By Travel writer contributor
updated 4/11/2008 2:22:20 PM ET 2008-04-11T18:22:20

Like that Energizer bunny, the American Airlines nightmare seems to just keep going and going and going.

While continuing to apologize profusely to customers, the airline announced the cancellation of another 595 flights today. This brings the number of cancellations to more than 3,000 since late Tuesday, when the airline grounded its fleet of MD-80 jets to inspect the bundling of wires in airplane wheel wells.

Whenever possible, the airline has been trying to accommodate the more than 250,000 “inconvenienced” passengers by rebooking them on non-MD-80 American Airline flights or on flights operated by other airlines. But because so many airplanes are already flying full right now, it's been difficult finding seats for everyone. Adding to the frustration are long hold times and busy signals at the American Airline's reservation center and long lines at airport ticket and service counters.

Thousands of travelers have had no alternative but to take the airline's hotel and meal vouchers or just sit tight and wait it out at the airport. Those that have ended up stuck at an airport have had plenty of company: In addition to American's cancellations, Delta Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Midwest Airlines have all canceled flights this week to check the wiring on their MD-80 airplanes.

Airports pitch in — or try to
The cancellations have stretched the emotional resources of both travelers and airline employees. This week's travel mess is also wreaking havoc and bringing out the best at some airports.

Sacramento slip-up
At Sacramento International Airport on Wednesday, all American Airlines flights were canceled. Yet the airport's Web site continued to tell travelers that all flights were on time. Many travelers who had checked in online to see if their flights were canceled ended up getting stuck at the airport anyway.

As of Friday morning, the airport's computer-generated flight status information program was still not working properly. So for now it has been removed from the airport Web site. An airport spokeswoman says travelers are being encouraged to contact American Airlines directly to check on their flights.

Meal service returns
At Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, extra staff and volunteers were on hand to assist passengers. Those standing in American Airlines ticket lines could snack on soda, water, and snack bars as well as fresh sandwiches delivered by the airport's Paradise Bakery and Cafe. American Airlines will be footing that bill.

Sweet dreams in Chicago
At Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, one of American Airline's major hubs, airport spokesperson Karen Pride said the airport only offers extra assistance, such as cots and blankets for stranded travelers, when “an airline alerts us that they have passengers that are going to be here late in the evening or overnight.” Pride said American Airlines on Tuesday asked the airport for 300 cots “and 275 passengers took advantage of that.” On Wednesday night, she said the airport was asked for 100 cots “and 20 passengers took advantage of that.” Pride also said the airport asked several food vendors to stay open later than usual.

‘No day at the beach’
At Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, another major American Airlines hub, it was quite a different story. According to the airport's Ken Capps, “Although we're not required to do anything, we see all these stranded passengers not as airline customers, but as guests in our home. So we're doing our best to make everyone as comfortable as can be because we know that getting stuck at the airport is no day at the beach.”

What helps, Capps says, is that the airport has a well-oiled “irregular operations” plan that it can put into effect on short notice. The airport is posting updated advisories with detailed information for passengers on its Web site and being proactive with the airline. “Rather than waiting for a call from American, we're on the phone saying, ‘What do you need from us?’”

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Capps says all 300 of the airport's cots were pressed into service beginning on Tuesday night and airport personnel have been out in force handing out diapers and formula set aside for just this sort of situation. Airport vendors have also pitched in: complimentary refreshments are being put out by Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, Au Bon Pain and T.G.I. Friday's, and several restaurants have been staying open around the clock. A few bars have also extended their hours until 2 a.m., the latest Texas law allows.

In general, says Capps, while many travelers are understandably angry and frustrated, others are trying to take the situation in stride. “A few ladies figured that as long as they were here, they'd use the time to take a guided tour of the airport's art collection.”

Other travelers are taking the opportunity to try out something new: Texas wines.  Ian Wood and his wife Margie, from Scottsdale, Ariz., hadn't planned to be anywhere near Dallas-Fort International Airport, let alone sipping wines at an airport winery. But here they were seated at the bar at La Bodega Winery, by Gate 15 in DFW's Terminal A.

“We were all set to fly home from our vacation in Maui earlier this week, but then we found out that our airline, ATA, had gone out of business.” After scrambling about, the Woods finally got tickets on American Airlines. “Things were looking good. Then our flight turned out to be on one of the canceled MD-80 planes.” The couple was eventually re-booked, but their 26-hour trip home included a 10-hour layover at DFW. “We got here and felt lucky to get a day rate at the La Quinta hotel so we could shower and nap. As soon as we got back to airport, the first thing we looked for was a drink.” Looking around at his fellow passengers, Wood reported that “Everyone seems pretty exhausted from it all. But it just seems like everyone is rolling their eyes and accepting it. What else can we do?”           

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