Stranded at the Airport: Who's Responsible?

With more than 920 American Airlines flights canceled today, thousands of travelers are stranded in the nation's airports, and the carrier is facing the possibility that cancellations could stretch into the weekend.

American is rotating the planes back into service once inspectors re-examine wiring, but the airline doesn't expect that all of those planes will be returned to service until Saturday night.

"I take full personal responsibility for our being in this situation," American's chairman and chief executive Gerard Arpey said Thursday afternoon.

Meantime, lines at the airports are long, and they're filled with travelers like Jeff Ostrove, who was stuck this morning in Los Angeles on the latest leg of his tortured journey from San Diego to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands.

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"We had a flight from San Diego through Dallas-Fort Worth to San Juan [Puerto Rico] down to Tortola, and they called us yesterday morning and told us it was cancelled," Ostrove explained.

He was rebooked through Los Angeles, Chicago and San Juan, but then received an e-mail informing him of another cancellation.

"Basically in the middle of the night, 2:30 in the morning, we left San Diego and drove up here, and they are getting us through Miami to San Juan to Tortola," he said.

Ostrove is one of thousands of travelers stranded in the nation's airports as American Airlines re-inspects its MD-80 jets. So far this week the airline has cancelled nearly 2,500 flights in addition to the hundreds it cancelled in late March.

The Federal Aviation Administration called for inspections among all carriers after slapping Southwest Airlines with a $10.2 million fine for failing to adhere to requirements for safety and inspection checks. Arpey said the FAA maintenance directive currently in question for American's wire bundle inspections is 38 pages long.

"As passengers, we should be glad that the FAA is ensuring that the planes we fly on are safe," Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said Thursday. "I think the FAA is trying to make a statement, and I think that the message will hopefully be heard by all the airlines, and we won't have to see this repeated by each major carrier in the United States."

Still, cancellations at American on their own are making a tremendous impact. Data released Thursday by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics revealed that in January of this year, American Airlines carried 7.7 million passengers — more international and domestic passengers combined than any other U.S. airline.

Today's airport logjams come just as lawmakers on Capitol Hill again scold the FAA on the very safety and inspection issues that are repeatedly grounding the airplanes.

"It's catastrophic economically and it's an embarrassment to the nation," said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D- W.V. "This has obviously caused a volcanic disruption which is, in and of itself, unthinkable."

As many travelers are doing today, Rockefeller wondered whether the FAA could have avoided mass cancellations had it conducted more frequent and regular compliance checks. He wondered whether the American planes would have been grounded if the news of the uninspected Southwest planes had not become public.

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