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Airline Mess Leaves Fliers in the Lurch

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

American Airlines is at last flying at full strength today. The Federal Aviation Administration okayed the safety checks of all but three of the hundreds of planes it grounded earlier this week. That led to more than 3,000 cancelled flights. American Airlines promises normal service by tomorrow.

That's good news for the thousands of travelers who've been stranded, like Hope Carter. She was Chicago's O'Hare Airport trying to get to Austin.

Ms. HOPE CARTER (Stranded Traveler): They wanted to send me to Dallas, and I told her it was three-and-a-half hours to Austin and it would be the same as being in another state.

SEABROOK: Even when American Airlines returns to normal, the industry as a whole will not. Four other airlines have gone bankrupt in the past two months. ATA, Aloha, Skybus and yesterday Frontier Airlines based in Denver. All this means more headaches for weary travelers, like Twila McKee(ph) of New Mexico.

Ms. TWILA MCKEE (Traveler): Now you have to get to the airport so early and you wait and you wait and then the plane's late, your bags don't get where they're supposed to be.

SEABROOK: So, what's a traveler to do? Let's ask George Hobica. He's the creator of Airfarewatchdog.com. It's a Web site that tracks low airfares. He joins us now from our New York bureau. Hi there, George Hobica.

Mr. GEORGE HOBICA (Creator, Airfarewatchdog.com): Hey, how are you?

SEABROOK: So, to get a look at this from the passenger's point of view, let's say you're one of those people who could be stranded later today who has a ticket on American Airlines. What do you tell them to do?

Mr. HOBICA: What they should have done is had a backup plan and I know that's not always what people do. But I were flying in today's environment and I really had to go somewhere, if I had a wedding, an important business meeting, a funeral, a reunion, a cruise, I would buy a backup ticket…

SEABROOK: Really?

Mr. HOBICA: …on another airline. Absolutely. You can buy fully refundable fares. And I would show up with a fully refundable fare on another airline and just have that in my pocket, you know, the same flight times in case my flight on the first airline didn't go anywhere.

And, you know, if all goes well on your original airline then you just ask for a refund.

SEABROOK: When I'm planning to go on a trip, I'm thinking, okay, how do I get the best fare? I'm not thinking, buy two tickets.

Mr. HOBICA: I know, but these are perilous times. You know, this is a whole new world out there. It's the worst situation the airlines have been in in years.

SEABROOK: Is it the same situation of the airline you are flying - say you're flying to Honolulu on Aloha Airlines, which went under last week. What should those passengers do or have done?

Mr. HOBICA: I think a lot of airlines are on the danger list, and people should probably know that. I mean, Frontier Airlines just filed for bankruptcy. And, you know, I say if an airline stock is selling for the same price as the Sunday newspaper, you might want to think twice.

Of course, if somebody had bought a ticket with a credit card, the Federal Fair Credit Billing Act protects. If you buy anything with your credit card and fail to receive it, you'll get your money back.

SEABROOK: So, for those of us who don't travel all the time, what is it like to fly out there?

Mr. HOBICA: Flying these days is no fun. I remember I used to fly with my parents when I was a kid. I remember all the flight attendants were nice and the seats were comfortable. That's gone by the wayside. But what do you expect? You can fly between New York and L.A. for $200. I mean, it's crazy. Adjusted for inflation, that is, you know, 20 years ago, that's like flying, like, $49 roundtrip.

The airlines just don't price their product sufficiently and then what happens is they shortcut maintenance and then they end up with, you know, $10 million worth of fines and, you know, lost revenue.

SEABROOK: You know something that's occurred to me, it seems like American Airlines is taking a lot of flack for canceling all these flights. But at the same time they're also building the brand that they've tried to build in the past for being super concerned with safety precautions.

Mr. HOBICA: If they were super concerned with safety precautions, you know, this would never have happened. Yeah, I don't buy that. I think, you know, a lot of airlines - not necessarily American - outsource their maintenance, they're not spending enough on maintenance, and also the FAA is in bed with a lot of these airlines.

Like, the airlines can choose which FAA inspector they like. Look, airline travel is very, very safe compared to any other mode of travel but we shouldn't take chances.

SEABROOK: George Hobica is the creator of AirfareWatchdog.com. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. HOBICA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.