YOU CAN'T EVEN GET TO HELL FROM HERE...
By Joe Brancatelli
What started on Tuesday morning, April 8, with the cancellation of an American MD-80 DFW-Wichita flight has devolved into a full-on, nationwide crisis.
Since Tuesday, at least 3,500 flights have been dumped--most of them by American Airlines, but some by Alaska, Delta and Midwest airlines, too. Perhaps a quarter of a million travelers have been stranded, rebooked and possibly cancelled again. And since American's fleet of MD-80s is being reinspected, repaired and recertified much more slowly than even the most pessimistic observer expected, it appears that the crisis will continue at least through the weekend. American's reputation and balance sheet are in tatters. The Federal Aviation Administration, criticized this week in Congress for being too lenient with carriers in recent years, is also being hammered for being too strict with American Airlines.
The nearly Talmudic issues swirling around this crisis--Were the planes grounded due to a technical compliance issue? Were the planes grounded because of safety issues as outlined in a two-year-old FAA "airworthiness directive"? Is there really a difference between safety issues and compliance with safety regulations?--need to be discussed at length in the weeks and months to come.
Right now, though, there are a lot of travelers, planes, flight crews and plans out of place and out of whack. I'd say this is hell, but I can't be sure: All the flights to hell were cancelled, too.
APRIL 12, 3PM ET: 200 TODAY, 'NORMAL' TOMORROW
American Airlines says it will cancel about 200 flights today (Saturday) and that's right about where FlightStats.com has it now. If American is to be believed, those 200 cancellations are a legitimate light at the end of this horrific tunnel of a week. According to the carrier, it will have all of its approximately 300 MD-80 aircraft back "in service by late Saturday afternoon" and the airline will operate a "full, normal schedule on Sunday." Anyone remember what "normal" is anymore?
APRIL 11, 11PM ET: THE PECULIAR NATURE OF 'PROGRESS'
It's a sad commentary that you can say an airline cancelled almost 600 flights in a single day--and it's a sign of progress. Such is the state of things, however. According to FlightStats, American cancelled 595 of the 2,207 departures the Web site tracked on Friday. That brings us back to Tuesday, the last time American cancelled "so few" flights. The other three carriers that have experienced issues with the inspection of their respective MD-80s fleets--Delta, Alaska and Midwest Airlines--all experienced cancellations in the single digits. But FlightStats.com notes that Midwest Airlines' on-time performance today was near 40 percent.
APRIL 11, 12:30AM ET: THERE GOES THE WEEKEND
American Airlines has announced that it will cancel 570 flights today (Friday), but that apparently isn't the bad news. The airline was predicting yesterday that it might resume a nearly complete schedule on Saturday. Don't bet on it. Expect the weekend to be a nightmare of cancellations, too. In fact, the airline has extended its reaccommodation plan, originally offered to cover travelers booked until today, through the weekend. Now you can change without fee if you're booked on an American MD-80 scheduled through April 13. I think the best we can hope for now is that there'll be a semblance of normalcy on Monday.
APRIL 11, 12:15AM ET: ANOTHER BRUTAL DAY...
Thursday (April 10) was another brutal day for cancellations. According to FlightStats.com, American Airlines cancelled 993 of 2,166 tracked departures. Virtually all were due to ongoing inspections of the airline's 300 MD-80 series aircraft. Less than half of those planes have been returned to the skies. Meanwhile, other MD-80 series operators cancelled flights today, too,. Midwest Airlines dumped 23 of the 159 departures tracked by FlightStats. Delta (13 cancellations of 1,581) and Alaska Airlines (11 cancellations out of 445 tracked departures) also had taken MD-80s out of service for extra work or inspections.
APRIL 10, 3PM ET: TOO LATE, BUT NOT TOO LITTLE
American Airlines chief executive Gerard Arpey finally made himself available to the media--and, by extension, American's customers--this afternoon. And despite his much-deserved reputation as a stiff, unconvincing and media-phobic type, he did a pretty good job. At least during the part of the press conference that was broadcast live by the cable-news outlets. He took complete responsibility for American's problems and nary a weasel word was uttered. He wisely employed the always-crowd-pleasing and instantly disarming "the buck stops here" approach. He was unstinting in his defense of American's mechanics and he even managed to find good things to say about the airline's pilots. (To say American and its pilots are at odds is like saying American cancelled a lot of flights today.) He even apologized unreservedly to the flying public inconvenienced by the cancellations and sounded credible when he discussed the issues surrounding the grounding of his airline's fleet of 300 MD-80s.
