With the announcement of a tentative settlement of the contract dispute between the federal government and the nation's air traffic controllers came a collective sigh of relief from:
* Air travelers, who might otherwise have had to fly under reduced airline schedules and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) contingency plans that would have had supervisory personnel manning airport control towers.
* The management alternative modes of transportation, such as rail and inter-city bus lines and rental-car agencies.
* The Reagan administration, already preoccupied with trying to steer its budget- and tax-cut packages successfully through Congress.
As many of 8,000 of the 14,200 normally scheduled daily commercial flights would have departed June 22 if the strike had not been averted. But how long this pace could be continued was an open question. Using "qualified supervisors" and 2,000 nonunion controllers, the FAA planned to follow a six- day, 10-hour-a-day workweek, as compared with the normal five-day, eight-hour-a-day week. An FAA spokeman acknowledged that such a schedule could not be kept up indefinitely.
Amtrak, the national rail passenger service, would have had to take cars out of badly needed maintenance programs, and some officials were worried that unmanageable crowds would jam stations -- especially along the Boston to Washington corridor and that longer-distance, reserved-seat trains would be almost entirely unable to accomodate all those wanting to go by train.
As it was, Amtrak put part of its contingency plan into effect June 22. Metroliner trains from New York to Washington ran with two extra cars.
The Hertz rental-car company had planned to move thousands of cars to locations where they would be needed most. Such a move is routine, a spokesman for the company said, but not to the degree that a strike by air traffic controllers might have necessitated.
Trailways and Greyhound bus lines were politely telling thousands of callers ever the weekend that they do not take reservations but that there definitely would be extra seats in the event of a strike.
"The parties have had tough negotiations and have reached a fair settlement," President Reagan said after the tentative agreement had been reached.
Some administration officials are privately hailing the accord as a major achievement. But Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis said, "I don't think any one of us [won]."
Secretary Lewis said the $40.3 million package will mean an average pay raise of $4,000 each for controllers, who now make an average $34,000. The major part of the package, he said, includes increased differentials for night and overtime work and 14 weeks of salary for retraining controllers found medically unable to continue on the job. It also removes a previous limit on overtime pay, but Lewis emphasized that despite the special allowances, the total compensation "was within the confines of our original offer."
Other close observers point out, however, that eliminating the cap on overtime pay could prove inflationary in other years.
From the point of view of the 14,800-member Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) much more was gained than money, according to its president, Robert Poli. "The biggest change" in the tentative 42-month contract -- it must be approved both by Congress and rank-and- file union members -- was in the language of the contract "because the government recognized that the air traffic controller was unique," Mr. Poli said. Another major government concession, also not directly involving money, is the fact that controllers now will have more influence in selecting the kinds of equipment they use in their work.
"This agreement is fair and equitable and one which all parties can accept," Poli said.
Another PATCO spokesman said the agreement represents the "first formal recognition of the government of the responsibility of the air traffic controller." He added that the ratification process will be complete within the next month, at which time legislation to impliment the provisions of the accord will be introduced in the House and the Senate.
A spokesman for the Air Transport Association, a trade organization representing 33 of the nation's largest airlines, said the group is "pleased that a tentative agreement has been reached and that 800,000 daily travelers will have uninterrupted service."