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Sun, Apr 13, 2008

American Cleared To Return All But Three MD-80s To Service

Analyst Says FAA Checks Had 'Nothing' To Do With Safety

There may finally be a (landing) light at the end of the tunnel for American Airlines, stifled for days following groundings of its 300-plane fleet of MD-80 airliners for safety inspections. On Saturday, FAA officials cleared the airline to return all but three of the aircraft to service.

American spokesman Charley Wilson told The Dallas Morning News normal operations likely won't resume until sometime Sunday, after American repositions the aircraft from maintenance stations to outlying airports.

Still, news of the return of American's MD-80s will be welcomed not just by the Fort Worth-based airline, but also by the hundreds of thousands of stranded travelers caught in the middle between the airline, and the FAA... which in recent weeks has cracked down on maintenance practices at US airlines, after being caught flat-footed by news Southwest Airlines continued flying planes last year past mandatory fuselage inspection intervals.

As ANN reported, American first cancelled some 500 flights on April 8, so the airline could reinspect its fleet of MD-80 airliners to ensure proper stowage of wiring bundles inside the aircrafts' maingear wells. Those checks weren't quick once-overs... and by Friday, over 3,300 American flights had been scrapped.

The airline first pulled planes from service two weeks before to inspect the bundles, cancelling 400 flights in the process... but when FAA inspectors return to the carrier's Tulsa, OK maintenance center to check the carrier's work, they found several planes still out of compliance with the 2006 Airworthiness Directive mandating a 1.25-inch clearance between the wires and adjoining components.

Inspectors reportedly found bundles bound tighter than that spec -- about a one-inch clearance -- on several of American's MD-80s. That relatively minor difference has many questioning whether the FAA's strict response wasn't politically-minded posturing.

In an interview Friday with Bloomberg, airline consultant Michael Boyd openly questioned the motives of the agency, and Acting Administrator Robert Sturgell -- saying the FAA was "playing politics," in order to "look like they're tough" in the face of congressional scrutiny.

"You've got hundreds of thousands of people inconvenienced, jobs being threatened, and it's got nothing to do with improving safety," Boyd slammed.

Regardless of where blame is ultimately placed, the episode has done little to endear the MD-80 -- a catch-all term for the MD-82 and longer-legged MD-83 airliners that make up the majority of American's fleet -- to passengers, or the airline.

Gerard Arpey, chairman of American parent AMR Corp., said Thursday the airline may accelerate replacement of the relatively fuel-thirsty MD-80s... but hastened to add that was only because newer aircraft get better mileage.

FMI: www.aa.com, www.faa.gov

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