Airlines weather strike 'shockingly well'

Nationally some 60 percent of the scheduled airline flights were still taking off as of Tuesday, and Federal Aviation Administration officials were predicting increased flights in the next few days.

"It's going shockingly well," said Bill Berry, a spokesman for Delta Airlines , based in Atlanta. Delta and Eastern each got about two-thirds of their scheduled deparures off the ground the first full day of the strike, according to company officials.

But the cancellation of the other third of the flights could be costly to the airline companies. Although an Eastern spokesman said some of the idle time is being used to do small maintenance jobs earlier than usual, officials from both companies said there was little to do with the idle planes.

"You park them or fly them," says joeph A. Cooper, Delta's senior vice-president for marketing.

But Dick Stafford, an FAA spokesman, said there were hopes that as more supervisory personnel joined the nonstriking controllers, as many as 75 percent of the flights could operate.

Military air controllers have also been called in on a stand-by basis. With some additional training in handling civilian planes, says Mr. Stafford, they could be of help.

The so-called "50 percent" plan the FAA has imposed on airlines is easily misunderstood by the public. The cut applies to 23 major airports, not all airports. Airlines are allowed to choose which flights to cut to meet the limit.

The effect on passengers' ability to stick to travel plans has been much less than expected. Although Delta, for example, reported delays of up to three hours in New York and one hour in Washington, most passengers were getting out.

due to a sluggish economy, summer travel had been down anyway, says Delta's Mr. Berry. With many booked passengers not showing up because of the strike, and with the use of their larger planes, Delta has been able to get even most of its standby passengers on board, Berry says.

One savings to the airlines is less overtime flight pay for stewardesses and stewards, according to Eastern and Delta spokesmen. These flight personnel remain on the payroll but will be flying less with fewer planes in use.

Does the strike indicate ways airline companies might save money by combining flights and filling up their planes more? Probably not, says Delta's Cooper.

So far this year, Delta has been flying with an average of 45 percent of its seats empty, compared with about 40 percent empty the past few years. But this is because midnight and 6 a.m. to get to airports for use during peak travel hours.

"You can make pretty good money at 60 percent [full, on the average ]," says Cooper. Since planes are ordered several years in advance, based on expected strength of the economy, the strike will have little effect on long- ra nge planning, he says.

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