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Shortage of Pilots Is Blamed as Eastern Postpones Flights

Times Staff Writer

Strikebound Eastern Airlines, struggling to get a few more planes in the air, Monday had to postpone the resumption of flights on its Boston-Washington route, apparently because of a lack of pilots.

The airline had said Friday that the route was one of those it planned to restore over the weekend and Monday. It said it expected to make 14 daily flights between Boston and Washington beginning Monday.

Robin Matell, a spokesman for Eastern, which last week sought protection under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code while it reorganizes, declined to confirm that a shortage of pilots caused the postponement.

However, he said, “You have be able to adjust by calling audibles at the line of scrimmage. You have to be flexible enough to adjust for a change in plans.”

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On another front, Eastern said it will ask the bankruptcy court to appoint an examiner to review all “material transactions” between it and its parent and affiliate companies. Eastern is owned by Texas Air, which also owns Continental Airlines.

When an examiner is appointed in such cases, it is usually done at the request of creditors. However, Phil Bakes, the airline’s president and chief executive, said Eastern will ask for an examination of its own affairs “to once again dispel the misconceptions being promoted by its unions that the affiliated transactions are somehow not necessarily in the best interests of Eastern.”

The airline’s unions have accused Texas Air Chairman Frank Lorenzo of stripping assets from Eastern to intentionally weaken it while building up non-union Continental.

The International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers went on strike against Eastern 10 days ago. Most of the financially troubled carrier’s 3,600 pilots have declined to cross the Machinists’ picket lines, and Eastern was all but idled. At first, it was only able to operate most of its lucrative Northeast shuttle flights and one Latin American route.

Matell said Eastern flew 75 flights Sunday, planned 85 Monday and would operate 110 flights a day by Thursday. All of these figures include the scheduled 62 daily flights on the New York-Boston and New York-Washington shuttle.

Matell said seven flights to Latin American destinations left Miami on Sunday. Bookings for the flights had been heavy, he said, but so many booked passengers failed to show up for the flights that the actual loads were “very poor.”

Closing In on Limit

Eastern said Monday that more pilots are returning to work each day. However, it has not increased the figure it has been using--almost since the beginning of the strike--of about 200 pilots on the job, half of them from the management ranks.

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The Air Line Pilots Assn., which represents Eastern’s pilots, agreed with that figure. But a union spokesman, Hank Weber, said Monday that the 200 were rapidly closing in on federal regulatory limits on flying time.

According to Weber, pilots may fly up to eight hours in a 24-hour period, 30 hours in a seven-day week, 100 hours a month and 1,000 hours a year. He also said some pilots who had continued to fly after the strike began are now leaving the cockpit.

“There are no pilots, because they are working so long and hard they are beginning to exceed the federal limits,” Weber said. He added that his union is using computers to keep track of the number of hours being flown by the non-striking pilots.

Making matters worse, Weber said, is that there is also a shortage of flight engineers. They are needed on planes--such as the Lockheed L1011, the A300 Airbus and Boeing 727--that require a three-member cockpit crew.

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Planes but No Pilots

Eastern acknowledged that it did not have enough L1011 pilots to fly some of its routes to South America and Central America. The ALPA spokesman said that to fly some of the planes that need three in the cockpit, captains were being used as flight engineers.

“Eastern has plenty of planes sitting around,” the ALPA spokesman said. “My last computer run said there 246. But they have no pilots.”

Meanwhile Eastern was struggling with another problem. In an effort to lure passengers back to its shuttle flights, it offered $12 fares between Boston and New York and between New York and Washington over the weekend. Matell said 8,000 passengers flew Friday, 10,000 Saturday and 11,000 Sunday.

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However, more than 500 people were stranded in Boston, New York or Washington on Sunday night, unable to get seats for their return flights. Many spent the night at the airports, and Eastern said it would fly those people for free on Monday.

This week, one-way tickets on the Eastern shuttle, which is used extensively by executives on weekdays, will cost $49. Normally a one-way ticket on weekdays is $99.


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