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Grounded: What's Behind the U.S. Flight Delays?

An American Airlines arrivals list at New York City's LaGuardia Airport on Thursday.
Mario Tama
Getty Images
An American Airlines arrivals list at New York City's LaGuardia Airport on Thursday.

American Airlines has canceled thousands of flights since Tuesday, disrupting travel plans for hundreds of thousands of people. Here, a guide to the safety issues involved and how travelers can navigate the disruption.

Why is American canceling so many flights?

American has grounded the flights while it inspects its fleet of MD-80 airplanes to make sure the wiring in the wheel wells is properly protected from chafing. Unprotected wires potentially could result in a short or spark that might ignite, explains Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura J. Brown. "It's a very low-probability risk, but it's an extremely high-consequence issue," she says.


Is this a new safety concern?

No. Brown says the FAA first asked American and other airlines to check the MD-80s in their fleet back in 2006. But the issue took on new urgency in March, when Southwest Airlines got threatened with a penalty of $10 million for continuing to fly while failing to address problems with its fleet of 737s. This prompted the FAA to initiate a check on all U.S. airlines — more than 100 carriers — to ensure that they are complying with the agency's safety directives.

Why are the delays hitting American so hard?

Because it has 300 MD-80s in its fleet — the most by far of any U.S. airline.

Are other airlines canceling flights for safety concerns?


Yes. Alaska, Allegiant Air, Delta and Midwest Airlines also use MD-80s. All of them have canceled flights to check on the wheel-well wiring.

Southwest Airlines previously grounded planes to check on fatigue cracking in its fleet of 737s. The company says it now has no related delays or cancellations. And United voluntarily canceled flights earlier in April to check the fire-suppression system on its 777s.

Are American's canceled flights causing a "domino effect" of delays and cancellations?

No. But a spokesman says Southwest has seen a spike in last-minute bookings — likely from people whose flights were canceled by other carriers.

And even though it filed for bankruptcy protection on Friday, Denver-based Frontier Airlines still expects to operate normally, with no cancellations.

Are flights in other countries also being affected?

"At this point, it doesn't appear to be a widespread problem abroad," says Marisa Thompson, an equity analyst for Morningstar. "The foreign carriers, from what I've seen, have not been dealing with the same types of issues because their fleet is much younger."

If you're planning to fly abroad on a domestic airline, you shouldn't experience the same kind of delays. Thompson says companies like American and United are using younger planes for overseas flights.

What if my flight got canceled?

The vast majority of cancellations have been on American. A notice on American's Web site says travelers whose flights were canceled can request a full refund or rebook. The airline is also allowing customers who were scheduled to fly on any MD-80 flight between April 8 and April 11 to rebook their flight. Passengers must initiate travel by April 17 to avoid paying a fee.

Travelers who had an overnight layover because of a flight cancellation should e-mail American about compensation for hotel stays.

How many travelers have been affected?

At least 250,000 passengers were affected by this week's cancellations on American Airlines alone. The carrier canceled nearly 600 additional flights on Friday, bringing total cancellations for the week to nearly 3,100.

When will the cancellations end?

American said cancellations will continue through Saturday.

Are all these flight delays behind the recent fare increases?

No. A number of airlines increased their fares by substantial margins this week. The fare hikes are an attempt by carriers to pass along more of their costs — especially rising fuel costs — to consumers as they struggle to stay in business.

The higher fares are "unrelated to the main inspections and the grounding of the aircraft," says Chris Mainz, a spokesman for Southwest. "It's a direct result of the record-high fuel costs."

Which airlines raised their fares?

On Friday, American joined the other five major airlines in the U.S. — United Airlines, Delta Airlines, Continental Airlines, Northwest Airlines and U.S. Airways — in raising airfares by up to $30 roundtrip, according to, a travel Web site that tracks airfares. The most expensive increases are for flights that are coast-to-coast.

Southwest Airlines has raised roundtrip fares $4 and $12.

With reporting by Kathleen Schalch and Joshua Brockman. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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