From a distance, the ticket counter of newly defunct Eastern Air Lines at National Airport appeared relatively calm yesterday, but it wasn't calm enough.
Barbara Douglas was speaking heatedly to a ticket agent, trying to switch her canceled Eastern flight to another carrier, when the agent suddenly and coolly walked away from her -- right out of the airport.
"They've left and have given us no answers," seethed Douglas, of Springfield, who had tried to get an American Airlines flight without luck. "We've been an hour in line for American."
The Eastern passengers at National were not alone. Before deciding at 4:32 p.m. on Friday that no alternative remained to shutting down the airline, Eastern had ticketed about 46,000 passengers nationwide for flights that were to have left yesterday.
"In the end, we just ran out of time and resources," said trustee Martin R. Shugrue, who had been appointed by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court to try to salvage the carrier.
While Shugrue was expressing his disappointment at the outcome at a news conference in Miami, Douglas and others were trying to cope with the results at National Airport.
"This is a mess," said Vivi Scott, of Washington.
"I stood in line since 10 o'clock," she said shortly before noon. She too had an Eastern ticket and tried to get a flight on American Airlines yesterday for a one-day business trip to West Palm Beach, Fla. But American's flights were full. At noon, with luggage in tow, she disgustedly went home.
The day after Eastern Air Lines ended 62 years in the air and nearly two years of trying to survive under the protection of federal bankruptcy laws, some of its customers were grounded. A few Eastern ticket holders came to the airline's sparsely staffed ticket counter at National, only to be shuttled over to American Airlines, which had agreed, along with Continental and Northwest Airlines, to honor Eastern's tickets.
That left American swamped, with lines of disgruntled American and Eastern customers trailing out its doors and well beyond neighboring Continental Airlines, while supervisors hurriedly pasted destination tickets on pieces of luggage and dragged them away in handcarts.
The confusion at American caused by Eastern's demise was compounded by tightened security because of the Persian Gulf War. For example, some customers complained that they couldn't check their bags at the curb and had to drag them around with them in line.
Ed Nichols, queuing for an American flight to Myrtle Beach, S.C., said that although he had heard Eastern had shut down, "I never expected it to be like this. I know people here have flown many times, and I've never seen anything like this.
"You wait in line for 45 minutes and then they tell you it's the wrong line," said Nichols, of Silver Spring.
Some American ticket holders were angry that Eastern customers had gotten ahead of them in the American check-in line.
"You mean I have to stand in this line for three hours and I had this ticket for three months?" shouted Donna Schulman, of Potomac, on her way to ski in Colorado. "My parents had Eastern tickets, and they changed them days ago. Come on. This is kind of ludicrous. I realize there's a problem. There's no surprise that Eastern went out of business . . . . I think people are a little ridiculous to still have Eastern tickets."
Army Capt. Peter Wrampelmeier, on his way to Fort Campbell, Ky., to be deployed to the Persian Gulf in three or four days, had bought a ticket on Eastern and was waiting to go standby on American.
"I didn't know Eastern was a problem, or that big of a problem," Wrampelmeier said. "But I guess my mind's been on other things.
"In the Army, you learn to deal with lines," Wrampelmeier said. "The way I look at it, I have no place to go in a hurry."
Eastern, troubled for years by bitter labor problems and huge debt, couldn't survive the additional burdens of rising jet fuel costs, a troubled economy and continuing bad publicity that had accompanied a strike, the bankruptcy filing and an indictment that raised questions about its safety.
Now the job facing Eastern's management is to dispose of its remaining assets, including time slots that allow it to fly into National, where there is a ceiling on the number of flights allowed each day. The assets include an operations hub in Atlanta and a maintenance facility in Miami, where it has its headquarters.
Shugrue said he will continue to explore the possibility of finding a buyer or investor to revive the airline, but he added, "I don't want to hold out false hope here."
Eastern said the airline has more than enough money in a $50 million travel fund established to pay the claims of ticket holders. The slow travel season was expected to make it possible for most Eastern ticket holders to find flights on other carriers.
As the morning progressed yesterday, Barbara Douglas and her husband, George, scurried from line to line. She said that they had bought tickets to Orlando on Tuesday for departure next Wednesday and that Eastern should have told them the carrier's demise was imminent.
"You spend your money, and then they give you hell," George Douglas said. By about noon, after waiting an hour at American Airlines only to learn that no American flights to Orlando were available, then arguing with Eastern agents, the Douglases were headed toward the Delta Air Lines counter.
"American, they've got lines out of the doors," said Ann Korkolis, an Eastern ticket agent still smiling after a morning of angry customers. "I really feel bad for people. There's only so much we can do for them.
"Personally, I'm saddened," Korkolis said, rushing to leave the airport and a job she said she loved. "I think it's just unfortunate too many things were against us."