Video: CEO takes the blame

updated 4/10/2008 3:22:41 PM ET 2008-04-10T19:22:41

The 900 American Airlines flights scheduled to be cancelled today, the 1,094 cancelled AA flights Wednesday and the 450 flights scrapped Tuesday may have been caused by American’s failure to understand directives from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Gerard Arpey, American’s chairman and chief executive officer, told Wednesday that "there is an interpretive process" involved in following FAA instructions. The FAA ordered AA to re-inspect wiring in its 300 MD-80 aircraft, which the agency believes was done incorrectly.

American’s mechanics, acting on guidelines relayed from the engineering department, may have gotten lost deciphering a 38-page airworthiness directive from the FAA, Arpey said — triggering a cascading crisis now in its third day and rippling through the nation’s aviation system. Tens of thousands of travelers have been grounded, delaying business meetings and wrecking long-planned vacations.

Arpey — attending a meeting of the oneworld airline alliance in Marina Del Ray, Calif. — said American will pay compensation to passengers forced to spend the night in hotels in strange cities because their flights were grounded. Frustrated flyers are urged to go to American’s Web site, to ask for compensation.

Arpey also said American is trying to help passengers rebook flights on American or on other airlines that can squeeze them in. Most domestic airlines are already flying with nearly full planes.

This writer was one of the thousands of passengers on American who was grounded. I found out about American’s cancellations because, as a journalist, I receive AA press releases. Other passengers were not so lucky: Many didn’t get any heads-up notification about the problems.

Hearing on Tuesday that my Wednesday flight from Los Angeles International Airport to San Francisco International was in jeopardy, I booked away from American, fast. I landed an economy class flight with Virgin America for $129 — a reasonable fare, thanks to the fact that the L.A.-San Francisco route is competitive. It is served by American, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Virgin America.

I was fortunate. Arpey acknowledged that many AA customers were not notified promptly or at all; some arrived at the airport only to discover that their flight was not going anywhere.

"Our employees did the best they could. We apologize for the inconvenience. We did try to reach them," said Arpey.

He didn’t explain how communications broke down, or what American will do differently should cancellations continue in the coming days.

Arpey said he doesn’t know when American’s schedule will return to normal. The carrier is busy inspecting MD-80s and returning them to service, he said, but "some aircraft and crews are out of position" and integrating them back into the system will take time.

At a meeting called mainly to trumpet Mexicana Airlines’ planned 2009 entry into oneworld, Geoff Dixon, head of Qantas, objected to a journalist’s reference to aviation industry “turmoil."

Dixon emphasized that airlines in the Middle East, Australia and elsewhere are doing relatively well. "'Turmoil' is too strong for me," he said.

But, for U.S. travelers shaken by last month’s grounding of Southwest aircraft for missed inspections and last week’s failure of Aloha Airlines, Skybus and ATA, turmoil sounds just right.

© 2013 Imaginova Corp.


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