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Fly right

Planning to travel cross-country? You might want to consider Amtrak.

The astonishing decision by American Airlines to cancel nearly 2,500 flights from Sunday to Thursday was just the latest result of an airline regulation scandal that started last month. United, Southwest, Delta, Alaska and other big carriers have all scrubbed flights in recent weeks because of maintenance issues, and stepped-up inspections by the Federal Aviation Administration will probably continue to wreak havoc on flight schedules for some time.

Fliers are understandably furious, though they’re not sure whether to direct their anger at the FAA or the airlines. Both are ultimately to blame.

The mess started after FAA whistle-blowers pointed out an overly cozy relationship between the supervisor of an FAA office in Texas and officials with Southwest Airlines. Southwest allegedly was allowed to fly dozens of planes that didn’t comply with FAA safety regulations, including some that hadn’t been inspected for cracks that could potentially tear a plane apart mid-flight. The political fallout has been intense -- top FAA officials were grilled Thursday by a Senate subcommittee -- and the agency’s response has been a tough crackdown on all U.S. airlines. Carriers in any way out of compliance with mechanical specifications are being forced to pull planes out of service.

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Airline defenders argue that the carriers are the victims of a political controversy that has little to do with safety. They rightly point out that it is very much in the airlines’ interest to keep their planes as safe as humanly possible, because crashes are financially devastating. Moreover, the airlines seem to be doing a pretty good job. U.S. carriers have an enviable safety record, and maintenance-related crashes are extremely rare -- testament to the airlines, the FAA or both.

And yet the Southwest example demonstrates that airlines can and sometimes do slip up, whether intentionally or not. In the case of American Airlines, the carrier claimed last month that it had fixed wiring problems in aircraft wheel wells, but later inspections showed that the wiring still didn’t meet FAA standards. It may well be that the FAA raised a fuss over technicalities it might once have let slide, but that doesn’t let American off the hook for not doing the job right the first time.

FAA airworthiness directives exist for sound safety reasons. So even though passengers are being rattled by the current turbulence, a vigilant inspection program will improve their odds of landing safely.


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