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Service Takes Off as Those Empty Planes Give Some Passengers a Lift : Airlines: Consumers have stayed home in droves since the Persian Gulf War began. But for many who do choose to fly, treatment has never been better.

February 24, 1991|PETER S. GREENBERG

On Jan. 21, five days after the start of the Persian Gulf War, Suzy Gershman, author of the popular "Born to Shop" book series, had a reservation on British Airways Flight 175 between London's Heathrow Airport and New York.

When she arrived at the deserted airport check-in desk, she presented her business-class ticket to the British Airways agent. "I'd like a window seat, if possible," she said, and then added, jokingly, "I'd also like you to seat me next to the most handsome man on the plane."

The check-in agent scanned her reservations screen. Then, in deadpan style, she said, "Madam, I'm afraid I'd be hard pressed to seat you next to anybody ."

There were no check-in delays. No long lines to pass through passport control and security. And no crowds in the duty-free stores.

Indeed, on Gershman's 747 flight from London to New York, there were only five other passengers in business class. And, Gershman reports, the rest of the plane was virtually empty.

"The flight was a joy," she says. "And the service was the best I ever had."

The low airline passenger counts these days tell the story: Hardly anyone is flying, due mostly to fears surrounding the war. But many passengers who are flying are being treated better than ever--with lower prices and improved service.

Consider this internal memo to all employees distributed by the security department at McGraw-Hill in New York on Jan. 29. It is similar to many other directives by U.S. corporations to their executives:

"All McGraw-Hill plans for international travel should be re-examined during the war in the Middle East," the memo begins. "For those who must go abroad, try to select a carrier that flies nonstop to your destination. . . ."

The memo then says: "Avoid these airlines: All American carriers, all British carriers, all French carriers, Aeroflot, Air Afrique, Air India, Alitalia, Egypt Air, El Al, Gulf Air, KLM, Kuwait Airways, LOT Polish Airlines, Lufthansa, Malev (Hungarian Airlines), Pakistan International Airlines, Royal Air Maroc, UTA."

Is it any wonder, then, that few executives of McGraw-Hill are flying?

Some examples of virtually empty planes in the last few days:

--A British Airways Concorde flight between London and Washington: one passenger.

--TWA Flight 235 between St. Louis and Los Angeles: Only 54 passengers in the coach section of the L-1011, which holds 214 people.

On Feb. 10, I flew Pan Am Flight 100 to New York from LAX . When I arrived at the terminal, it was empty. There were no long check-in lines at either the terminal counter or, later, at the gate. For the first time, I walked to my flight in a line, not having to navigate around baggage carts, luggage and other passengers. The plane was a 747, and is configured to hold 414 passengers. The total passenger count: 155 (a dismal 37% load factor).

Almost without exception, each passenger had an entire row to himself/herself. The service was great. The flight left on time and actually arrived early . And most passengers were flying on severely discounted tickets.

"It's bad for us, but good for passengers," says Paula Jackson, a 12-year Pan Am flight attendant who was working Pan Am 100. "You have more time to provide good service and spend time with passengers."

Jackson is right. Want great service? Space? Comfort? On-time performance? If so, now's the right time to fly, when most planes are empty and the price is right. In recent history, there has never been a time when the prices were this low and the service so great.

Because of travel fears during the Gulf War, it may be the time to learn to love that empty feeling.

"It really is a great time to be a passenger," says Cindy Yeast, spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants, representing 30,000 flight attendants of 18 airlines. "Under FAA regulations, airlines are required to provide at least one flight attendant for every 50 passenger seats, whether the seats are filled or not.

"Thus, with the current situation of empty planes, passengers stand a very good chance of getting very good service."

To be sure, flight attendants are finding lots of extra time on these near-empty flights.

Recently, on one Northwest flight between Detroit and Las Vegas, flight attendants set up their own version of a Lotto game. They collected passenger boarding passes and had a drawing that matched boarding-pass numbers. Winners received prizes ranging from free drink coupons to decks of playing cards, bottles of wine and cans of soda.

On another flight, the crew held a contest for the passenger making--then wearing--the most creative hat.

A few flights aren't so empty.

Many international passengers are opting to fly on Swissair, convinced that the carrier is the least likely to be targeted by terrorists.

Worldwide, Swissair's traffic is down as much as 18% over last year (far less than most other carriers). And on North Atlantic routes, Swissair is one of the few carriers that has not cut back service.

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