Airlines canceled hundreds of flights that were supposed to be flown yesterday by the two types of propeller-driven planes banned Friday by the Federal Aviation Administration from flying in icing conditions.
American Eagle, the commuter division of American Airlines, which uses almost half of the banned ATR aircraft flown by U.S. carriers, canceled all 149 daily flights from O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. Roughly the same number of flights were canceled by Continental Express in Newark, N.J.
American Eagle said it would not offer flights again in Chicago until Thursday, to give it time to swap its 41 ATRs based in Chicago with American Eagle planes in other parts of the country. Eagle serves 31 cities from Chicago.
Although thousands of passengers on airlines that use the ATRs were forced to rebook their flights on other carriers, Chicago's O'Hare Airport was relatively quiet, with banks of monitors showing every American Eagle flight canceled and more than a dozen ATR planes parked in formation nearby.
Saturday is typically a slow travel day, especially at this time of year when there is a lull before the holiday rush that begins in about 10 days, airline spokesmen said. They said many people )) learned of the FAA's decision late Friday, and were able to change their flights.
Don Povendo, who was heading from O'Hare to his home in Kalamazoo, Mich., said he did not mind rebooking his flight on United. "No one likes to be inconvenienced," he said. "But no wants to be on a plane that might crash."
The agency said on Friday afternoon that after conducting new wind tunnel tests on the ATR-42 and ATR-72, it had determined that the planes might not be safe in icing conditions. The airworthiness of the planes, which are made by Avions de Transport Regional, was questioned after an American Eagle ATR-72 crashed in Roselawn, Ind., in late October, killing all 68 people aboard. The cause of the crash is still being investigated, although icing is suspected.
Although icing can occur in many kinds of weather at high altitudes, it is much rarer in warmer climates. American Eagle has decided to base its fleet of ATRs in Miami and the Caribbean.
In the north, the airline will use its 116 Swedish-built Saab 340 aircraft, which carry 34 passengers. The ATR-72 carries 64 passengers, and the ATR-42 carries 46.
Because the Saab 340 is a smaller plane, the airline said it was asking for more landing slots at crowded airports such as O'Hare to serve passengers who had been booked on the larger ATRs.
American Eagle also canceled flights on ATRs at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, where it operates six ATR planes. While rearranging its fleets, the airline also canceled all ATR flights from its hub airport in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and some flights on its Saab 340s nationwide.
Between them, Continental Express and American Eagle operate percent of the ATR fleet flown by United States carriers. Commuter divisions of Delta Air Lines and Trans World Airlines, as well as Mahalo Air, also use some ATR planes.
In all, ATRs represent about 7 percent of the fleet flown by regional airlines in the United States. Because they are among the biggest propeller-driven aircraft in operation, they represent a bigger proportion of the fleet's total capacity.
American Eagle said that swapping and rescheduling aircraft would probably take months to fine tune to give cities their usual level of service.
The FAA decision is certain to result in a loss of millions of dollars to the airlines, said John Hotard, an American Eagle spokesman. U.S. airlines have lost $12.8 billion over the last four years.
ATR officials in Toulouse, France, where the manufacturer of the planes, a French-Italian consortium, is based, reiterated their disagreement yesterday over the agency's decision to ground the aircraft. They noted that the ATR met U.S. and French standards and said that the icing and wind tests conducted by the company "furnish no basis that can justify the measures taken by the FAA."
Meanwhile, the African nation of Gabon grounded Air Gabon's second ATR-72 as a precaution pending investigation of an accident by its sister plane Thursday. The plane was landing at Oyem, in Gabon's north, when it ran off the runway. One passenger was hurt and the plane was damaged beyond repair.
Sixty-two companies worldwide fly 269 ATR-42s and 129 ATR-72s.