LEWISBURG, W.Va. — Nobody wants to fly on "ConAir." Forget first class, on-board movies or complimentary champagne, this is a real no-frills trip. The flight attendants don't smile much and they won't fluff your pillow.
And passengers have a one-way ticket only, stamped federal prison.
"You have to be indicted to get invited," explains Frank Kolacz, ConAir's transportation chief.
The seven-plane airline, nicknamed ConAir by the U.S. marshals who run it, shuttles federal inmates to prison or to court appearances. But after they are released, the inmates have to arrange their own transportation back home.
The National Prisoner Transportation System's Air Operations Division has four 10-seat Saberliner jets and one four-seat Cessna Citation. But its flagships are two 100-seat Boeing 727s that make twice-weekly runs to any of the 38 airports near the nation's 80 federal prisons.
One Boeing serves prisons east of Oklahoma City, where ConAir is based, and the other flies west.
On an East Coast flight, a white 727, unmarked except for a blue stripe along its fuselage and a U.S. flag on the tail, left Oklahoma City at 8 a.m. with stops in Atlanta, Lewisburg, and Harrisburg, Pa. It dropped off or picked up 345 inmates before returning to Oklahoma City at 5:30 p.m.
The one-runway Greenbrier Valley Airport is on the circuit because one of the only three federal prisons for women is in nearby Alderson. After it landed, the jetliner taxied to a stop about 500 yards from the terminal and waited for a prison van to pull up to a rear stairway.
Four Alderson guards, armed with rifles, took up positions around the plane. Seven inmates got off the plane and, after being searched, climbed into the van. Four others were searched and stepped aboard.
Within half an hour, the 727 was in the air again, winging toward Harrisburg.
The ConAir jetliners are staffed by 11 marshals, two U.S. Bureau of Prisons officials, three crew members and a medical officer. Smaller planes each have two marshals and a crew of two.
The inmates are kept handcuffed and shackled and "no weapons are near prisoners," says John Butler, ConAir's chief of operations.
The weapons are locked away, he said, but he wouldn't say where.
On this flight the passenger compartment is divided into two sections. Marshals, unarmed and clad in blue jumpsuits, caps and black boots, stand near the rear entry, at mid-cabin and near the cockpit.
The four female inmates are isolated in the front rows.
"We just keep them separate so they don't start talking with the male inmates and start any kind of problem," Kolacz says.
The inmates are docile. Some nap. Some stare out the windows at the open spaces below.
A ripple of laughter breaks the quiet as a marshal helps a portly inmate squeeze into his seat.
Once aboard, inmates are offered two sandwiches, a granola bar, fruit and juice. Those using the lavatory are escorted by a marshal.
"If we feed them well, they tend to sleep well," Butler says. "That's a security issue, not an amenity issue. A sleeping prisoner is easier to control."
There has never been an escape, although there have been at least three failed attempts to overpower guards, Butler says. And once, marshals were convicted of beating a prisoner on a flight.
"Sometimes emotions get out of hand," Kolacz says.
Before the Air Operations Division was established in 1984, inmates were usually moved by van or bus.
"It was not uncommon to be in and out of county jails for a two- or three-week period while being transferred," says William Brookhart, acting U.S. marshal in Charleston. "I don't think there's anybody that likes to be shifted from one county jail to another to another to another."
Not all on a recent flight agreed.
"This airlift thing is ridiculous," says George McGregor, 35, of Essex Junction, Vt., sentenced to nine years in prison on cocaine charges. "I'm coming from Vermont and my sentence is in Pennsylvania. . . . I could have been driven much quicker. Why the hell are they bringing me through Oklahoma City?
"They've got people going every which way but loose."
The marshals say the system, which costs about $20 million a year, saves money because it does not bog them down on the ground and has almost eliminated travel on costlier commercial flights.
The nation's 2,500 marshals moved about 182,000 inmates in 1992, 54,000 of them on ConAir, authorities say.
"We have about 3,000 prisoners in the tubes at all times," says Myron Brasel, chief of scheduling for the National Prisoner Transportation System.
"It would just be impossible to move (by ground) the amount of prisoners now with the amount of people we have in the agency," Brookhart says.
State correctional systems also use ConAir to move inmates when seats are available, at about one-third the cost of commercial flights, Brasel says.
ConAir is a one-way service. Paroled inmates do not get a free ride home.
"They're on their own," Butler says.
The National Prisoner Transportation System was established in 1979, when it moved 31,407 prisoners.
Brookhart recalls a driving circuit known as "the horseshoe" that ran from San Francisco through Southern California, Texas and Missouri to Leavenworth, Kan., then back the same route.
"That trip would take about 10 days in an automobile," Brookhart says. "It was not uncommon to pull into a motel in a place like Springfield, Mo., and see 20 marshals' cars there."
In 1980, the marshals leased their first airplane, a 50-passenger Convair 580 jet.
The Boeing 727s were added in 1985 and 1988.
"Some people say we give inmates free flights around the country," Butler says. "But they pay a high price for this. They pay for it with their freedom."