The scene resembled the travel center in Queens in September 1977 when Freddie Laker inaugurated his low-cost transatlantic flights.
But this time, it was the airlines that were waiting in line.
Their representatives began lining up yesterday morning for new air routes which become available next Tuesday when President Carter is scheduled to sign the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978.
Like the initial plane full of Laker passengers, yesterday's group was a mixed bag of people who began lining up when word spread that there was a line. One person in line - a messenger from a law firm - didn't know what airline he was representing. Another hid the United Airlines umbrella she was carrying when she announced she was representing Continental Airlines.
The first person in line was Lew Ramsdell, a regulatory affairs analyst for United Airlines. Although there were rumors that United was going to provide him with a walkie-talkie to notify headquarters in case he needed to go to the bathroom, and would use a United food service truck to cater his meals, he laughed them off. Someone standing in the line for United later did have a walkie-talkie, but he complained that it wasn't working.) Ramsdell did confirm that United had rented a room at the nearby Highland Arms so that United's standees could get some sleep during shifts.
Up for grabs are thousands of air routes either not being served at all by any airline or those which airlines hold authority for but aren't using. In order to stimulate service on those routes, a provision in the air deregulation bill requires the CAB to grant airlines other carriers' unusued or "dormant" authority on a first-come, first-serve basis.
For routes now served by only one certificated airline or by no airline at all, the CAB must authorize new service within 15 days to the first applicant meeting Federal Aviation Authority and CAB regulations. For routes served by two or more carriers, the CAB must authorize the first applicant within 60 days unless it finds that the award is not in the public interest.
A certificate is considered unusued or dormant if the airline doesn't provide service of at least five round trips a week for at least 13 weeks during a specified 26-week period. In addition, when the board authorizes a new airline on a dormant route, it is directed to suspend all other dormant certificates on that route for half a year.
However, an airline with dormant authority can prevent it being given to another airline by notifying the board and reactivating service within a certain time. So airlines were in line both to get new routes and to protect some routes they now are willing to serve when threatened by their loss.
"You can see that if you're in line behind someone who wanted to serve one of your unusued routes, it would be too late," Ramsdell explained.
The line began yesterday at about 10 a.m. shortly after the CAB issued producers for airline applications for the unusued authority and posted a sign outside the building saying: "Unused authority applications. Line starts here."
Under the board's rules, no applications will be accepted until the president signs the bill into law. The board told the airline that the line-up point for those who wished to establish their place in line before 8:30 a.m. on the day the bill is signed would be outside the front door, and it told them they would be responsible maintaining "an orderly queue" the sidewalk.
By nightfall, most of the initial representatives had been replaced by a new shift, but a 17 airlines were represented. One person, Bob Ferrante, was third in line but said he was there for two airlines that the law firm he works for represents - North Central Airlines and World Airways. He wasn't sure which of the two was ahead of the other.