USAir passengers scrambled today to reschedule flights at Baltimore-Washington Airport as machinists for the airline walked off the job, forcing the nation's sixth largest airline to cancel 60 percent of its departures.
Shortly after the strike began at 7 a.m., lines snaked around the normally busy concourse in front of the USAir ticket counters as passengers holding tickets for canceled flights tried to get on other USAir flights or transfer to other airlines.
By 9:30, lines had thinned considerably although hundreds of passengers were expected to wait for hours at the airport to board their rescheduled flight.
Travelers also clustered in front of the departure and arrival boards as the airline posted "canceled" on many of its 90 jet flights.
"I got here early thinking I could beat this," said Barry Dubit, a Westminster builder whose 8:40 a.m. flight to Boston was canceled.
"I was wrong. This is my third line," he said. He arrived at the airport at 6 a.m.
USAir is the largest carrier at BWI, serving 14,000 of the airport's 27,000 daily passengers.
"It's pretty calm under the circumstances," said Carol Riley, a spokeswoman for BWI. "They're doing everything they can to get these people out. There will not be a plane that goes out of here unsafe."
USAir said it will use federally licensed supervisors to avoid a shut down. Machinists, stock clerks and cleaning crews are involved in the dispute. None of the airlines' 2,000 commuter and express flights -- including 110 at BWI -- are affected, since workers servicing those aircraft are not involved in this dispute.
Ms. Riley said passengers who have commuter tickets with flight numbers over 3,000 could go directly to their gates today.
She urged others flying today to call at least two hours before their scheduled departure and asked that passengers ticketed for tomorrow wait until then to call the airline's number: 1 (800)428-4322.
The strike began after all-night talks between USAir and the International Association of machinists and aerospace workers (IAM) broke down over wage and benefit reductions as well as work rule changes.
Local 846 picket lines were set up in front of two entrances to the passenger terminal at BWI. Machinists carried blue and red signs that read "On Strike Against USAir for benefits and working conditions."
Ray Gacheny, a machinist for USAir for nine years, said today that "the whole complaint is job security and work rule changes."
"We're willing to take eight percent wage reductions and pay more of our health benefits," said Mr. Gacheny, who has a top-scale job performing routine jet maintenance for $21.35 an hour.
"We're not making any more than plumbers and auto mechanics, but money is not the issue," Mr. Gacheny said.
Despite airline assurances that no jobs would be lost, the machinists insist that the proposed work rule changes could mean the lost of positions as union members are shifted out of current jobs. Members said the company could then hire non-union worker replacements.
"We're prepared to stay out as long as it takes," said Mr. Gacheny who lives in Bel Air with a wife and two children.
In all, the strike affects about 8,300 union workers who perform ground support and maintenance for Arlington, Va.-based USAir. The company has lost more than $700 million during the past two years.
To shore up finances, USAir is seeking approval of a partnership with British Airways.