American Airlines Cancelations Unnecessary

Last week’s American Airlines debacle was the result of bureaucratic arrogance and inflexibility, not the public interest, Melanie Scarborough argues in the Washington Examiner.

American Airlines Cancelations Unnecessary Paul Beaty/Associated Press O'Hare in Chicago was among the hardest-hit airports on Wednesday as planes were grounded and flights were canceled.

The Federal Aviation Administration forced the airline to ground a fleet of planes – canceling thousands of flights and stranding a quarter of a million passengers – because not all the wire bundles in the planes’ wheel wells had been clamped exactly one inch apart.

Aviation experts say this is a technical violation, not one that compromised safety. Planes don’t fall out of the sky because some clamps are three-fourths of an inch apart and others are separated by an inch and a quarter. Clearly, the FAA knew that; otherwise, it would not have given the airline 18 months to comply after issuing the directive in 2006.

The agency’s crackdown on an arcane regulation was a transparent response to criticism from some in Congress that the FAA had become too “cozy” with the airlines. But it is a mistake to assume that regulators must have an adversarial relationship with those they regulate. To the contrary, because businesses know their operations better than an outside regulator ever could, they often know more efficient ways to achieve the required goal. Whether the mission is to ensure safety or environmental protection, collaboration can result in greater effectiveness that benefits everyone.

After Southwest was heavily fined for non-compliance, struggling American naturally decided that it was better off incurring the wrath of the flying public rather than the FAA. But you’d think the FAA would have worked the carrier rather than causing such harm to the public. While the press continually referred to the “inconvenience” of the flight delays, much more was at stake:

Forcing American Airlines to lose tens of millions of dollars last week didn’t punish a culpable individual (if there is one). It punished the company’s innocent employees and stockholders. More significantly, it penalized a quarter of a million blameless travelers who missed specific events: the business deal that wasn’t made, the spring break vacation ruined, weddings and other once-in-a-lifetime occasions forever lost.

Unfortunately, bureaucracies don’t care.

Photo credit: Paul Beaty/Associated Press via NYT

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. davod says:

    I would like to know a little more about the two FAA whistle blowers who testified before Congress. The little I heard made me wonder what the heck they were talking about.