APRIL 10, 2:15PM ET: READ THIS YET?
Business travelers and folks professionally and/or personally disposed to American Airlines' point of view have been feverishly passing around today's editorial in The Wall Street Journal. Business travelers, no lot of raving liberals, have mostly scoffed at the airlines-can-do-no-wrong view expressed by the reliably ultra-free-market editorial commentary. American backers have been passing it around because it hews remarkably close to the airline's view of things. Whichever camp you fall into, can we at least admit this: The Journal criticized Moses as he came down off the mount because the paper's editorializers thought that the idea of ten commandments was an egregious example of over-regulation and social engineering.
APRIL 10, 12:45PM ET: MIDWEST AIRLINES CANCELS, TOO
American Airlines has cancelled more than 700 flights today as of 12:30PM ET and the issue with wiring on MD-80 and the appropriate inspection of same is expanding. Midwest Airlines has grounded its MD-80 series planes today and cancelled 14 flights this morning. Expect more cancellations throughout the day from them. (FYI, Midwest has posted an update page here.) And Alaska Airlines, which began canceling MD-80 flights yesterday, has dumped a small amount of service today, too.
APRIL 10, 1:45AM ET: THE LATE-NIGHT FINAL
It shouldn't surprise you that American Airlines says that it will cancel about 900 flights on Thursday. Meanwhile, According to FlightStats.com, American dumped 1,110 of the 2,180 departures tracked on Wednesday. If AA's number for Thursday is accurate, that would mean about 2,500 cancellations in three days.
APRIL 9, 11:55PM ET: ARPEY SPEAKS....
Revealed: the mystery of the location of missing-in-action Gerard Arpey, chief executive of American. He's been in Los Angeles at a ceremonial event for the One World Alliance and did, however briefly, address the crisis of cancellation that has engulfed his airline. His comments, via KCBS-TV in Los Angeles and American's public-relations department: "We have obviously failed to complete the air worthiness [of the carrier's MD-80 fleet] to the precise standards that the FAA requires. And I take full personal responsibility for that." In an Associated Press dispatch that ran on the Web site of a Florida television station, Arpey was quoted as saying: "We apologize for the inconvenience this has caused our customers."
APRIL 9, 11PM ET: DISPATCHES FROM THE FRONT LINE
How's American Airlines doing finding alternate arrangements for the estimated 100,000 passengers it has inconvenienced since Tuesday? Some JoeSentMe members have said that American's people have been superb under pressure and performed a few minor miracles. "It was terrific, considering," one stranded passenger, an American AAdvantage Executive Platinum, wrote to me in an E-mail. "I was protected with alternate flights all along the way." Several other members told me American had rebooked them, only to have the replacement flights cancelled as the airline sank deeper into today's abyss. "Infuriating!" one wrote. "You think you dodged the bullet. Then you get whacked anyway." However, most travelers who contacted me had experiences similar to Will Allen, who posted his long, telephonic odyssey with American on his blog.
APRIL 9, 10PM ET: DELTA GETS INTO THE ACT--AGAIN
Delta Air Lines did a bit of an information dump tonight, slipping in its own bad news while American Airlines was fumbling in the public spotlight. The airline said it reinspected about half of its 117 MD-80 aircraft on Tuesday night and cancelled about two dozen flights today. Delta had its own issues with FAA-mandated reinspections of MD-80s two weeks ago, too.
APRIL 9, 7:15PM ET: SPIN, SAFETY AND CYNICISM
Regardless of whether you view this crisis at American Airlines as a politics-paperwork thing or a genuine, honest-to-goodness flight-safety issue, it's time to call American Airlines management what it is: A bunch of tone-deaf, cynical and ultimately self-defeating fools.
As it tried to spin its way out of trouble today, American had the unmitigated gall to send out the company's executive vice president of marketing to talk about safety. And Dan Garton promptly put his foot in his yap.
