The airline industry called a news conference yesterday. Everybody came. Then the chairman of the country's biggest carrier marched to the podium to announce there would be no news conference.

What happened is one of those odd stories about how little things can drive big agendas in Washington.

The session with reporters had been called to announce a voluntary airline "passenger bill of rights" in cooperation with several senators and House members who were pushing for legislation to redress what they considered to be airline outrages in dealing with passengers. The airlines and key members of Congress worked for weeks to develop a program that would give the airlines a chance to handle passenger-service issues voluntarily.

By late Wednesday night, all but the most minor language problems had been worked out by a delegation of airline chief executives and members of Congress and their staffs. Sources said the last issue to be settled was some legalistic language proposed by Herbert D. Kelleher, chairman of Southwest Airlines.

By yesterday morning, the word was passed to reporters: Be at the Air Transport Association at 11:30 a.m. for a news conference.

Meanwhile, however, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) and Reps. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) and James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), some of the leading transportation mavens on Capitol Hill, had been reading their morning copies of the Wall Street Journal. Exactly who did what when is a little unclear, but it appears that many of them were not amused.

The Journal headline read: "Big Airlines Near White House Pact on Fliers' Rights."

The story backed up the headline, casting the matter as negotiations between the airlines and the executive branch.

The White House? Members of Congress thought they were the ones negotiating with the airlines. So did the White House, which apparently had been informed that the negotiations were underway but had not participated, according to numerous sources in the airline industry and the executive and legislative branches.

"Some fellows blew a gasket on the Hill," said one administration official.

The issues of who gets credit and who was rushing whom became too heavy a burden for the news conference to bear. As reporters arrived, press kits that had been piled on a table suddenly disappeared.

United Airlines Chairman Gerald Greenwald marched purposefully to the podium and said there would be nothing to announce. "In the coming days we will be working to refine and improve our plan in conjunction with Senator John McCain and other leading members of the House and Senate," he said, refusing to answer any questions.

Most sources said the setback was only temporary.

The announcement, which was not released, contained sections promising to inform passengers of the lowest fare available when they call, to make every effort to notify passengers of delays or cancellations, to ask the government to raise compensation limits for lost baggage, to allow nonrefundable reservations to be canceled within 24 hours, and to inform passengers of a variety of things, including whether they must change planes even though they are traveling under only one flight number.

The "Customers First" plan would also promise to "make every reasonable effort" to provide food, water, restrooms and access to medical treatment for passengers stuck aboard aircraft on the ground for an extended time.

CAPTION: United Airlines Chairman Gerald Greenwald marched to the podium to say there would be nothing to announce at the news conference.