On a recent Eastern shuttle flight from New York to Washington, Kedric Robin Wolfe was fit to be tied.
Wolfe took a front row seat, fastened his seat belt and then lifted both legs in the air and wrapped them behind his head.
He was immediately kicked off the plane.
"Jerk!" an Eastern attendant snapped. "Get that bozo out of here."
Wolfe, better known as "the pretzelman," is New York Air's new weapon against the Eastern shuttle.
In a new $1 million television blitz launched last month, New York Air features Wolfe squeezing into an Eastern airline seat in his contortionist position to illustrate that Eastern's seats are cramped.
When Wolfe tried his stunt a second time on a real Eastern shuttle from Boston, he was booted off the plane again. "They said it was against the law to sit that way on an airplane," Wolfe said.
"Obviously, they didn't want a person sitting in the front row of their flight with his legs over his head," observed Abby Nameche, a New York Air spokeswoman.
"We were just trying to have a little fun," chuckled James Collins, a New York Air official who was sitting next to Wolfe, who is a California writer and actor when he's not tied up with the airlines. "The passengers were giggling all over the place."
It's just the the latest round in the shuttle shootout.
At stake are the world's most popular and lucrative routes -- the New York-to-Boston route with about 4.2 million passengers last year -- or nearly 11,000 passengers per day -- and the New York-to-Washington route with about 3.2 million passengers a year -- or nearly 10,000 per day.
Ever since New York Air launched its shuttle five years ago, it has battled to be number one. But some critics say that New York Air has stooped to a new low, kicking Eastern when it's down.
Miami-based Eastern, in the throes of a major financial and labor struggle, announced a few weeks ago it was laying off 1,010 flight attendants -- the first layoffs for the nation's fourth-largest airline since the 1974 Arab oil boycott -- and increasing the pay cuts of 6,000 other employes. Eastern and its pilots are locked in difficult bargaining session with a strike deadline set for midnight Tuesday.
New York's ads are "not surprising," said Jerry Cosley, spokesman for Eastern Airlines. "You get those kind of aggressive moves when you're having this kind of difficult situation. It's the best time for a competitor to come at you."
And New York Air is coming at Eastern with what it calls "the most intense ever attack." The Eastern shuttle is "a callous, bare-bones aviation product that has been called a "flying slum" and a "cattle car" by the media and is only taken by "blind, lemming-like" travelers, New York Air charged in its latest press release.
One New York Air ad compares New York Air's bags of bagels with Eastern's bags for air sickness. Another ad says that unlike New York Air, the shuttle doesn't offer food, drinks or assigned seating. "And the seat you do get is 23 percent less roomy than ours," the ad says. "We clip Eastern's wings every day" -- a spoof on the Eastern slogan, "We earn our wings every day."
"These ads were not timed at all to coincide with Eastern's problems," said Theresa Burt, spokeswoman for New York Air. "The ads aren't nasty. They're just a little cheeky."
Louis A. Marckesano, an analyst with Janney Montgomery Scott Inc. who has been following airlines for 30 years, said, "I don't know if Eastern wouldn't do the same thing if the shoe was on the other foot."
"That's our turf," said Eastern's Cosley. "When we get through with this labor negotiations , we're going to take a shot at their kneecaps."
The Eastern shuttle began flying 25 years ago, offering what amounted to a bus ride between New York and Washington. Passengers need no reservations, can arrive minutes before scheduled departure, buy their tickets onboard and are guaranteed seats -- if a flight sells out, Eastern rolls out another plane for any leftover passengers who arrived before flight time.
New York Air began flying from National to LaGuardia, matching the shuttle's route, in late 1980, and flying every hour on the half hour while Eastern flies on the hour.
At first, it was a heavily discounted, no-frills flight. But the airline eventually shifted its strategy and decided to go after the shuttle's clientele by offering more luxurious service -- reserved seating, somewhat more legroom than the shuttle and in-flight amenities, including a free newspaper, a beverage, wine and the infamous Flying Nosh, a small bag of food including a bagel.
The bagels have become something of a symbol in the war between the two airlines. Eastern's television commercials two years ago asserted that when the shuttle is oversold, it can roll out a new plane, while New York Air, when overbooked, can only roll out a bagel.
"Earn beaches, not bagels," scream the headlines of new Eastern advertisements launched this month as a response to New York Air's ads. For 10 roundtrip flights on the Eastern shuttle, a traveler can earn a free one-way ticket to more than 100 vacation spots, including Aruba, Martinique and Bermuda. New York Air also has a frequent-flyer program, but it takes more trips to win a free ticket.
"We at the Eastern Air shuttle service have nothing at all against the bagels our competition is offering," retorted Eastern's ads. "But wouldn't you prefer a nice, tasty beach?"
However, many passengers at National Airport last week were talking about New York Air's ads, showing Wolfe in the Dwi Pada Sirsasana position he learned as a student of Hatha Yoga.
"I think they're hysterical ads," said Meredith Scheck of Basking Ridge, N.Y., who was boarding New York Air.
"Those ads made me think about switching as soon as I get my 40,000 frequent flyer miles and free ticket on Eastern," said Lois Fox of Falls Church as she dashed for the Eastern shuttle to New York.
Despite New York Air's eye-catching ads, some Eastern passengers are just loyal shuttlers.
"It's a habit," said Nancy Corbet, a government contractor about to board the Eastern shuttle for New York. "And, besides, the seat size doesn't bother me because I'm short."