Consider this gem from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram coverage of Garton's midday flying circus: Garton said American feels it completed the first round of inspections, although technicians apparently didn't strictly follow the FAA's directive. "From my perspective, these were not huge errors," Garton said.
Any of you passengers give an effing damn whether an airline's marketing guy thinks that his carrier didn't make "huge errors" when it punted the safety inspections? Any of you wonder where American Airlines' senior vice president for maintenance is hiding? Any of you wonder where The Spectre, American chief executive Gerard Arpey, is hiding?
Any of you thinking it's time to stop flying American Airlines?
APRIL 9, 4PM ET: TODAY'S AMERICAN AA-HOLE
Is safety American Airlines' first priority? Of course it is. American, like all airlines, never misses an opportunity to mouth that hoary old platitude. But woe to any reporter who dares ask an American spokesperson about safety issues. He'll just walk away, right off camera, even when the reporter is doing nothing more provocative than reading a relevant a Federal Aviation Administration document. Think I'm kidding? Click here to see it happen on the local TV news in Dallas.
APRIL 9, 3:30PM ET: ALASKA CANCELS MD-80 FLIGHTS, TOO
The crisis of cancellations continues to expand. Now Alaska Airlines says that its nine MD-80s are being inspected "to ensure precise and complete compliance with a Federal Aviation Administration airworthiness directive related to wire bundling in the aircraft's wheel wells." The airline says the issue caused three cancellations yesterday and 14 flight cancellations today.
APRIL 9, 3:15PM ET: REGRET AND REACCOMMODATION
Here's the surest sign that the chaos and cancellations will continue at American until the weekend. The airline's powers-that-be have finally decided to allow travelers to change itineraries if they are booked on an MD-80 aircraft through Friday, April 11. Travelers can make one change and travel as late at April 17 without a fee.
Oh, and American has begrudgingly admitted that maybe it has something for which to apologize. Its current statement, linked off the AA.com home page says that American "sincerely regret[s] the inconvenience created by the cancellation of a portion of American Airlines' flights." By "a portion," American means 22 percent of its flight schedule yesterday and 42 percent of its departures so far today.
APRIL 9, 2:45PM ET: ROOMS AT THE AIRPORT INNS
As the American Airlines crisis of cancellations widens and storms bear down on the airline's Dallas-Fort Worth hub, here's a surprise. There is room at the airport inns. In Chicago, there are vacancies tonight at the O'Hare Hilton, the iconic black-sheathed property that is closest to the terminals. Many of the more remote (and cheaper) properties around ORD are sold out, however. In Dallas, both Hyatt hotels that are essentially part of the DFW terminal complex have vacancies tonight. Hotels in the immediate vicinity of DFW are sold out, though.
APRIL 9, 1:45PM ET: FOUR-FIGURE CANCELLATIONS NOW
American Airlines now says that it will cancel more than 1,000 flights today. That's almost half of its schedule of about 2,200 departures. Makes you wonder when someone at American will correct its weasel-worded Web site statement admitting to "some AA travel" being affected. And, again, folks: With this many planes and crews out of position, it's going to take American Airlines days to resume normal operations. And that doesn't count the scrambling effect of the big storm headed toward American's Dallas-Fort Worth hub.
APRIL 9, 11:30AM ET: AND NOW, THE PERFECT STORM, TOO
American Airlines has already cancelled more than 650 flights, the carrier predicts 850 cancellations for the entire day and that's not even the bad news. The bad news? A massive storm is bearing down on Texas and surrounding Central states and it might wipe out air travel through Friday in the region.
First the cancellation story. FlightStats.com says American has dumped 655 of its 2,222 scheduled departures so far today. But American is telling the Dallas newspapers that the grounding of its MD-80 series for another round of inspections will lead to as many as 850 cancellations today. That's almost 40 percent of the airline's schedule and is sure to create havoc through the rest of the week at American.
Now the weather angle: Huge storms, complete with high winds, heavy rains, hail, flooding and tornadoes, are headed to Texas, Oklahoma and, later in the week, Arkansas, Missouri and other states in the area. The Weather Channel is describing this system in near-apocalyptic terms. The bottom line: Several Texas-hubbed airlines may have their schedules scrambled for the rest of the week. That includes DFW-based American, of course, but also Dallas/Love-based Southwest Airlines. Houston-based Continental Airlines may be less affected, but it will also be whacked. The storm is so large that lots of flights that do not originate or terminate in the region will be affected, too.
