United ticket holders queue for seats on other airlines. Strike means long lines, roundabout routes, crowded airplanes

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The nation's air travelers are coping because they must. For many the major drop in daily flights caused by a pilot strike against the nation's largest airline has meant long delays, often circuitous routes to a destination, and decidedly more-crowded planes.

Most major airlines quickly vowed to honor United Airlines tickets on a space-available basis. But space -- particularly for discount-ticket holders who are now the large majority -- has often been scarce, even on a standby basis.

Passengers at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport have had a particularly tough time. United flights there traditionally account for 40 percent of total airport operations.

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Many United ticketholders like Dan and Betty White of Onargo, Ill., spent the better part of the strike's second day at O'Hare moving from gate to gate of various airlines, in hopes of getting standby seats to Seattle to see their new grandchild.

Mr. and Mrs. Steven Finch and their three children also spent most of that day trying to get from Portland, Ore. to Albany, N.Y., on a standby basis in time for a brother's West Point graduation and same-day wedding.

``There's been an awful lot of waiting around -- and it's hard with little kids,'' said Mr. Finch during a long layover in Chicago where he had tried in vain to track down the family luggage.

By Sunday passenger lines at O'Hare were shorter and United was running 14 percent of its daily national roster of flights (up from 11 percent the first day of the strike).

Flying the planes are what United terms ``several hundred'' regular management and newly hired pilots who have crossed the picket lines.

All airlines, including United, were ready for the crisis with added personnel both at airports and in reservation offices. Even lines with few routes directly paralleling those of United reported some impact. ``Our loads were already high on our flights from Atlanta to Honolulu, but now they're running with no empty seats at all,'' says Delta Airline spokesman Jim Ewing. ``Lots of travel agents and passengers are becoming very artistic with their itinerary designs.''

Though a number of charter airlines and smaller carriers such as Midway Airlines quickly added new flights to meet the demand, most major airlines say they will stick to summer schedules announced in April. ``We think it would be inappropriate to disrupt our own schedules to accommodate United traffic, and we have no real plans to operate large numbers of extra flights,'' says American Airlines spokesman Al Becker.

Though a few airlines expect delivery of new planes over the summer, most of these are already committed, and carriers insist there are no more extra planes ``in the hanger'' as passengers often suggest. ``We run the airplanes as much as we can right now -- any sitting around would be losing money,'' says Trans World Airlines spokesman Dave Venz.

United's competitors also say more planes and more flights, even if possible, should not be necessary. The many ``no show'' passengers who make reservations but fail to claim them are part of the reason. ``The industry more than has the capacity to absorb the traffic,'' says American Airlines spokesman Becker who notes his company's 65 percent load factor means that on average 35 percent of its seats fly empty.

Still, no airline feels it can afford to bump potential full-fare passengers for discount-ticket holders. More-popular flights usually have a more limited number of discount seats.

``For an airline doing a good job with that kind of capacity control, it really upsets the apple cart to suddenly have a flood of some other airline's discount fares come in on them,'' notes Lee Howard, vice-president of Airline Economics Inc.

Striking pilots say the traveling public has been largely supportive. ``In two days of picketing I've only had two derogatory comments,'' says one United pilot walking the halls of O'Hare with a ``We are united'' button on his uniform collar. ``A lot ask for these buttons.''

Though there have been some questions -- particularly raised by striking pilots and Ralph Nader's Aviation Consumer Action Project -- about the quality and training of United Airlines' replacements for striking pilots, the Federal Aviation Administration says there is no cause for concern.

``United came to us and asked for some modifications, but we declined,'' says FAA spokesman Dennis Feldman, who notes that the number of federal inspectors monitoring United operations has recently been doubled. ``We absolutely will not tolerate any deviation from federal air requirements.''

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