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Flyers swamp American site

Travelers lured by a fare sale overwhelm the airline's Web site after the strike is averted.

A fare sale to lure travelers back to American Airlines in spite of a threatened pilots strike has swamped the carrier's Web site, forcing it to increase its capacity to handle more traffic.

The site advised members to book fare sales in a "travel planning" section of the site, but some users could not get through. Phone lines were jammed with callers seeking discounts of up to 50 percent on flights, resulting in busy signals and frustratingly long waits.

An airline spokesman said that call volume was more than seven times normal--2.5 million today alone--and that it had booked "several hundred thousand" flights since the weekend. "We are experiencing extraordinarily high site volume and are working to increase capacity," a message posted on the airline's Web site reads.

American's Web site has seen extraordinary activity since last week, when passengers went online in droves to make sure they had flights in case a pilots strike crippled the airline.

Reservations lines of the major airlines had calmed down since President Clinton ordered a 60-day "cooling off" period for management and union negotiators in the labor dispute at American. Frenzied reservation changes and double-bookings had kept reservation representatives busy on and off the Net last week.

As a walkout loomed, United Airlines, Continental Airlines, and, to a lesser extent, Southwest Airlines all saw a spike in bookings.

"Our volume is up across the board," a United spokesman said Friday. Like other airlines, United offers a service to make flight reservations online.

Online bookings are a small but growing segment of the travel market. Although some services were criticized for being difficult to use when they were first offered last year, many have made significant improvements and offer the advantage of getting information quickly without waiting on hold for a telephone reservation agent.

One online airline booking network, Reservations.com, said it had been warning passengers of the possibility of the strike so they can reserve a flight on another carrier, a spokesman said.

Airlines recently have been taking steps to make their own online bookings services more attractive to passengers. Southwest Airlines has been offering Netizens the chance to get a free ticket faster if they book online.

American offers deeply discounted tickets if they are bought through a Net service. And many services, such as USAir, send email to registered users once a week with cheap flight information to places of interest.

The Net is also playing a role in the negotiations between American and the pilots union. American is posting regular strike updates to its Web site.

The Allied Pilots' Association, for its part, is using the Web to communicate with members and track flights so that they know where all the pilots and planes are and how to plan their next move.