Jets grounded, travelers fume

Thousands of passengers left in the lurch after airlines cancel hundreds of flights

April 11, 2008|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,Sun reporter

With her pink cell phone practically glued to her left ear, Renee Matos stood in the Baltimore airport yesterday tapping her foot and praying that the Southwest Airlines agent on the line would come through. They had to get her home to San Antonio that night.

American Airlines wasn't in any position to do it.

The company grounded more than 900 flights yesterday - on top of the 1,550 since Tuesday - so it could inspect and repair wiring on its planes. And executives said it would cancel about 570 more flights today, with more postponements tomorrow.

Such cancellations are becoming commonplace in the airline industry, which has been canceling flights in recent weeks because of safety issues, regulatory concerns and financial problems. And with peak vacation season right around the corner - and an already abysmal record of delays in 2007 - things aren't looking good for summer travel, so many fliers aren't happy.

"It's frustrating, especially being six months pregnant," said Matos, a 28-year-old pediatrician.

She was now click-clacking her way in high-heeled boots with her suitcase trailing behind over to the Southwest ticket counter at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

American gave her a refund for the canceled flight to Dallas, and Matos was about to squeeze onto one of the few open Southwest flights going in her direction. Most others were booking up fast with jilted American Airlines passengers, the ticketing agent told her.

But it's not just an American thing. Last month, Southwest had to cancel about 4 percent of its flights to catch up on plane inspections. Last week, United Airlines canceled flights because of safety issues. Then yesterday, Midwest Airlines joined American in grounding planes to look at their wiring, idling about a dozen aircraft.

At a Senate committee hearing yesterday, a government watchdog said the mass cancellations are in part the government's fault because it ignored whistleblowers' complaints about maintenance.

Those canceled flights are part of the "cascading effect" across the industry since the Federal Aviation Administration acknowledged lapses in its oversight of Southwest Air Lines, said Transportation Department Inspector-General Calvin Scovel.

Congress is investigating whether the FAA is adequately overseeing airline safety, though the industry's turmoil isn't limited to its equipment. Cash-strapped airlines are increasingly shutting down and filing for bankruptcy protection, with Aloha Airgroup Inc. filing last month and ATA Airlines and Skybus Airlines last week.

"It's pretty bad from a customer service standpoint," said Curtis Drake, a 33-year-old sales and marketing guy from Minneapolis. He flies a lot for work and cringes whenever he hears about canceled flights stranding thousands. But he also knows there's not much he can do about it.

"I'm at the mercy of the airlines," he said.

Each time flights remain on the ground, the airlines go into crisis mode to accommodate passengers. And yesterday was no different, said BWI spokesman Jonathan Dean. American called off four flights to Dallas from BWI yesterday, and agents were working double time to make it up to customers.

But it was little consolation for many, who said that the situation could have been avoided if maintenance plans had been followed.

Still, George Ramsey, 42, took the situation in stride. The Silver Spring resident was on his way to New Orleans for work and hadn't arranged for his flight yet. And he wasn't worried if it didn't work out.

"I'd rather be inconvenienced than fly in an unsafe plane," he said.

In general, the reaction was more one of annoyance than fear at BWI, though all the talk of missed safety checks and grounded planes was enough to give fliers such as Monica Amona of Washington the jitters. She and her family were on their way to Nigeria on holiday, and the last thing she wanted to think about was mechanical worries.

"I don't feel safe because of all the inspections," said Amona, 44. "They didn't do the inspections when they should have."

And then there were the Waldrons - a Columbia couple on their way to Tampa, Fla. Their American flight had been delayed in New York, they said, so they decided to board a Southwest plane that was leaving earlier - even though the flight cost $200 more.

"It actually worked out better for us," said Debbie Waldron, 41.

They were in the minority.

Chris Engle's flight home to San Diego was first canceled Wednesday, which meant he had to spend an extra night in Maryland. And yesterday, successive delays disrupted his plans again: He had to fly to Los Angeles, spend the night, then get home early this morning, a good 36 hours late. But at least American was paying for his room.

"Hopefully, they give me a good hotel," said Engle, a 23-year-old filmmaker.

Janet Linhart, 57, was flying on Southwest back to her home in Chicago, but she sympathized with colleagues who were stranded by American. That's why she drives if a destination is less than six hours away.

"Flying's a hassle," she said. "Sometimes it's just easier to drive."

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

Wire reports contributed to this article.

U.S. flights canceled by American

460

Tuesday

1,094

Wednesday

900+

Yesterday

Other problems

March 12: Southwest Airlines grounds 38 Boeing 737s; inspections of fuselages

March 27: Delta grounds 275 flights; problems with wire bundling in MD-80s

March 26-27: American Airlines cancels more than 400 flights; MD-80s inspected

April 2: United Airlines grounds 52 Boeing 777s; inspections of cargo fire-suppression systems

Yesterday: Alaska Airlines cancels 11 flights, after canceling 28 a day earlier, to inspect MD-80s; Midwest Airlines grounds 13 MD-80s for inspection

[Sources: American Airlines, Associated Press]

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