Older jetliners show their age

The Baltimore Sun

The nation's elderly airline fleet, struggling with high fuel costs and growing passenger demand, delivered another blow to travelers yesterday as American Airlines and Delta Air Lines canceled hundreds more flights as they continued to inspect planes incompliance with federal maintenance rules.

American, the nation's largest airline, canceled 132 flights of its estimated 2,300 flights scheduled for yesterday, spokesman Tim Wagner said. The airline canceled 325 flights Wednesday.

Delta expects about 275 cancellations through early today, affecting about 3 percent of its worldwide flight schedule, said Chris Kelly, a spokeswoman for the airline.

The airlines were reinspecting wiring bundles in older planes.

At Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, American Airlines said a 6 p.m. flight to Dallas, one of its 16 daily departures, was canceled yesterday due to the emergency inspections. None were halted Wednesday, though BWI passengers connecting to American flights in Chicago and Dallas found delays or cancellations at those airports, Wagner said.

Delta Air Lines, which is BWI's third-largest carrier, said none of its flights were canceled yesterday. Delta has 25 daily departures out of Baltimore, BWI spokesman Jonathan Dean said.

Experts said the airlines' decision to voluntarily ground the planes didn't indicate they were unsafe. But the episode is the latest indication that older aircraft and schedule reductions are leaving the industry with fewer options.

U.S. airlines, beset by financial woes that have postponed capital investments, operate one of the world's oldest fleets, noted Richard L. Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group. Older planes need more upkeep, which can result in more down time. "This isn't a safety issue," he said. "But reliability is becoming a concern."

Maintenance issues have been prominent at America's airports as carriers scramble to bring maintenance inspections up to date after a recent Federal Aviation Administration crackdown. On March 6, the FAA called for a $10.2 million fine against Southwest Airlines.

Since then United Airlines, American Eagle, American and Delta have conducted voluntary inspections and more might be ahead.

US Airways Group Inc. said yesterday that it is inspecting its fleet of 45 Boeing 757s after a wing panel dislodged in flight last week near Baltimore and struck the side of the aircraft. The airplane, en route to Philadelphia from Orlando, Fla., landed safely.

"It's good to know that [the airlines are] taking precautions, but I'm still nervous that there are problems in the first place," said Amy Isenberg of Los Angeles, who was waiting for an American flight to Nashville, Tenn., at Los Angeles International Airport.

American is rechecking all 300 of its MD-80s, and at least 80 have needed modifications, said Wagner, the airline's spokesman. MD-80s make up about 46 percent of American's main jet fleet. "This was not related to an incident or issue that would have endangered passengers," Wagner said. He said the inspections were carried out in cooperation with the FAA.

Delta, the third-largest U.S. airline, is checking wiring bundles on its fleet of 133 MD-80 and MD-90s. Delta said it hoped to re-book passengers when necessary until inspections are completed.

Among big U.S. carriers, American operates the second-oldest fleet, with an average age of 14 years, according to a study by Airline Forecasts, a Washington consulting company. About two-thirds of American's 300 MD-80s are 19 years old, according to the study. Northwest Airlines has the oldest fleet, with an average age of about 20 years.

Flying older planes puts U.S. carriers at a disadvantage against foreign carriers that are adding new planes.

Older planes burn more fuel - an important consideration as oil prices hover near record highs - and lack many features that passengers demand, such as state-of-the-art entertainment systems.

U.S. carriers "can't compete on the global playing field given the kind of low-cost competition coming to our shores with newer fleets," Cordle said.

The effect of pulling airplanes out of service for unscheduled maintenance inspections was demonstrated two weeks ago when Southwest had to ground dozens of planes to allow for fuselage inspections. The carrier had to cancel 126 flights.

American Eagle, a corporate sister of American Airlines, later grounded 25 planes and canceled a handful of flights while inspection paperwork was updated. And United Airlines re-inspected instruments on seven of its 747 jumbo jets, although no flights were canceled.

The flurry of maintenance issues also has focused attention on out-sourcing of aircraft maintenance. Southwest dropped plans to move some of its aircraft maintenance from the U.S. to El Salvador after the FAA fine was announced.

"I wish the maintenance could be done on a pro-active basis, and it's always frustrating to wait when you're trying to get home," said Boston insurance executive Linda Wentworth at Los Angeles International. "But safety is key."

Martin Zimmerman and Tiffany Hsu write for the Los Angeles Times. Sun reporter Laura McCandlish, the Associated Press and Bloomberg News contributed to this article.

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