American cancels more than 1,000 flights . . . Carrier inspects wiring on fleet of MD-80 jets; travelers stranded

DALLAS – Cancellations at the nation’s biggest airline continued Wednesday. American Airlines scrapped more than 1,000 flights — nearly half of its scheduled service — as it reinspects wire bundles on its fleet of MD-80 jets. Cancellations on late Tuesday and Wednesday were for the very same issue that affected the airline two weeks ago.

Federal inspectors found problems with wiring work done two weeks ago, although the airline says passenger safety was never jeopardized.

Airline officials said the flights would have averaged more than 100 passengers, meaning that more than 100,000 travelers could have been left scrambling to book new flights.

Tim Wagner, a spokesman for American, said the cancellations could continue beyond Wednesday as the airline works on its fleet of 300 MD-80 jets. By Wednesday morning, only 30 of the planes were back in service.

American uses the MD-80s mostly on mid-range flights, particularly from hub airports in Dallas and Chicago. Wagner said 208 of Wednesday’s cancellations would occur at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and 138 at Chicago O’Hare.

Travelers stranded

At Dallas-Fort Worth, Mike Barnes was wearing the same clothes he had on Tuesday morning when he left San Diego for a business trip to Indianapolis. The trip was interrupted by the sudden midday announcement of cancellations, leading Barnes to call the airline “totally unprepared.”

“If it was safe enough to fly from San Diego to Dallas, why isn’t it safe enough to fly from Dallas to Indianapolis?” asked the 53-year-old information technology consultant.

Clark Totten left San Diego for Raleigh-Durham on Tuesday, but got stuck in Dallas.

“I was delayed in Dallas due to the equipment grounding, spent the night here and came in early to find my flight was again canceled,” Totten said. “I’m trying to either get there or get home.”

Betty Kappler said management knew flights would be canceled, but “they did nothing … nothing.” “We stood in line so long there were no hotels left,” Kappler said.

The cancellations affect more than travelers’ schedules. “This poor lady has a breathing problem … I have diabetes and a foot problem. I’m having a terrible time walking, stumbling, falling,” traveler Ruth Smeltzer said. “I don’t know what to do. We don’t know what to do with ourselves.”

At New York’s LaGuardia Airport, hundreds of passengers stood in a check-in line. The airline offered free doughnuts, coffee and orange juice, but there were few takers. Bishop Bernard Jordan, a Harlem minister, was in a first-class line trying to catch a flight to Atlanta, where he was scheduled to preach Wednesday night. “It would have been good to know in advance,” said Jordan, who said he has 4 million frequent-flier miles with American and flies to Atlanta every other week. “I would have booked with another airline.”

The Fort Worth-based airline said it would put displaced travelers on other American flights or those operated by competitors. Wagner said that because the delays were “within our control” and not weather-related, American was offering meals, lodging and ground transportation to affected travelers.

The airline issued a fresh apology Wednesday from Gerard Arpey, the chief executive of American and its parent, AMR Corp. Arpey said American “will do whatever it takes” to help affected customers, including compensating those who stayed overnight somewhere other than their final destination.

The Fort Worth-based carrier said it would put displaced travelers on other American flights or those operated by competitors. Wagner said that because the delays were “within our control” and not weather-related, American was offering meals, lodging and ground transportation to those affected. American operates about 2,300 daily flights, more than one-third with MD-80s.

It was American’s second bout with mass cancellations in less than two weeks for failing to meet the same wiring rules set by the Federal Aviation Administration, which is cracking down on airlines after admitting its inspectors were too lax last year with Southwest Airlines Co.

Since the FAA began looking more closely at airlines’ compliance with safety directives, there have been cancellations at Southwest, Delta Air Lines Inc. and UAL Corp.’s United Airlines. The agency levied a $10.2 million civil penalty against Southwest for using planes that had missed inspections for cracks in the fuselage.

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