How Old Is That Plane You're Boarding?

But even if U.S. airlines wanted to replace their old jets with new fuel-efficient ones, Stilmar said the average backlog is about six years. Those already in line for the planes are airlines from Brazil, Russia, China and India.

As U.S. Airlines Struggle, Passengers Wait

In the meantime, as U.S. airlines struggle, passengers wait.

"Our luggage is captive and we can't even change our clothes," stranded passenger Tony Iachetta said Wednesday. Iachetta started his journey Tuesday in Palm Springs, Calif., and got as far as Dallas on his way home to Virginia.

On Wednesday, American canceled more than 1,000 of its 2,300 daily flights to again reinspect wiring on its MD-80 aircraft, just as it did two weeks ago. The carrier also canceled 460 flights Tuesday.

Delta and Alaska airlines, the other carriers that operate those types of planes, also canceled flights Wednesday, but in far smaller numbers. The Air Transport Association has approximately 470 MD-80 series aircraft registered to its member airlines, the vast majority of which are operated by Delta and American.

The thousands of additional cancellations came just as lawmakers on Capitol Hill examined aviation delays and consumer complaints during its fourth hearing in a series focused on airline consumer protection. At that hearing, Rep. Steve Kagen, D-Wis., said he received a call from a constituent who had been stranded in Columbus for 36 hours.

"The bad news, folks, is it isn't going to get any better," said Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla. "It's only going to get a lot worse."

Kate Hanni, executive director of Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, told lawmakers her group's hot line receives an average of 70 calls each day regarding complaints. The first day the hot line started, Hanni said she received about 900 calls in three hours.

Whether travelers could be spending even more hours in the months ahead on the tarmac and in airport bars -- as well as more money on alternate travel plans -- remains unclear. The airlines are now beginning phase two of the inspections called for by the FAA, which promise to be far more extensive than the phase one.

So what do you do if you're stranded at the airport?

Seaney suggested talking to gate agents and VIP club representatives as opposed to just those at the ticket counter. He also recommended getting a flight out to a major hub city instead of a smaller city, and said travelers who have to spend the night should call area hotels directly.

"Don't be fooled by Web sites that say a hotel is sold out. Many set aside as much as 50 percent of their rooms for walk-up customers," Seaney said. "Call the hotel's local number."

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