As the air traffic controllers' strike enters its second week, the airlines claim the skies are getting friendlier by the day. But for many of the people who work at National Airport, the view from the ground isn't rosy.
From skycaps and cabbies to limo drivers and travel agents, the word yesterday at National was slow. And slow, at National, isn't good.
"It's affecting everybody," skycap Rayford Royal said mournfully of the reduced air traffic.
"Sure it's bad," said Leroy Cauther, a 17-year skycap. "It doesn't hurt your salary so much as it hurts your tips. On $65 a week, my tips are important. You just have to cut back on your activities."
"I've been waiting two hours out here," said Harry Pressley, who had his cab parked outside the main terminal at the head of a snaking line that disappeared over the horizon at the south end of the terminal. "I'm usually gone in 20 to 40 minutes. This is very slow. And it isn't getting better."
Though National's parking lots were full to bursting yesterday afternoon, the crush was deceptive. Airlines have cut back flights in and out of the airport.
And passengers reported many of the remaining flights are half empty or worse. "I flew back from Florida Friday on Pan Am," said Anne Pajic of Takoma Park. "There were 15 of us on board. It was great. We got to eat first-class breakfasts."
USAir is running 28 of its normal 41 flights a day out of National. Delta Airlines has cut its 16 daily flights to 10. Other airlines report similar schedule cutbacks.
National Airport reported Monday that its operations were running at about 70 percent of its normal level, which translates into about 300 fewer takeoffs and landings each day.
Still worse for the National workers, the airlines have begun shedding employes like leaves. Braniff International last week laid off at least 1,500. American Airlines has notified its unions that 1,650 of its 36,000 employes will be furloughed or asked to take voluntary leaves of absence.
USAir plans to lay off 750 employes system-wide. At least 14 of them will be at National Airport, most of whom are part-time employes, the ballast of the industry.
Those around National who still have their jobs were expressing cautious optimism yesterday that perhaps the worst is over. "We're not anticipating any more layoffs," said Delta ticket agent Cheryl Patterson. "One of Delta's selling points is that it's never had to lay off a permanent employe. Not yet."
"The morale is pretty high," said Delta customer service agent Steve Gurley, 25. "We have lots of part-time people, so I guess the permanent people are safe."
Limousine business is off, too, though airport limo service operators say August is always a little slow because it's the one time of the year when Congress is certain to be out of town. "But this is slower than usual," said limo driver Luke Harris yesterday. "They're not empty, but they're not full either."
Area travel agents confirm the bad news. "We've been affected by the strike in the strongest sense in that our clients are nervous," said Alexandria travel agent Gay Vogel. "There's an awful lot of time spent rescheduling flights that have been changed or canceled. People are really frightened. I'm finding that I spend a lot of time reassuring people, saying, 'Don't worry about it; you need your trip. Go on your vacation!' "
Not everyone has suffered during the strike and the passenger anxiety that goes along with it.
Gift shop proprietor Suzanne Patrick says National, which before the strike was always known among concessionaires as a "fast airport," has now slowed down enough to turn passengers into trinket shop loiterers, and quite often, into consumers.
And then there is private security guard Doug Syphax, who mans a booth out in the hinterland near the commuter terminals, near a sign that restricts parking in the area to Supreme Court justices, members of Congress and diplomats.
Syphax doesn't care if the strike goes on forever. "I've gotten more tips since the strike began," he said. "People drive up and say they've got to check on a flight, or to see if it's safe to fly. They say, 'I'll just leave the car here a minute and go in and check with an agent.'
"I tell them they'll get towed and they give me money to make sure it doesn't. I've gotten as much as five dollars."
When the tow truck or police arrive to ticket or tow the car, Syphax says, he just points at the sign. After all, no one wants to ticket the Supreme Court.