When the La Guardia tarmac behind you looks like Shirley Highway at rush hour, when businessmen ar e deplaning in disgust, when a 4-year-old is addressing passengers over the intercom, you know something is amiss with the Eastern shuttle to Washington.

That was the scene yesterday aboard the 8 a.m. shuttle to Washington -- the 8 o'clock shuttle, that is, that departed New York at 9:49.

One of the worst-delayed flights of the three-day-old air traffic controllers strike, Eastern Flight 1411, was the victim of a snarled southwestern corridor that backed up more than 20 planes -- both private and commercial -- on the La Guardia tarmac.

"I've never seen a delay like that," said the pilot of the shuttle, Chuck F. Leonard, who has been with Eastern for 16 years.

Even the stewardesses were at a loss.

"I feel helpless," said Kathleen M. Hope. "You wish you could do something for the people -- you wish you could order out for pizza for something."

But pizza wouldn't have done much to appease the businessmen on the flight who were missing their morning meetings in Washington. So Leonard took to the intercom.

"We've never done this before, but how many of you have missed your meetings and would be interested in deplaning?" Several hands went up. "Okay, I'll see if our company can send a vehicle out here to take you back to the terminal. Within 15 minutes, 11 people had left the plane.

Meanwhile, Leonard, clearly embarrassed by the delay, tried to make on-board conditions as comfortable as possible. He turned off the no-smoking light, announced that passengers were free to get up and stretch, and invited anybody interested up to the cockpit to chat.

Next thing you knew, Leonard and his copilot were explaining the controls to a few little boys, and one even addressed the passengers over the intercom.

"Hello, mom and dad," he said.

It was not your captain speaking.