If airline travel was in your plans 30 years ago this week, seeking alternative forms of transportation may have become part of the planning. That was because air-traffic controllers illegally walked off their jobs on Monday, Aug. 3, 1981, crippling commercial flights in the first nationwide strike of federal workers in history.
Although somewhat inconvenienced by the strike, our area fared well and in some cases businesses thrived during the walkout.
President Ronald Reagan was in his seventh month in office that year and didn't take the strike lightly. Reagan called the air-traffic controllers lawbreakers, sought imprisonment for the strike leaders, and a federal judge imposed fines of $1-million a day _ if the strike ended by Thursday, Aug. 6. If the controllers didn't return to work by then, Reagan promised to fire them.
The air-traffic controllers were each demanding a $10,000 pay increase at a time when the U.S. economy was hurting.
As defiant as Reagan was uncompromising, Robert Poli, the president of the striking Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization said, "If we're all fired, I want to know who's going to work the airplanes," in response to Reagan's ultimatum.
While the battle lines were drawn, The Daily Star of Tuesday, Aug. 4 reported that local travel agents were being swamped with phone calls from anxious travelers.
"We're getting lots of calls but we don't have much to tell them," said Dawn Miller of the Oneonta Travel Agency, 343 Main St. "The airlines haven't issued revised schedules so we have to keep checking what's going."
The federal government was scrambling to fill control towers with supervisors while the airlines were cutting their schedules. While the major airlines suffered, local charter air services were doing well.
"Right now, the commuter airlines are being allowed to run their full schedule," said Will Lunn, then the vice president of Oneonta's Catskill Airways. "Generally, we're full on all runs."
One person aboard a Catskill Airways charter flight was former U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who had spent a weekend at his home on Prosser Hollow Road near Pindars Corners. Fearing he might miss a vote in Washington on Monday, Aug. 4, Moynihan chartered a flight from Oneonta to a small airport near College Park, Md., proclaimed to be the oldest airport in America. He returned to Oneonta later that day.
Moynihan declined comment on President Reagan's promise to fire the striking air-traffic controllers. "But they are federal employees and they don't have the right to strike, that's the law," he said.
Meanwhile in Acapulco, Mexico, Lorraine and Leonard Bendetto of Oneonta, owners of the former Quality Cleaners, 396 Chestnut St., were there to attend a convention on dry cleaning and were wondering how they were going to get back north.
"We don't know what we're going to do," Lorraine Bendetto said by a telephone interview. She was hopeful the strike would be settled quickly because, "If we do have to stay longer, the amount of work we'll have to catch up on will be phenomenal."
The Bendettos weren't stranded for long. For the few controllers who returned to work or had never gone on strike, work resumed for them Friday, Aug. 7. Approximately 12,200 controllers who remained on strike were fired on Thursday.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis said of the strike's end, "It's taken 200 years for this democracy to develop and it's developed on a system of law, and we just can't see that deteriorate based on a few people that just want to make more money."
This weekend, news and happenings from August 1886.
City Historian Mark Simonson's column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or e-mail him at email@example.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.