Could flight disruptions have been avoided?
The FAA didn't give American Airlines the usual amount of time to fix the glitches.
In the middle of the game, the goal posts moved.Skip to next paragraph
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That's how aviation analysts are explaining last week's stunning move by the Federal Aviation Administration that prompted the grounding of all American Airlines' MD-80 jets – the workhorse of that airline. Delta, United, and other airlines also had to ground all their MD-80s.
The result was more than 3,000 flights canceled, an estimated 300,000 passengers delayed or rerouted, tens of millions of dollars in excess costs to the airlines, and many times that to the economy in lost productivity and wages.
The problem was not an imminent safety threat, according to the airlines, but a technical matter of whether wiring bundles in the wheel wells were wrapped and attached as the FAA had specified.
And that's where the rules of And that's where the rules of the game changed. In the past, say airline officials and aviation analysts, the FAA has negotiated time frames – say, two months – for airlines to come into technical compliance with its directives. But recent whistle-blower testimony indicating that the FAA had become too close to the airlines, and thus lax in its oversight, created a new environment.
"The FAA was not in the mood to negotiate anything, just having had its head handed to it by an oversight committee," says aviation consultant Robert Mann of R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, N.Y. "The FAA moved the goal posts and put the airline in an untenable position: flying knowing it was not in compliance and risk huge fines or loss of its license, or [ground its fleet]."
By late Saturday, the FAA had given all of American's MD-80s clearance to fly and the airline has returned to its regular schedule. American's CEO Gerard Arpey "profoundly apologized" to travelers for the inconvenience. But he didn't have much to say about the FAA. At a press conference Thursday, Mr. Arpey simply said that American was "not successful" in its request for more time to address the technical issues, despite the fact that extra time was something that "often happened in the past."
Did FAA overreact?
The FAA decision not to give American more time to come into compliance has led some aviation analysts to suggest that the agency overreacted as a result of political pressure stemming from the recent revelations in Congress. In hearings at the Transportation Committee, frontline FAA inspectors testified they were ignored by superiors, and some were even threatened, when they raised safety issues at Southwest Airlines.
"The FAA didn't need to ground all of those planes, they could have done it on a rotating basis," says Richard Gritta, an aviation economist at the University of Portland. "But they've been asleep at the switch – in bed with the industry, now they're trying to prove they're really a tiger with teeth and I don't buy it."