When American Airlines' flight attendants walked off the job yesterday, the carrier's ticket agents were left scrambling to book passengers on other airlines flying out of Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
In some instances, passengers who had already boarded their planes were herded back into the terminal as the airline followed the Federal Aviation Administration's rule requiring one flight attendant for every 50 passengers.
BWI passengers traveling to American's main hub in Dallas-Fort Worth, for example, heard their 12:30 p.m. flight was canceled as they stood in line waiting seat assignments.
"They've got our luggage. How do we get our luggage?" Mildred Rohwer asked her husband, fearful that they and their suitcases wouldn't arrive in Los Angeles, their home.
American is the second-largest carrier serving BWI, with 17 daily jet departures accounting for 10 percent of BWI passengers. USAir is No. 1 with about 180 daily flights, handling more than half of BWI passengers.
By yesterday, American had only 300 replacement flight attendants, hired from within the company. Officials said they would start taking job applications today to replace striking workers.
But flight attendants and pilots said yesterday they believed the company would run short of time and money before it could train the required 21,000 attendants, who must undergo six weeks of training.
Many of American's flights leaving BWI yesterday carried nothing but a cockpit crew and cargo, said Gary E. Weller of the Allied Pilots Association. Two pilots who had just landed from Chicago said their plane carried only about 100 pounds of mail.
Ticket agents declined to discuss the situation with a reporter. But as waiting American passengers formed a long line down the terminal, one agent told a customer she had been rebooking passengers all morning.
The full impact of the strike on BWI was not clear yesterday. Eric Bergman, a negotiator for the union at its headquarters in Euless, Texas, said that the strike was 90 percent effective. "They may have a lot of planes flying," he said, "but our understanding [is] that most are flying empty of passengers."
Jay Hierholzer, an official with the Maryland Aviation Administration, said it was impossible to get through to American officials to get a proper reading on the situation. "A number of planes made it out," he said, "but we have no assessment on their passenger loads."
There were tensions on both sides of the dispute. It showed on Margo Furlong's face as the 32-year-old flight attendant from Annapolis returned from maternity leave with her young daughter to join fellow workers in the picket line.
"It's very stressful," she said. "I'm going nuts because I don't know what will happen."
And it showed in the voice of Jim Miles, who recalled how he'd always wanted to be a flight attendant, counting on those plans all through college. After American Airlines hired him two years ago, the 27-year-old Baltimore resident proudly wore his company sweat shirt.
vTC But yesterday Mr. Miles said the airlines had turned into a "horrible corporate monster. I'm ashamed."
But some travelers extended little sympathy to the pickets outside.
"I could be very sympathetic if there weren't so many people out of work," said Mrs. Rohwer, still wondering about the whereabouts of her luggage.