WASHINGTON - The air travel misery will probably get worse. Massive flight cancellations by American Airlines are likely to spread to other carriers as federal regulators step up their scrutiny of aircraft inspections after years of more lenient enforcement.
And as oversight tightens and Congress puts its glare on the airlines, passengers are paying the price. Flying on U.S. airlines has never been safer. But mutual trust between the Federal Aviation Administration and carriers was undermined by last month's revelation that Southwest Airlines flew planes that had missed inspections — a violation of federal standards. Since then, the FAA has played hardball — auditing carriers' maintenance records and promising a less cozy relationship with the industry. And the airlines only have to look at Southwest's $10.2 million fine to recognize the cooperative spirit may be over. "There's always going to be extremes, just as there are in politics, and to some extent this is a political issue," said Bob Harrell of New York-based travel and aviation consulting firm Harrell Associates. The broken trust between airlines and regulators has created scheduling misery for the flying public. And as scrutiny of safety procedures rises, flight delays and cancellations could soon get worse, particularly for carriers with older fleets, Harrell said. Roughly 250,000 passengers have been affected by the American cancellations this week so that its mechanics could inspect wiring in hundreds of jets. Thursday was the third straight day of trouble for customers of the nation's largest carrier, particularly in New York, Chicago and Dallas, where bad weather magnified delays. Alaska Airlines and Midwest Airlines also canceled flights Thursday to inspect their Boeing MD-80s, while Delta Air Lines said it was likely to ground "a handful." Perhaps the worst part for travelers: There's no way to know which carrier will be affected next. Stacey Pillman, 42, of Miami, said she couldn't help but keep glancing at the American Airlines departure board every five minutes Thursday at Miami International Airport. She stayed behind as her family left to buy magazines and snacks for the trip to Mexico City. "I just want to stay here and see what happens. I am not one who likes surprises," Pillman said. In Washington, Nicholas Sabatini, the FAA official who ordered stricter compliance with federal safety standards after the Southwest debacle, faced tough questions from Congress about his responsibility for the lapses. He told a Senate subcommittee he was accountable for the recent breakdowns in compliance, and blamed the Southwest incident on the failure of both FAA and airline employees.