Aviation boycott of Soviet Union was more symbolic than damaging

''A ticket to Moscow,'' the customer requested warily. ''No problem,'' the travel agent responded. ''Any day you want to go is fine.''

Air traffic to Moscow returned to normal Monday as a pilot boycott of flights to the Soviet Union was suspended. This, in turn, followed the lifting Friday of the official ban on Soviet aviation imposed by most NATO governments following the Sept. 1 shooting down of a Korean airliner.

Aviation authorities admit the two boycotts added up to only a short-lived, ''symbolic'' success in protesting the Soviet downing of the jumbo jet in which 269 passengers were killed.

The governmental ban, the West's only joint reaction to the Sept. 1 tragedy, together with the pilots' action failed to stop traffic between Europe and the Soviet Union and caused little inconvenience to travelers.

''We had no problems getting our vacationers either in or out of the Soviet Union,'' reported Lucien Mayeau of Wagonlits, the large travel firm here. ''There were few delays.''

Despite this, a spokesman for the International Federation of Airline Pilots' Associations (IFALPA) at the federation's Surrey, England, headquarters said the ban had achieved its objective. It had shown the world that the pilots were generally united in their condemnation of the incident and their demand that quick action be taken by governments and aviation bodies to prevent any repetition. This was why IFALPA had called for a resumption of flights four weeks earlier than planned.

A similar position was taken by David Kyd of the Geneva-based International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents the world's airlines.

''We knew it would be impossible to stop people from traveling to Moscow, but it's the symbolic value that counts,'' Mr. Kyd said.

How did the travel agents manage the feat of keeping the travelers on the move?

They were helped by the fact that autumn is traditionally a light season for travel to the Soviet Union. Travel agents said most trips take place in the summer and over Christmas.

For those who wanted to go, the Soviet Union continued to be linked with the outside world. Trains kept running, and extra cars were added on the Helsinki-Moscow line. Flights on Warsaw Pact airlines bridged Western Europe to Moscow. And most important, flights from Athens, Vienna, and Paris remained on schedule.

Austria's neutrality, Greece's governing leftist ideology, and France's traditional prickliness dictated that the flights continue.

In France, there was suspicion that the four Communist ministers in the government, including the one responsible for transport, insisted that the flights go on. But top French officials denied this. Boycotts are ineffective, they said, and in any case, why does the United States, with no direct flights to Moscow, always advocate boycotts that affect French - and not American - interests?

French pilots, along with all other Western members of (IFALPA), did vote to ban flights for 60 days. But this did not stop Air France: The state-owned company used non-union pilots.

''We only had to cancel two times, both last week,'' reported Air France spokesman Daniele Germain. ''And we didn't have any mass rush - many of our flights were not full.''

In the wake of the short-lived boycott, says IATA's Mr. Kyd, ''We now want to move on to the next step - correcting the loopholes that exist against military attacks on civil airliners.''

Currently, the Chicago Civil Aviation Convention of 1944 only recommends that governments refrain from using military force against civil airplanes, Mr. Kyd explained. IATA and IFALPA are calling for a complete ban, but have little hope of gaining world consensus.

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