In other words, expect long delays and an abnormally high number of cancellations throughout the country for the rest of the week. My best advice: If you can possibly reschedule your travel planned for the next few days, do it.
APRIL 9, 6:15AM ET: AANOTHER BAAD DAAY DAAWNS
American Airlines has cancelled 241 of today's 2,200 scheduled departures, according to FlightStats. It's fair to say further cancellations today are likely. I'd check with American before you make your way to the airport today. (Yesterday, the airline ended up cancelling 495 of the 2172 departures tracked by FlightStats.com.) With such a high percentage of cancellations already this morning, I think you can conclude that AA's system is in some operational disarray. You can't cancel about 750 flights in less than 24 hours and not have an impact on operations throughout the rest of the week. Both planes and crews are out of position and that will take a while to sort out, even when the MD-80s have been inspected back up to the current FAA snuff. So proceed with caution before you fly this week.
APRIL 9, 2AM ET: ANGRY PILOTS AND BLUSTERY BOSSES
The Dallas Morning News has posted an overview of the current cancellation crisis at American Airlines. Its story largely reflects American Airlines management's view that these latest cancellations are due to highly technical--and mostly record-keeping--issues surrounding the placement and securing of wires in the wheel well of the MD-series planes. However, it does reference the dissenting view of the airline's pilots, who claim the issue is much more serious. You can read the pilots' view here.
APRIL 8, 8PM ET: A TRICKLE, THEN A RUSH, OF DUMPS
American Airlines has been cancelling a small but steady stream of MD-80 series flights at its Chicago/O'Hare and Dallas-Fort Worth flights throughout the day. But the dike broke about 4PM ET and dozens, then hundreds, of flights were cancelled in a burst. I've heard from several JoeSentMe members this evening that they were on aircraft, buttoned up and prepared to depart, when the flight returned to the gate and was cancelled. Although American hasn't said so, it looks like it has grounded its entire fleet of about 300 MD-series aircraft again.
APRIL 8, 6:15PM ET: NOW THEY TELL US
American Airlines had gotten around to admitting to its passengers that it again has an issue with its MD-80 fleet. A short, grudging and remarkably information-free notice has appeared at the AA.com site. Notice that it doesn't even have the grace to apologize to anyone for this latest inconvenience. It sure is reflective of American's attitude toward its customers. And, more to the point: What took so long? American has been cancelling MD-80 series flights since at least 9:30AM--the first I tracked was on the DFW-Wichita run--and it didn't get around to telling anyone what was happening until about eight hours later.
APRIL 8, 5:45PM ET: MASSIVE AA CANCELLATIONS AAGAIN
American Airlines has cancelled 375 of the 1,745 scheduled departures tracked by FlightStats.com. The airline has a total of 2,213 departures scheduled for today. It wasn't until shortly after 5 p.m. ET today that American confirmed the cancellations and the airline said it might cancel as many as 500 flights today. More cancellations are expected tomorrow, American said. The problem is once again wiring in the carrier's fleet of MD-80 aircraft. Apparently, there is now an issue with the emergency re-inspections of the aircraft that American completed late last month. AA's late-in-the-day statement said "The FAA raised additional concerns regarding the recent inspection of American's aircraft and the manner in which American followed" protocols and written procedures as outlined by the FAA. It goes without saying that this second grounding is beyond annoying. And American taking an entire day to alert anyone to the situation--and only after hundreds of flights have already been cancelled--raises questions about whether the airline fully understands how much it is inconveniencing its passengers. It's one thing to ground planes for emergency inspections that should have been done correctly the first time. It's entirely another matter to ground the planes again because the emergency inspections may not have been done properly. And it is, frankly, outrageous that the airline continues to try to hide the scope of the disruption of its operations. As of now, the airline hasn't put any mention of this problem on its home page, meaning thousands of passengers may have headed to the airport today without any knowledge of this situation. If you have an American flight scheduled on an MD-80 later today or tomorrow, proceed with appropriate caution.
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.