Turbulence looms for summer travelers

About 2,200 U.S. commercial flights have been scrapped since March in response to failed FAA inspections.

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By David Goldman, CNNMoney.com staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Attention airline passengers: Fasten your seatbelts. The spring flying season is experiencing turbulence - and may continue to be bumpy for awhile.

U.S. commercial airlines have grounded over 2,000 flights since late March - including 1,500 this week - in response to failed Federal Aviation Administration safety inspections, leaving hundreds of thousands of passengers delayed or stranded.

The cancellations mainly affected customers of American Airlines, which on Wednesday grounded more than 1,000 flights or 45% of its schedule. That translated into between 110,00 and 140,000 stranded passengers, according to company spokesman Roger Frizzell.

The airline canceled an additional 900 flights Thursday and expects to cancel fewer than that on Friday and Saturday. Frizzell added that the airline hopes to return to normal service late Saturday.

Frizzell said the company is working to accommodate customers on American and on other airlines, and is paying $500 in compensation to passengers who have to stay overnight because of inspection-related cancellations.

Delta also grounded flights in March, and Alaska Airlines grounded flights Tuesday and Wednesday. United Airlines has also cancelled flights due to separate safety concerns in the past month.

The FAA is conducting an industrywide round of inspections of all planes that won't be completed until June 30.

Testing lapses provoke inspections

The issue stems from the discovery that Southwest Airlines (LUV, Fortune 500) flew 46 planes last year that hadn't been subject to timely mandatory safety inspections. The FAA launched its inspection campaign in March. Those inspections found compliance problems with the wire bundling in the wheels of several American Airlines (AMR, Fortune 500) and Delta (DAL, Fortune 500) MD-80 airplanes.

The plane manufacturer's service bulletin says if the wires are not properly secured, they could chafe to the point that they could short circuit and start a fire, according to an FAA spokesman.

As a result of the failed inspections, Delta decided to cancel more than 240 flights on March 27, and American grounded over 450 planes between March 26 and March 27.

But after a second round of inspections, the FAA discovered that some of American's MD-80s still did not meet its air-worthiness directives. In response, American Airlines voluntarily cancelled 495 flights Tuesday and on Wednesday grounded an additional 1,000 planes.

Alaska Airlines (ALK), which passed the initial round of inspections, grounded three MD-80 flights Tuesday and 14 Wednesday in response to a failed inspection in the second round.

The cancellations are not limited to MD-80s. United (UAUA, Fortune 500) grounded 31 Boeing 777s - 11% of its fleet - to test its cargo fire suppression system last week, and it cancelled seven of its Boeing 747 flights in March, though it found no safety-related issues.

American working to help passengers

In total, U.S. air carriers have grounded more than 2,200 flights due to the inspections, 1,950 of which were by American Airlines, the world's largest airline based on miles flown by paying passengers.

American said in a statement that it is working to help grounded or delayed passengers.

"American will do whatever it takes to assist those affected by these flight changes," said American Airlines chief executive Gerard Arpey in a statement. "This includes compensating those inconvenienced customers who stayed overnight in a location away from their final destination."

American also said that it planned to make an announcement Thursday about how it will comply with FAA regulations in the future.

On Wednesday, some passengers found that American's automated toll-free numbers were overloaded when they called to find their flight status or to reschedule.

"We have had very heavy loads on our phones with these conditions," said Frizzell. "It's best if passengers go to aa.com before they call or go to the airport."

But those who booked with travel agents may have been more successful in getting some help.

"We have agents that work on the customers' behalf to rebook their tickets whenever possible," said spokesman Brian Hoyt for Orbitz Worldwide (OWW), parent company of online travel agents Orbitz.com and Cheaptickets.com. "As a partner to the airlines, we can help move passengers that are stuck from point A to point B."

American insisted that there was never a safety concern in the failed inspections, but the FAA said the code still needs to be followed.

"When we issue an air-worthiness directive, it's there for a reason," said FAA spokesman Les Dorr.

The MD-80 is the workhorse of the American fleet. American's Web site says the aircraft accounts for 300 of the airline's fleet of 655 jets. Only 30 MD-80s were in service Wednesday, and American expects about 60 to fly Thursday.

The jet, which debuted in 1980, was built by McDonnell-Douglas, which was purchased by rival Boeing in 1997. Boeing (BA, Fortune 500), which discontinued production of the aircraft in 1999, says American is the largest operator of the aircraft.

--CNNMoney.com's Catherine Clifford contributed to this report To top of page

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