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American Airlines back up to full schedule

After its worst operational week since 9-11, American Airlines finally returned to its full schedule Saturday afternoon, with nearly its entire fleet of MD-80 airplanes back in service.

The Fort Worth-based airline canceled 200 flights Saturday morning, includng 57 departures for Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. But service was back on track by early afternoon, said spokesman Tim Smith.

As of midday Saturday, just three MD-80s were still awaiting final approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to return to the skies, Smith said.

Including Saturday morning's cancellations, American has cut about 3,300 flights since Tuesday, when the FAA grounded the carrier's fleet of 300 MD-80 planes. FAA officials said inspections of wire bundles in the aircraft wheel wells hadn't been properly completed.

The decision came amid a widespread audit of aircraft inspection records at airlines nationwide. Southwest Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and others have all grounded planes and canceled flights in recent weeks due to inspection problems.

But American's was the most severe thus far, in part because its fleet of MD-80 planes is so large, and is used extensively at its hubs at D/FW and in Chicago. After being checked by several American mechanics, each plane also had to be reviewed and approved by an FAA inspector, a process which took several hours.

American conducted the checks at airports nationwide, and in many cases had to fly teams of mechanics to various locations to perform the inspections.

The airline has offered $500 travel vouchers, refunds and reimbursements for lodging, meals and ground transportation to passengers stuck overnight because of the cancellations.

Gerard Arpey, American's chief executive, personally apologized this week for the breakdown. The airline had hired an independent firm to review its methods of complying with safety directives in the hopes of avoiding problems like this again.

Still, aviation experts say there could be more widespread cancellations due to inspection lapses in the next few months. The FAA's audit is expected to continue until June, and the agency has been quick to ground airplanes that don't appear to have proper inspection records.

The FAA is the subject of a congressional investigation into its ties to the airline industry. Some critics in Congress have accused the agency of a cozy relationship with airlines that has fostered a lax attitude toward safety.

Last month, at a Senate hearing, FAA inspectors-turned-government whistleblowers testified that supervisors had allowed Southwest Airlines to fly planes that hadn’t been properly inspected for potentially dangerous fuselage cracks.