At USA Today yesterday, the big news was that most of the staff and a large number of the readers were ready to fly the newspaper's founder Al Neuharth to the moon. One way. In his weekly column, Neuharth yesterday called for the return of young, unmarried "sky girls" on airplanes. "If I were running any airline, I'd ease today's cabin pressures for my passengers with those pleasures of years past," Neuharth wrote. Neuharth recalled that the first flight attendant, then called a "sky girl," came aboard almost 60 years ago. And he noted that certain specifications then were required: A sky girl had to be "a female nurse; unmarried; under age 25; not over 5 feet 4 inches tall; weight less than 115 pounds." Those specs, he wrote wistfully, didn't change much until the late '60s. Having retired in April as chairman of the nation's largest newspaper chain, Gannett Co. Inc., which owns USA Today, Neuharth wrote that he had recently taken his first commercial flight in 19 years. Clearly, it was a shock after all those corporate jets, including the one that took him around the world to write dispatches on his "Jetcapade." In his column, called "Plain Talk," Neuharth complained: "Most of the young, attractive, enthusiastic female flight attendants -- then called stewardesses -- have been replaced by aging women who are tired of their jobs or by flighty young men who have trouble balancing a cup of coffee or tea." Asked about reaction to the column, John Seigenthaler, editorial director of USA Today, said response from the public has been "very negative" and that response from the newspaper's staff was "negative." "Several of his columns have generated reaction," Seigenthaler said. "I can safely say that none has generated this much." USA Today staffers said yesterday that the newsroom's computer system was clogged with messages as reporters and editors tried to figure out how to express their dismay about their founder's latest column. A letter to the editor from many members of the staff is expected to run in Monday's paper, they said. In the space below the Neuharth column, USA Today editors routinely run "Feedback," a chance for others to air their opinions on the issue. Under the Friday column, the response was universally critical. Jim Glab, managing editor of Travel Management Daily, offered the most pointed reaction: "I think Al's proposal is sexist, reactionary and illegal." "Apparently, he's never heard of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that prohibits such discrimination," said Susan Bianchi-Sand, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, AFL-CIO. "If you have a heart attack, are hijacked or are a crash victim, you may owe your life to an experienced flight attendant." Ditto from Capt. Henry Duffy, president of the Air Line Pilots Association: "Flight attendants aren't there to serve drinks; they're on board to save lives." Judy Stack, assistant to the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said yesterday that since the publication of Neuharth's lament, the response has been "unbelievable." Flight attendants and Gannett journalists were among those who called the association to express the most outrage, she said. Stack also said that on the day before the column ran she tried to talk editors out of running it. When that failed, she asked them to consider the timing: Many flight attendants were in Chicago yesterday at a memorial service for those killed in United's Flight 232, which crashed near Sioux City, Iowa, last week, killing 111 passengers and crew members, including a flight attendant. "I requested, I pleaded with them," Stack said. She said she was told that Neuharth did not want to replace the column. "They told me he said that he was 'ready to take the hit.' " Neuharth could not be reached for comment. But Seigenthaler said that the retired Gannett Co. chairman has been working on a book about his life as a newspaperman that has the working title "Confessions of an S.O.B." "This column may be designed to show that the title of the book is well taken," Seigenthaler said.