-80s was properly addressed.

FAA mandated in 2006 that wiring be properly covered and secured to guard against excessive wear, which could trigger electrical shorts and start a fire.

"This is a situation where there is a low risk of an incident, but if there is an incident it has high consequences. You can lose the entire plane. That's why these inspections are important," said FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown.

Safety officials have paid closer attention to aircraft wiring since TWA Flight 800 was lost over the Atlantic Ocean in 1996.

Investigators believe a wiring short triggered a catastrophic fuel tank explosion.

Peter Goelz, the former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) during that investigation, said investigators found fine metal filings over the years had slipped into the wire bundles and caused dangerous wear, or chafing in the ill-fated Boeing Co 747.

"That surprised investigators and caused real concern," he said.

But American has noted the FAA directive originally gave airlines 18 months to complete inspections and related work -- not an emergency.

Arpey said the airline tried in good faith to meet the standard that American thought FAA wanted.

The FAA revisited the issue in recent weeks as part of an industrywide review of compliance with its directives that grew out of severe congressional criticism about its oversight of Southwest Airlines and how that airline knowingly flew planes overdue for a structural inspection.

The FAA proposed a $10.2 million fine against Southwest.

NO WIRE WEAR Arpey said inspections of its MD-80s in late March showed no dangerous wire wear, but the airline was still forced to reinspect the planes, most of them aging, and redo incomplete work.

It canceled hundreds of flights at that time.

The FAA said a sampling of planes examined this week by inspectors in a follow-up to the March work again showed non compliance and American was forced to put down its MD-80s, perform new work and have each plane inspected.

A key question is whether American correctly interpreted the FAA's complex safety directive, which was boiled down by airline maintenance personnel so mechanics could more easily understand what needed to be done.

One key discrepancy, according to the airline, involves the direction of small clips that help secure narrow wire bundles in the wheel well -- near the fuel system.

Arpey said American "failed to get it right," but sought more time from the FAA to comply and was denied.

He was certain the issue was important, but not an imminent threat. He does not blame his mechanics.