Now that American Airlines is back to flying a full schedule, and Northwest and Delta have announced a plan to cut costs by merging, the general public might be lulled into thinking that the spring and summer travel season won't be plagued by higher fares and further delays. Don't be fooled. These are turbulent times for the airline business. Industry insiders are using words like "unprecedented," "ugly" and "very rough" to describe the current—and coming—state of affairs.
They have good reason to be pessimistic. So far, the spotlight has been focused on American Airlines, which earlier this month grounded 3,000 flights and stranded some 300,000 passengers after the Federal Aviation Administration mandated changes to the electrical wiring in its fleet of Boeing MD-80s. But it's not the only airline coming under the FAA's scrutiny. According to the agency, the immediate focus will likely be on fleets made up of multiple aircraft models. That includes carriers like United, Northwest, Delta and yes, American Airlines. Ensuring airplane safety is "still a work in progress," says FAA spokesman Les Dorr.
So why is the FAA finally forcing airlines into strict by-the-book compliance? The short answer: Southwest Airlines. A report by Department of Transportation Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III found the FAA's inspectors at Southwest had "an overly collaborative" relationship with the discount carrier—a relationship that permitted the airline to fly some of its older Boeing 737s with fuselage cracks, despite a critical airworthiness directive, or AD, an alert issued by the FAA to inform airlines of safety issues regarding certain aircraft makes and models. "That's unacceptable," said Minnesota Democrat Rep. James Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "That's putting the flying public at risk. It's no consolation to say that nobody died; [that] there were no accidents."
Following the incident with Southwest Airlines, it's difficult to criticize the FAA for stepping up its inspections. But industry experts say that the grounding of American Airlines was more about show than safety. FAA critic Mike Boyd, a Colorado-based aviation consultant contends that the second round of wiring inspections was little more than a "PR stunt." Transport Workers Union International vice president Dennis Bruchette, whose mechanics work on American's fleet, appeared only slightly less irate, saying "this is more a compliance issue than a safety issue." He charged FAA's MD-80 wiring directives "have been a moving target … Since the airworthiness directive was issued there have been at least four revisions."
Certainly, FAA is the target now—not just of criticism by DOT's inspector general and Congress, but by the industry as well. "Flexibility and common sense have gone out the window," bemoaned Basil Barimo, vice president of operations and safety for the Air Transport Association, an industry trade group. He, too, maintains that what grounded the MD-80s wasn't safety but "variation in interpretation" of an airworthiness directive.
The FAA's Dorr concedes no distinction between strict compliance and safe flight. "The language and nuts and bolts of an [airworthiness directive] are there for a reason," he says. "That's the best fix for the safety problem." The real issue: when does beneficial FAA-airline collaboration become uncomfortably cozy? "Our system is safe," insists Barimo. Referring to the MD-80 groundings he says, "We hope to re-establish a process where people think before they make rash decisions."
Whether those decisions were rash or rational, what lies ahead could be rough. "I would like to think that what happened … is behind us," said Carmine J. Romano, American's senior vice president of maintenance and engineering, in a letter to the carrier's employees. But over the next two months, a second wave of airworthiness-directive compliance inspections awaits, and "we still have challenges to face."
Plane maintenance isn't the only thing travelers should be concerned about. Delta and Northwest recently announced a merger that would create the world's largest carrier. The reason: to realize $1 billion in synergies that they contend are possible without closing a single hub (between them, they have seven domestically), or disadvantaging flyers in smaller cities. Critics are skeptical. Some, including Congressman Oberstar, envision a "cascade" of airline mergers once federal regulators approve the Delta-Northwest deal.
This nation's six so-called legacy airlines could easily be three by this time next year. But what will happen to airfares? With or without mergers, ticket prices are bound to rise. Delta CEO Richard Anderson told reporters recently that at current fuel costs, airlines would have to raise ticket prices 15 to 20 percent just to break even.