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Comparative Shopping That's Plane to See : SHOPPING: Plane Comparisons

June 14, 1987|MICHAEL CARLTON | Carlton is a Denver Post travel columnist.

It is 3 a.m., I think. It must be 3 a.m. somewhere. Perhaps here, on this 747 ripping through the air 42,000 feet above a nice, dry continent where I could be walking in a park, hearing the peeping of baby birds, smelling the flowers, it is 3 a.m. I'm disoriented.

I've been encased in this metal tube for days, it seems, a civilian astronaut circling the earth again, and again and. . . .

Ah, travel: the romance and adventure, the endless parties and excitement--gin and tonics, grinning at sunsets, a hand-holding walk on a beach as soft and sugary as cotton candy. Why, then, am I so miserable? Why am I whimpering into my blanket as this flying machine rushes between Asia and America? Why am I so tired?

Perhaps it is because I have been doing nothing but flying for the past few days, covering 33,457 miles in 45 hours and 7 minutes; nearly two days out of a life.

Two days of airline meals and movies, a lifetime of safety instructions and dirty toilets. Two days of flying to compare the first-class service of four airlines--two foreign, two American--to see how good old Yankee industriousness compares with that of foreign competition.

If we are being so badly battered in trade wars with other countries, how are we doing in the air wars?

I purposely set out to compare the service, food, ambiance and such of two of America's largest international carriers, United and American, with two formidable foreign competitors--Singapore Airlines and KLM Royal Dutch.

Just Another Passenger

I flew to Hong Kong from San Francisco on United, then back to Los Angeles from Singapore on Singapore Airlines. Next, I tried American from Dallas to London, and KLM from Amsterdam to Chicago.

No one knew who I was or what I was doing. I was just like any other first-class passenger, paying thousands of dollars for a larger seat, free booze and better meals.

I chose to fly first-class for comfort, but also because first-class is where international airlines should do their best job, use their most efficient crews, provide the ultimate in flying comfort for their passengers. If they can't perform in first-class, God help the folks flying coach.

I compared the airlines in several areas: airline lounges, decor of airplanes, the look and attitude of flight attendants, the quality of meals and wines, the special amenities provided for passengers, on-board entertainment (movies and music selections) and a catch-all miscellaneous category in which I looked at those things that could not be placed tidily into the other categories.

I took notes, talked with other passengers and observed. I didn't sleep much, perhaps three hours out of 45, but I did get a fascinating look into first-class service as it is offered by our airlines and theirs. Theirs, more often than not, is better.

On the four flights, three of the airlines (United, Singapore and KLM) used 747s. American used a DC-10 for its London flight. The 747 is undoubtedly a more comfortable, roomier aircraft, much more of a pleasure to fly than the somewhat cramped DC-10.

The United flight had 47 first-class seats, 41 of which were filled. Three bathrooms served all those people. Singapore had 34 first-class seats, 21 filled, two bathrooms. American had 28 first-class seats, all of which were occupied, two bathrooms. KLM had 18 first-class seats on its flight with seven passengers, two bathrooms.

Different Staffing

The staffing on all airlines was different. KLM and Singapore each provided one flight attendant for each 3.5 passengers; United had a flight attendant for each 5.8 passengers; America's ratio was one per 6.5 passengers.

Here is my look at each airline, by category:

Airport first-class lounges: This is where the trip really begins for passengers; the first-class lounge should set the tone for the journey. United Airlines uses the Qantas Lounge at San Francisco's airport. It is a cozy, restful lounge where gracious attendants ask if they can mix you a drink or get you some peanuts. All the other lounges were self-service.

Singapore's departure lounge at Changi Airport is immense, with three bars offering free premium booze, five kinds of tea, hot chocolate and coffee. It is a very quiet, very elegant lounge with Oriental lamps, orchids blooming from vases and a good selection of international magazines and newspapers.

American Airlines uses its Admiral's Club as a first-class lounge. You pay for your booze, the place is noisy and crowded. KLM's Amsterdam lounge is large and spacious, if a little stark. There are two bars, a selection of cheeses and breads for passengers, and too many smokers. The best: Singapore. The worst: American.

Inside the Plane

Airplane decor: United's decor is too busy, the colors are too intense, with blocks of cinnamon, blue and orange racing across the fabric-patterned front of the plane. This is not a restful atmosphere in which to spend 12 or 14 hours.

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