Air Travelers, Trying to Get off The Ground, Turn To Communist-Era Airport With AM-Germany-Strikes, Bjt

BERLIN (AP) _ Welcome to airport purgatory, a twilight zone of disappearing destinations, invisible airlines and testy travelers packed into terminals like sardines with suitcases.

''Inconvenience? Inconvenience? Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha 3/8'' said Mark ''Sausageman'' Gillard, a member of a touring Welsh rugby team trying desperately to get back to London.

The Welshmen, who played Saturday and admittedly partied too hard on Sunday, were among the bleary-eyed masses trying to bolt Berlin on Monday. They had no choice but to go to east Berlin's Schoenefeld Airport, the only air link between the German capital and everywhere else.

Western Germany's public employee strikes shut down the other two airports in former West Berlin, in one of the boldest blows of the week-old walkouts.

City airport authorities, in a Herculean feat of rescheduling, moved flights, planes, baggage and busloads of travelers to the east Berlin airport, where workers were not on strike.

Schoenefeld, an airport that once catered to the Communist world, and which was reduced to being Germany's link to Eastern Europe after unification, came down with a case of terminal overcrowding.

About 9,000 travelers scrambled for space at an airport that usually serves only 3,000 daily. Hundreds stood in taxi lines competing for the trickle of cabbies cashing in on the chaos.

''We usually have 50 flights a day here,'' said airport spokesman Eberhard Elie. ''Today we had 170. We had a critical situation this morning, there were so many flights stacked up.''

Though two-hour delays were normal, Elie insisted that not one regularly scheduled flight to and from Berlin was canceled.

Some passengers begged to differ. Some destinations were changed to accommodate the most people. Some travelers who wanted one city had to settle for another.

''I have to get to Munich but instead I have to fly to Frankfurt,'' said Capt. J.P. Tristani, 55, an off-duty Aero Lloyd commercial pilot.

''What they're doing is just filling up the available planes and flying to the places most people want to go,'' he said.

Tristani, a native of Ramsey, N.J., survived two tours as an F-4 Phantom pilot in Vietnam and the demise of his old employer, Eastern Airlines, where he had worked for 25 years.

He piloted an Aero Lloyd charter to Madrid on Sunday and was to take a Lufthansa flight back to Munich on Monday, but the strike means he may be stranded in Frankfurt.

''The trains aren't running and there's no way to rent a car,'' he said.

''It's fascinating the way the unions have hit the pressure points of this country, the gradual escalation. It's been very cleverly and strategically handled,'' Tristani added.

Travelers who were to have flown out of west Berlin's main airport, Tegel, instead had to go to Schoenefeld and hunt for airlines not normally based there.

''We spent an hour and a half just trying to find someone here who would check us in,'' said Steve Taylor, a 26-year-old London construction worker.

The strike had one plus. Many airlines, seeking to reduce delays for takeoff, decided to skip the normal catering services, so many travelers, at least, were spared airline food.