THE Cathay Pacific flight attendants' strike collapsed yesterday with 90 per cent of crew bowing to the airline's ultimatum to sign on for work next month. About 500 die-hard protesters say they will continue their action even though the airline estimates that its operations will be back to normal by the weekend. Cathay management announced yesterday that 3,700 flight attendants had registered for the February roster by the deadline of midnight on Wednesday. The return of so many members, including four of the most prominent figures of its 16-day strike, has virtually broken the Flight Attendants' Union (FAU). Those who were fighting on decided early this morning to pack up their protest outside the Government Central Offices and return home for a good night's sleep. The decision was made following a meeting held at Caritas House last night presided over by the FAU chairman, Mr David Ngan. As the meeting ended, the union's new official spokeswoman, Ms Anita Krishnan, told the South China Morning Post the strikers were going out to pack up their belongings and go home. She said they would return to the Legislative Council building at 1 pm and stage a sit-in to prove their solidarity to members of the public who had supported their cause. Asked whether the last picketers were disappointed that the majority of their colleagues had deserted them, Ms Krishnan said: ''Look at the group attending the meeting . . . they are very united and still very strong.'' But with only a small proportion still on strike, the union's executive has been rendered virtually powerless to enforce its demands. As the strike was not officially called off, it was unclear whether the management would stand by its last offer. The management's package that was still under discussion only minutes before the Wednesday deadline passed was virtually the same as that presented more than a week earlier. It included the promise to establish a joint management and union committee to discuss manning issues and the reinstatement of three senior staff whose dismissal triggered the dispute. The deal had also included a proposal for negotiations on pay once the union bought the staff back to work. Cathay's managing director, Mr Rod Eddington, said about 90 per cent of the airline's cabin crew had responded to the ultimatum to register or be regarded as being unavailable for February. Mr Eddington said the future of the union, which at the height of the strike two weeks ago claimed that it had the support of 80 to 90 per cent of the 4,000 attendants, was in the hands of the cabin crew. ''I wouldn't have any problems talking with the FAU, but it's important that whoever does the talking is representative of the views of the cabin crew community as a whole,'' he said. He pointed out that the union's current action was now only being supported by less than 10 per cent of Cathay attendants. Over the next three days, Cathay would still use some chartered aircraft, especially on mainland China and Taipei routes, because of extra demand from holidaymakers returning after the Lunar New Year break. But Mr Eddington confessed that the dispute had caused ''substantial long-term damage'' to Cathay in terms of its relationship with the community and some customers. ''One of our priorities is the rebuilding of the cabin crew to ensure that we have good relationships and it's important that they work in harmony,'' he said. The management has said it would take action against those strikers who were believed to have intimidated other crew into joining the industrial dispute. Mr Eddington repeated that any disciplinary action would be decided on an individual basis and promised there would be no witch-hunt in which staff were punished purely because they took part in the strike. ''Any disciplinary measures must be fair and be seen to be fair,'' he said. He called for a tightening of Hongkong labour laws, which have been criticised during the strike. Mr Eddington said the territory should adopt secret ballots and look at cooling-off periods, which postpone strike action after a vote in order for last-minute talks to take place. He admitted that the company's stance on the possibility of disciplinary action had prolonged the strike, but said the main reason for the action going into its third week was that it had become a political issue. Ms Krishnan said the FAU still hoped the Legislative Council would be able to help set up an arbitration tribunal to hear all disputes although the Government had ruled out intervening in the present strike. An attempt yesterday by legislators to help resolve the dispute also failed, with the Labour Department refusing to send an officer to mediate. To show their dissatisfaction, eight United Democrats legislators walked out of the meeting with the Commissioner of Labour, Mrs Katherine Fok Lo Shiu-ching, and her deputy, Mr Yiu Yan-nang. United Democrat chairman Mr Martin Lee Chu-ming said they were angry and dissatisfied with the department's refusal to send a more senior conciliation officer to mediate the dispute when it had gone on for two weeks. ''Not even a report has been complied by the conciliation officer sent to handle the case, and we believe the commissioner and her deputy have not been doing their work properly,'' Mr Lee said. ''We are forced to draw a conclusion that the Governor has been deliberately kept out of this.''