American Airlines grounds planes and strands passengers

MD-80 AircraftYesterday, American Airlines grounded hundreds of planes so that they could make some changes in wiring configuration to comply with FAA regulations. They started grounding planes mid-day, all of them from the McDonnell-Douglas Super 80 series, a descendant of the DC-9. According to the admittedly mixed reports, they have grounded all or nearly all of the MD-80s, which number 300 planes in American’s fleet. American flies many of these planes through La Guardia, mainly because the planes serve short and mid-range destinations from there (no cross-country flights). A quick glance at their flight schedules (and the frightening amount of knowledge I have compiled from flying upwards of 400,000 miles on American in the past 3 years alone) tells me that the bulk of their flights operated through La Guardia are MD-80s. They also operate several routes with MD-80s from Newark. This midday grounding has left thousands of passengers stranded around the country, many of them in La Guardia or trying to get home to La Guardia. This will likely continue to affect New York area airports for days since many connecting flights into and out of the New York area on American are served by MD-80s or are connecting through Chicago or Dallas, which are AA’s two hubs and are being heavily affected by the cancellations as well. Update: They have canceled 850 flights today.

American has not stated how long the groundings will last. They’ve said that there was no immediate safety concern, and that they were grounding the planes to comply with FAA regulations. The issue is with the bundling of wires that are located in the aircraft’s rear wheel well. In the MD-80, the engine and wing are located near the rear of the aircraft, and the engines and fuel tanks are very close to the rear wheels. The FAA’s concern is that improperly bundled wires could spark and ignite a fire from fuel or fuel fumes, leading to loss of control of the aircraft from a fire or electrical failure. Sounds like a safety concern to me.

AA has needed to replace the aging, fuel-inefficient MD-80 fleet for some time, and have been trying to decide whether to purchase Boeing 737s to replace them now or wait for the even more fuel-efficient Boeing 787. Maybe this incident, which is not the first time AA has grounded its MD-80 aircraft – they canceled flights in March to perform wiring-related inspections and repairs – will spur them to make decisions that will improve aircraft safety and minimize travel disruptions. Whether those decisions are better maintenance practices or purchasing new aircraft remains to be seen.

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