Thursday, April 10, 2008

What Kind of Delays ?

When I was in Chicago for the Communicating for Safety conference, a lot of people showed up late. Or not at all. Even one of the speakers didn’t make it. His flight was delayed. It’s a funny thing, when air traffic controllers fly, they are very sensitive to airline agents telling their customers that the delay is an “ATC delay.” There are dozens of stories about controllers being told their flight was delayed due to ATC and the controller calling them on it. Literally. The controller would pick up their cell phone, call their buddies and find out the real reason.

As I’m sure you know by now, there were massive delays yesterday and they couldn’t be blamed on ATC. Hardest hit was American Airlines as they grounded 300 MD-80s. And just so it doesn’t escape your notice (it’s mentioned on the second page of The New York Times article linked above), American Airlines is overseen by the same FAA office that oversees Southwest Airlines -- the FAA’s Southwest Regional Office. The same office that Mr. Stuckey (FAA Flight Standards) ran and was relieved of yesterday.

Much of the traveling public is angry over these events and are looking for a place to lay that anger. In simple terms, who’s to blame ? That will be complicated. I’m already noticing the various slants. Some want to blame Transportation Committee Chairman Oberstar for leaning so hard on the FAA, some want to blame the airlines and some want to blame the FAA. None of these entities is just going to roll over and take it lying down. They all know what is at stake. The thing I would like for you to notice is that every single one of them is trying to win public opinion. That is the grand prize in all this. The public -- you -- are the ones that vote, buy tickets and employ government workers. It is your opinion that matters.

In trying to untangle this mess, I finally found a story that gave me the piece of the puzzle I was missing. I found it in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram -- in the very last paragraph of the article.

”Experts are mystified about the sudden focus on electrical wiring in the wheel wells of MD-80s. There are no reports of any recent, serious problems.

Boeing first issued a bulletin in July 2005 urging airlines to inspect the wire bundle for the auxiliary hydraulic pump. It said there had been reports of shorted and arcing wires, probably because of wear and abrasion of the insulated coverings. Airlines were told to install new protective covering over the wire bundles. A year later, the FAA ordered the airlines to perform the inspections and repairs within 18 months. “

I couldn’t figure out why American Airlines grounded their MD-80s immediately. It is very rare that the FAA will order a fleet to be grounded immediately. Most of the time, they will allow the airlines a generous period of time to fix a problem (18 months in this case) so that the airlines scheduled flights aren’t interrupted. But if -- and I emphasis “if” -- the airline has had 18 months (or 33 months since July 2005) to fix the problem and it didn’t get fixed (or wasn’t fixed correctly) and the FAA has a powerful Congressman breathing down their necks because of lax enforcement...well, you might want to take the hit and ground your fleet.

You’ll notice that this ties in directly with Chairman Oberstar’s concern about the message the FAA’s “Customer Service Initiative” -- that was hand delivered to the airlines -- might send. I assure you that the idea behind the “Customer Service Initiative” didn’t come from the field. Or out of left field. It came from the top. And I don’t mean Marion Blakey. I mean the top. As in one George W. Bush.

I’m not an expert on aircraft maintenance, nor the side of the FAA’s house that does the aircraft inspections. I might not be able to hit the bull’s eye on this one but I bet I can still hit the target.

Oh, and if any of your friends got caught up in the airline delays and want to know who to blame ? Ask them who they voted for in the last election.

Don Brown
April 10, 2008

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