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A CRISIS OF CANCELLATIONS
By Joe Brancatelli
March 27, 2008, 11:15 PM ET -- It's been another very bad day on the road for American and Delta flyers.

As of 11 PM ET, FlightStats.com reported that American Airlines had so far cancelled 7 percent of the 2,199 mainline flights scheduled for today. Moreover, 318 flights had been "excessively" delayed. (That is a flight that operates more than 45 minutes late.) That's almost 17 percent of the mainline flights that American has so far managed to get in the air today.

At Delta Air Lines, FlightStats reported that the carrier has so far dumped 242 of its 1,656 scheduled mainline flights. That's 14.6 percent of the mainline schedule. Almost 12 percent of the 1,326 flights that have gotten into the air today operated at least 45 minutes late.

We are also getting a sense of what has gone awry with the MD-80/88/90 aircraft that Delta and American are reinspecting. According to the Chicago Tribune, the airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration are checking to make sure that wire bundles in the aircraft wheel wells are secured with clips set one inch apart. According to the Chicago paper, the FAA says "loose or chafed wires could cut off power to hydraulic lines or even spark a fire or explosion."

MARCH 27, 8:20 PM ET: NATURALLY...
You knew this was coming, right? What else are Delta and American airlines doing this week besides canceling hundreds of flights and inconveniencing tens of thousands of travelers? Raising fees and fares, of course. Late this afternoon, Delta announced another $10 roundtrip increase in the domestic fuel surcharge. And American indicated that it would begin charging $25 for checking a second bag, a fee already announced or adopted by United, US Airways and Delta Air Lines. We know this because American filed a required 45-day notice of the charge with the Canadian government.

MARCH 27, 6:15 PM ET: LIAR, LIAR, AIRLINE ON FIRE!
It's taken American Airlines almost 48 hours and Delta Air Lines almost 24 hours, but they've both finally gotten around to admitting they've got a cancellation problem.

A five-line "explanation" is now appearing on AA.com. No apology, you understand. Just a terse--and, frankly, despicably misleading--statement that says "American cancelled a limited number of flights on March 26th and 27th." American dumped almost 16 percent of mainline service yesterday. That's not "limited" in any dictionary I own.

Meanwhile, over at Delta, a more elaborate statement--and an honest-to-goodness apology--has now appeared at Delta.com. But Delta is little better than American when it comes to mangling the truth. An airline spokesman contacted me this afternoon and claimed that the carrier had posted an advisory on the Web site last night. Uh, not true. I have a screen grab from 9:30 this morning and Delta was still ignoring its 200+ cancellations then.

MARCH 27, 4:45 PM ET: CONSPIRACIES, ANYONE?
I'm convinced that Humpty Dumpty was pushed, but even I'm not this paranoid: Some of you think the massive cancellations at American and Delta airlines this week are not about reinspections at all. I've heard from a half-dozen of you wondering if the cancellations are actually caused by end-of-month staffing problems. One of the conspiracy theorists, a former airline executive with impeccable credentials, even gave me a blow-by-blow of how it might have occurred.

Okay, look, is it possible? Sure. I guess. But to believe that these cancellations are about end-of-month duty-time limitations you'd have to accept that two separate airlines have both run out of MD-80/88/90 pilots at exactly the same point in the month. After all, virtually all of the cancellations at American and Delta have been on those planes. And you'd also have to believe that both airlines were willing to take the cancellations in mid-week, when more profitable business travelers were flying, instead of this weekend, when it will be mostly leisure travelers.

Nah, I'm sticking with the official explanation on this one: Two airlines and the FAA are covering their tracks and reinspecting aging aircraft and their wonky wiring.

MARCH 27, 9:15 AM ET: TODAY'S BAD, TOO, AT AA AND DL
Here's another update on the news--and it is not good when it comes to the reinspection situation at American Airlines and Delta Air Lines.

Delta has already cancelled 150 of today's schedule of 1,606 mainline flights. That's 9.3 percent of its operations. The airline says it expects to cancel 275 flights through early tomorrow.

Over at American, at least 87 more flights out of today's mainline schedule of 2,185 flights have been dumped. The airline says it expects to cancel 132 flights today.

At this point, I think it is important to note several things:
-- Unlike Southwest Airlines, which two weeks ago cancelled only a fraction of the number of flights it announced it would dump, American and Delta are canceling many more flights than they announced. Yesterday, for example, American announced plans to cancel 200 flights, then cancelled almost 350. So assume things are going to be worse than the airlines say. I'm not suggesting the reinspection issues are similar. But you can't ignore the fact that Southwest moved faster and had fewer disruptions than these Big Six mastodons.
-- Delta and American are doing nothing--literally nothing--to keep passengers informed on their respective Web sites. Neither carrier even acknowledges the problems on their sites.
-- If you don't absolutely have to travel the rest of this week, I'd cancel. Although the reinspection-related cancellations are all on MD series aircraft, both American and Delta's systems are scrambled.

MARCH 27, 1:30 AM ET: CANCELLATIONS GROW AT AA, DL
The reinspection delays and cancellations are growing at both American Airlines and Delta Air Lines.

As noted yesterday morning, American was grounding some of its MD-80s to reinspect some wiring. The airline said it was canceling about 200 flights to accommodate the reinspection of 80 aircraft. In fact, however, it cancelled many more than that. According to FlightStats.com, American dumped 344 of its 2,182 scheduled flights on Wednesday. That's an eye-popping and distressing 15.75 percent of its mainline schedule. Worse, 162 of the flights that it did operate were "excessively" delayed by 45 minutes or more. That's almost 8 percent of the flights it managed to operate.

Meanwhile, late yesterday Delta decided it would begin reinspecting its MD-88 and MD-90 aircraft for similar wiring issues. So the airline abruptly canceled 84 of its 1,612 scheduled mainline departures. That's around 5 percent of its schedule, much higher than the 1-2 percent cancellation rate on a normal day. Delta may have a difficult day today, too, unless it gets those inspections completed in the wee small hours of the morning.

MARCH 26, 10:30 AM ET: BIG CANCELLATIONS TODAY AT AA
American Airlines said about 90 minutes ago that it was grounding some of its MD-80 aircraft for inspection of wires. As a result, about 200 flights already have been or will be cancelled today. That's about 9 percent of the airline's mainline flying.

The inspections are part of the Federal Aviation Administration's supposedly redoubled effort to ensure it did its job in the first place: monitoring the health of the nation's commercial fleet.

American's cancellations will have the most deleterious effect on flights from Dallas-Fort Worth and Chicago/O'Hare, American's primary hubs. The MD-80 is the backbone of American's shorter- and medium-haul fleet.

But please be aware that traveling the rest of the day on American is likely to be difficult (and probably on United Airlines at its own Chicago/O'Hare hub). The airline will have thousands of passengers to juggle and reaccommodate and that is likely to cause substantial delays throughout the American system. Some of those delays will probably roll over to United at O'Hare as customers try to pile on United flights.

American says the inspections will be completed by the end of the day and that the MD-80s in question will be returned to the fleet on a rolling basis. As we found in the Southwest situation with its Boeing 737s earlier this month, these inspections do tend to move quickly.

Today's a day for ultimate patience if you need to travel, however.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.

This column is Copyright 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.