COMMENTS: Airline Delays Caused by Quarter Inch

For the second straight day, the networks' transportation correspondents parked themselves inside crowded airport terminals to cover the woes of American Airlines' passengers. The safety directive by the Federal Aviation Administration to correct the bundling of wires in the wheel wells of the carrier's MD-80 jetliners has now caused some 2,500 flights to be canceled, grounding more than 250,000 passengers. All three newscasts led with the dislocation, making it the Story of the Day ahead of President George Bush's speech on troop deployments in Iraq. Again, same as Wednesday, not a single reporter filed from the campaign trail.

The FAA directive, ABC anchor Charles Gibson pointed out, insists that wires be bundled together at intervals of one inch, not an inch and a quarter. "Are we tying up the entire airline system of this country because of a quarter of an inch? Is that safety regulation run amok?" he asked correspondent Lisa Stark. Gibson's complaint would be more credible if he had not shared in the decision by all three networks last Thursday to make the FAA's coziness with Southwest Airlines their Story of the Day when the agency was investigated by a House committee. It is hard to make by-the-book oversight seem an overreaction now when sloppy oversight was a scandal then.

ABC's Stark explained: "The FAA's crackdown is, in part, an effort to repair its image" after those House hearings. She predicted that "over the next three months additional carriers will have to park their planes too" as the FAA expands its audit of maintenance work. NBC's Tom Costello raised a similar question about FAA overreaction with Jim Hall, former head of the National Transportation Safety Board. Opined Hall: "What we are seeing now is a divorce between the FAA and the airlines. It has been brought about by one of the partners failing to keep their promises--that being the airlines'--to maintain the safety of flight."

NBC's Costello called the progress towards a resumption of normal service "a slow crawl out of a dead stop." Looking forward, CBS' Nancy Cordes expected American to be fully "back on track" by Sunday: so far, of the 300 MD-80s in its fleet, "it has inspected and fixed the wiring harnesses in just 130." At O'Hare Airport in Chicago, ABC's Barbara Pinto (embargoed link) checked as airline personnel "scrambled to deal with disgruntled passengers." She inquired about the response rate on the telephone hotline: "Three hours on the phone?" "On hold, yes."

Turning to anti-terrorist aviation safety, ABC's Pierre Thomas showed us an Exclusive demonstration by the Transportation Security Administration of how liquid explosives can be detonated by a suicidal passenger in midair. A small electric charge will do--from the battery in an mp3 player…or a wristwatch…or an electric toothbrush.


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