Air passengers weigh alternatives as strike takes toll

Uncertainty was the mood of the day at Chicago's O'Hare and all other airports around the country as the first effects of the air traffic controller strike took hold.

It was passengers who first brought word that the strike was on to airline ticket agents manning the counters at the world's busiest airport. The situation demanded passenger flexibility, and most passengers seemed to rise to the occasion.

Typical of the snafus encountered in the early hours when no one knew how many flights would operate was Dennis Carlson's attempt to fly to Atlanta to put in a normal day at the office. The bus which the Decatur, Ga., resident took to O'Hare got snarled in traffic and he missed his 7 a.m. flight, one of the few flights of the day which took off on time. He then booked a set on a 9 a.m. Delta flight only to find it was canceled a few moments afterwards. He rebooked for a 10:55 flight but was advised not to count on its going either.

"If I'd known all this was going to happen, I could have stayed in bed." he sighed.

From the start it was clear that any strike of the nation's air traffic control system would have effects far beyond inconveniencing the 800,000 people who use the commercial airlines every day.

The action could strongly affect deliveries of the US Postal Service, for instance, which uses aircraft to carry the great bulk of its first-class mail.

For the commercial airlines themselves, flying is a $100 million a day business. Air Transport Association (ATA) vice-president Dan Henken estimates that if as many as one- third of all flights do not operate, the nation's airlines could lose more than $10 million a day.

ATA went to court on the strike's first day to seek not only recovery of damages from the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (Patco), but enforcement of the 1970 permanent injunction against such action. ATA had won the injunction in return for dropping $50 million in damage claims a decade ago. Beyond damages incurred in the current strike, ATA will shoot for an extra $50, 000 from the union for every hour the strike continues after the action is judged in contempt of court order.

The cities which operate the nation's airports also stand to lose on landing fees normally received. Barney Parrella, a vice- president of the Airport Operators Council International, estimates that losses nationwide could go as high as $1 million a day if traffic is cut by as much as one-third. Mr. Parrella says that a number of local government members of his organization plan to seek damages from Patco and individual controllers.

For the nation's pilots the main concern in the strike is not economics but safety. The Air Line Pilots Association immediately set up a 24-hour command post staffed by pilots familiar with the traffic control system to take calls from pilots who may encounter trouble in particular airports or areas. Other pilots in the same area would be advised of the trouble and would then individually make the decision as to whether to fly, according to an ALPA spokesman.

"If I see that safety is going to be compromised in any area, I'm not going to fly," insists Vince Swinney, a DC-10 pilot who is not scheduled for flight duty again until the end of this week. "I don't know of any pilots who would take any unnecessary risk, and I'm sure the airline companies would back us up on this."

In the wake of the controllers strike, train, rental car, and bus reservations are soaring as Americans scurry to make sure they have some means of getting where they are going in the event their flights are delayed or canceled:

* Amtrak. Amtrak spokesmen anticipate no problem handling the increased number of passengers in the Northeast Corridor. The rail system is putting two additional cars on most trains running from Boston to New York and New York to Washington D.C., with the exception of the high-speed Metroliner service. However, Amtrak officials say that their ability to help blunt the impact of the controllers' strike will be severely limited elsewhere because of a shortage of extra train cars.

* Buses. Trailways and Greyhound bus lines put contingency plans into effect Monday, with both bus lines expecting a big expansion of normal passenger traffic in the densely populated Northeast where air shuttle service between Boston, New York, and Washington is being severely curtailed. Although it is too early to tell where the increase in passengers will be the greatest, more buses are being made available at terminals such as in New York, Washington, D.C., and Dallas, where officials feel buses can provide a ready alternative to travelers going to destinations less than 500 miles away.

* Rental cars. Hertz Corporation spokesman John Britton says that that company has enough rental cars available for expected upsurg e in rentals for "at least 72 hours."

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