ARLINGTON, Va. - As gay and lesbian workers fight for benefits for their partners, this summer brought good news for those working in the airline industry.
In less than two weeks, three major airlines announced they would extend employee benefits to homosexuals. Just like that, the airlines joined the entertainment and high-tech industries as the most visible business sectors to offer such benefits.
United Airlines, the nation's largest, was the first to make the decision, on July 30, followed closely by American Airlines and US Airways.
Despite the good will the airlines hope the policies will engender among their gay workers and customers, the rush to add benefits was triggered by a court decision.
In July, a federal judge in San Francisco ordered Chicago-based United to provide employee flight discounts, bereavement leave and medical leave to both same-sex couples and unmarried heterosexuals living together.
The judge's decision was designed to bring United into compliance with a San Francisco city ordinance.
Hours after an appeals court upheld that ruling, United announced it would offer all benefits, including health insurance, to partners of employees and retirees nationwide beginning next May.
US Airways and American said their new policies apply so far only to gay couples. They're still studying extending them to live-in heterosexuals.
American, based in Fort Worth, Texas, expects to have the new benefits in place by spring 2000, spokesman Tim Kincaid said.
US Airways, based in Arlington, is discussing the scope of the benefits with labor leaders and hasn't yet set a date for their implementation, spokesman David Castleveter said.
''These policies make good business sense,'' said Kim Mills, spokeswoman for the Human Rights Campaign, which says about 2,800 companies and 74 Fortune 500s have implemented same-sex benefit policies.
''In a labor market where unemployment is running at about four percent, it's hard for companies to attract and keep good employees,'' she said.
The Human Rights Campaign is discussing the policies with other airlines, including Continental, Delta, Southwest and Northwest, officials from the Washington-based nonprofit group said.
The policies are expected to raise costs for the airlines, but it's difficult to say by how much.
''We don't know yet how it's going to fall out,'' said American's Kincaid, noting the airline has no idea how many employees are gay and how many will sign up. Because benefits to same-sex partners are taxable income, many employees may not sign up, he said.
Some companies have balked at such policies because of fears that health insurance premiums would jump if employees' partners with HIV or AIDS had to be covered, Kincaid said.
In fact, same-sex benefits may be inexpensive because they generally will not have to cover the costs of troubled pregnancies or children, he said.
''Most companies have found that it's a much lower impact than what was expected,'' he said.
The high-tech industry pioneered the effort in the late 1980s when Lotus Development Corp. implemented same-sex benefits. Since then, Microsoft and IBM, among others, have followed.
In the entertainment industry, most of the major studios have added gay-friendly policies, including Fox, Walt Disney Corp. and Sony Pictures.
Other industries that have seen some companies add same-sex benefits include banking and oil, Human Rights Campaign officials said. Chevron, based in San Francisco, was the first oil company to take the leap, and was followed by Shell, BP Amoco and Mobil.
The San Francisco court decision also caused Bank of America and Wells Fargo & Co. to offer same-sex benefits.
''A lot of companies want to be second. They don't want to be first,'' Ms. Mills said.
Not everyone is pleased with the changes.
''We feel like it's a continuing attack on the traditional family,'' said Herb Hollinger, spokesman for Southern Baptist Convention.
The Baptists have been among the loudest critics of same-sex benefits policies. Church leaders urged their 15 million members in 1997 to boycott Walt Disney when Disney announced a similar policy.
Even so, Hollinger said the Baptists have called for no boycotts of the airlines.
''I can understand from a business point of view,'' he said. ''We think it's a commentary on our culture, in which it's basically 'anything goes.'''