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Air Florida's hopes to resume flying pinned to Eastern's help

It's got all the drama of a late-night movie. Can the underdog, against incredible odds, come out on top? In a Miami bankruptcy court on Wednesday, Air Florida presented its plan to get the airline running again.

But it could all be for nothing. The plan, which calls for resuming Air Florida flights in 10 cities, including St. Croix and St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands, depends on a deal with Eastern Airlines - a deal which may not fly.

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For $7 million, Eastern would like to buy the right to Air Florida's Miami-to-London route, as well as Air Florida's landing rights at crowded New York and Washington airports. The deal appeals to Air Florida, which is strapped for cash and would like to use this money to help put it in the air by Aug. 3.

Even though US bankruptcy judge Sidney Weaver gave his OK on the sale, the decision still depends on approval by the Federal Aviation Administration, the Civil Aeronautics Board, and the British Department of Transport.

Officials from these bodies say approval normally takes two or three months - at least. In any case, it doesn't seem likely now that the two airlines can cut the regulatory red tape in time for an August launching.

The problem with selling the New York and Washington landing slots is that it is against FAA regulations. There is a proposal to allow such sales, but the FAA first has to wait for industry comments on the proposal.

The closing date for comments is Aug. 6. Then comes a period for FAA replies. The whole thing could take ''several months,'' says Dennis Feldman, an FAA spokesman, and even then there is no guarantee of approval. Eastern is willing to pay $3.5 million for the domestic slots.

It's the same sort of comment and reply process with the Miami-London decision at the CAB. But meanwhile, a US agreement with the British government says that if an airline drops out of that route, a new airline can't take over until next April.

Spokesmen from the CAB and the FAA say it's possible to ''expedite'' the speed of the approval process because of Air Florida's dire circumstances. The CAB, in fact, announced Thursday that it will shorten the Air Florida comment period from 20 to 10 days.

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''The August 3 date is not etched in stone,'' says Robin Cohn, Air Florida spokeswoman. ''We won't start flying until we have the necessary capital, and if it doesn't come from Eastern we'll look for other sources.'' She admits it ''hasn't been very easy'' to collect receivables the airline is counting on, but says the firm has enough cash ($600,000) to operate at least until Aug. 3.

Air Florida's plan calls for flights serving Miami, Orlando, and Tampa, Fla.; Detroit; Chicago; Cleveland, Cincinatti, and Columbus, Ohio; and the Virgin Islands. J. R. K. Tinkle, chairman of the airline, told the judge that Air Florida would lose $300,000 during the first month of business after resuming flights but could make an operating profit by Nov. 15.

The judge neither approved nor vetoed the routes, but set another hearing date for Aug. 3.

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