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Airlines Scramble as Grounded Planes Cause Chaos

American Airlines has canceled thousands of flights this week for safety checks on its passenger planes. The FAA says the jetliners hadn't been properly inspected, and several other U.S. carriers have had to cancel flights as well. To get through the logistical chaos, the airlines are shuffling passengers, empty planes, mechanics, inspectors — and a lot of paperwork.

The American terminal at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport is full of people who knew their flights would be grounded. Hope Carter has known for two days.

"They said that we had to come here to the airport to get everything straightened out, that they wouldn't do it over the phone," she says. Carter's flight to Austin, Texas, was canceled Wednesday. She's sitting in a wheelchair, with her infant, 2-year-old and 4-year-old grandchildren all hitching a ride.

"Even when I told them I was handicapped, and I said my daughter's going to have to come and she has seven kids, a newborn baby, she said she was really sorry but that was all they could do," says Carter, one of tens of thousands of passengers that American Airlines has been apologizing to this week.

Repairing Equipment, Not Relations

Some of them are standing around an automatic check-in kiosk at O'Hare that Onivi Kodovoh is trying to restart. It crashed trying to process more than 500 cancellations at once.

"It stopped working on someone — it couldn't scan passports anymore — so I am here to reprogram, load the software and have it working," Kodovoh says.

American is trying to fix the planes, too. One of the airline's eight maintenance sites is at O'Hare, where some of its MD-80s are being inspected.

"I hate to use the word 'grounded' — 'temporarily not in service' is the vernacular I choose to use," says American spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan. She says a few dozen planes are still at O'Hare's facility. The airline has been sending mechanics from places such as Kansas City and Tulsa to make sure each plane "meets the very precise, detailed, specific standard of the FAA in order to be in complete and utter compliance with the airworthiness directive," Fagan says.

Planes need to fulfill a number of these airworthiness directives, or "ADs," before they are allowed to carry passengers.

This AD applies to all airlines and concerns bundles of wires in the wheel wells and the protective plastic sleeves that cover them.

A Matter of Compliance

The FAA's former director of flight standards, Nick Lacey, says that sleeve is there because the wires in some planes were starting to smoke, "so in case there was a spark or fire, it wouldn't leap over into ... hydraulics and fluids in that area."

Although the fire hazard sounds alarming, Lacey says, it's less about safety than compliance.

A mechanic has to look into the wheel wells of each plane and see if the wires are secured to the sleeve at all the right points. That could take minutes or hours. Then the work has to be approved by an inspector and written up before the plane can be pressed back into service.

While Lacey says there was no immediate danger, FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory says any noncompliance — no matter how small — is a safety issue, and the alternative is unthinkable.

"You may be inconvenienced for a few hours, you may be inconvenienced for a day. But you'll have that day. And you'll have another day," Cory says.

She agrees that it's unusual for the FAA to tell U.S. carriers to do a self-audit but that 99 percent of airlines have passed the first stage. Cory wouldn't say which did and which did not.

The nation's largest carrier is still apologizing and saying it hopes to have all of its planes back in the air this weekend.

Diantha Parker reports from Chicago Public Radio.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Diantha Parker