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American Airlines strands thousands; blames FAA

Yesterday American Airlines stranded thousands of additional travelers as it grounded more than a thousand flights.  It claims that the FAA is at fault in the groundings because the FAA had not previously enforced its rules on regulatory inspections, leading American to believe that it need not comply.

      In recent weeks, American, Alaska, Delta and Southwest Airlines have all canceled hundreds of flights and grounded dozens of aircraft because the airlines had not complied with FAA directives on inspection of airframes, structures, wire bundles, electronics and other components.  On Monday, nine American MD-80 jets were grounded when they failed FAA spot-checks.  This prompted American to ground 300 planes.  On Tuesday it canceled more than 400 flights and on Wednesday, it canceled more than a thousand flights in order to inspect MD-80s.  900 more flights have been canceled on Thursday; and more can be expected on Friday.  In total, tens of thousands of American passengers have been stranded this week, but American concedes no responsibility, publicly.  Instead spokespersons for the airline complain that the FAA has changed its enforcement rules.

      Airline insiders claim that the current spate of cancelations and groundings reflects an "over-reaction" by airline management to Congress' closer scrutiny of the industry.  This scrutingy follows revelations that Southwest Airlines was allowed  by the FAA to fly uninspected airplanes, and even to insist on the re-assignment of  an inspector it considered unduly difficult, because he would not overlook safety inspection rules.  We don't doubt that the Bush Administration's "fox running the hen house" approach to regulation has contributed to Airlines' frustration with sudden enforcement:  ever since 9/11, the mismanaged airlines--who were in financial difficulty before that day--have been coddled by the Federal government and maintenance and safety have been compromised daily in response to the airlines' continuing financial difficulties (now compounded by high fuel costs).

      Nevertheless, there is something bleak about our culture when you consider this picture:   ridiculously highly-paid executives discontinue service to thousands of customers without notice--causing them terrible inconvenience--in order to comply with long-standing safety rules, and then blame the government for its "sudden" emphasis on compliance.  In a healthy culture, this kind of self-serving failure to accept responsibility would be considered humiliating and cause for universal scorn.   Maybe we do need a touch of Chinese-style product liability and reform:  recall that last year a Chinese official was executed for taking bribes from the companies he regulated.

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