At a press conference this afternoon, Gerard Arpey, the CEO of American Airlines's parent company AMR, apologized to his customers for the disruptions.
American has canceled 922 flights today. "As of this moment, we have 123 aircraft in service, 10 awaiting FAA inspection," said Arpey. "We have had to make adjustments on most of the aircraft [to be in technical compliance with the FAA directive]....But our mechanics never found chafing of wires, which was the core issue. We believe our planes were always being flown safely. But because our planes were not in technical compliance, we had to [ground them]."
By Friday night, American plans to have approximately 180 aircraft in service. By Saturday night, all 300 MD-80s are expected to be in service.
A reporter asks: Who's fault is it?
"It's my fault," says Arpey. "I run the company, so it's my fault...It's a complicated story that can't be reduced to a soundbite...But I take full personal responsibility....Our mechanics are absolutely not to blame....We're one of the few airlines that does all of its maintenance here in the U.S. (instead of outsourcing overseas)....Our mechanics have done exactly what they've been asked to do...We're going to hire a third-party to come in to [make sure our process is sound]."
Arpey also said he did not fault the FAA. "The FAA has stepped up surveillance in the past month," says Arpey. "Their audit was something we didn't anticipate a month ago....I think they've always held the airlines to a very high standard. But we set a very high standard ourselves and we work with the FAA in a partnership with the manufacturer. We were the ones who went to the FAA and brought this issue to their attention and to the manufacturer's attention initially."
Arpey says, "We're the largest operator of MD-80s in the world. The FAA came to us and Boeing and we came up with a service bulletin to address these issues. When the FAA began inspecting our aircraft, we raised some issues regarding this wire bundle in the wheel wells. The FAA then raised subsequent issues and so [our mechanics had to do the second inspection.]"
Will you continue to fly MD-80s?
Arpey responds that he has no qualms about the safety of the planes. But they guzzle more fuel than some other airplanes, and that might affect future purchase decisions.
"This 38-page air-worthiness directive is quite complicated. The actual configuration in the wheel wells of these planes is different in different planes....In this latest review, in looking at the precise requirements of the FAA, we have brought in a third-party to identify if there have been any process problems. It's not black and white...People working in good faith can come to different conclusions about how to reach safety goals, and in this case, we failed to get it right [in the view of FAA auditors]."
UPDATED at 2:37 ET:
A reporter from the Washington Post disputes the CEO's claim that the document is 38 pages long, contending that the FAA document is only about 5 pages long, and that the "translation" by AA and Boeing is 38-pages long. The CEO admits that he misspoke and that the reporter is correct. [NOTE: A day earlier, another American Airlines official provided a correct, detailed explanation of the process. See a transcript at the Airline Biz blog. The CEO seems to have merely mispoken.
A reporter from CNN asks, If the directive was ambiguous, why didn't you get clear instructions from the FAA first, so as not to have to do it a second time?
"That was a failure on my part," says Arpey. "In this second round, there were issues about the direction of clips, the material that protects the wires, and related issues."
A reporter asks, Can the traveler feel safe about how American interprets FAA requirements?
"Yes, absolutely....We have a team of 1,000 of mechanicals, a robust aviation staff, ... and no one would put an airplane into service that they didn't think wasn't 100% absolutely safe."