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CLEARING THE PICTURE ON THE RED EYE : For cross-country business travelers on late-night flights, the price of convenience is often productivity

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Alan Silverman yawns deeply as the giant DC-10 taxis to the runway. He had rushed onto the plane at Los Angeles International Airport hoping to find some empty seats so he could stretch out.

Not tonight. The plane is crowded, and others beat him to the few available side-by-side empty coach seats. He shoves a pillow under his head and leans against the window. He is in for a long night.

Silverman, vice president of marketing and sales for Pittsburgh-based Genesis Packaging Systems, sleeps restlessly and fitfully before arriving in New York at 6:09 a.m., just in time to rush to nearby Connecticut for an early business meeting.

Silverman hates to fly at night. But like many business people, he does it often. He is traveling on what, for obvious reasons, has been dubbed the red eye--the name for late-night transcontinental flights. Most leave between 10 p.m. and midnight.

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There is no other way to squeeze in a full day of work on the West Coast and put in another beginning the next morning on the East Coast. “These fast-track business people are trying to maximize their productivity,” said James V. O’Donnell, senior vice president-marketing programs of Continental Airlines. “With the three-hour time difference working against them, they lose an entire day if they fly during daylight hours.”

But it is a goal not achieved without cost. A few regular red-eye travelers maintain that they are able to fall asleep before takeoff and not wake up until landing. But Silverman and most others say they are hardly more than zombies after their nocturnal journeys.

“It is grueling,” Silverman said. “My brain doesn’t work (after a red eye). I try not to do anything sophisticated or complex or cerebral. I might go to the meetings, but I try not to get involved in anything that involves any real competence. Sometimes I will check my notes two weeks later, and I cannot believe that I was at the meeting. I cannot recognize anything that I wrote down.”

James A. Hill, a Department of Defense program manager who lives in the Kern County community of Ridgecrest, travels to the East Coast and overseas about 100 times a year but flies the red eye only when he must, about 10% of the time.

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“I would never do this voluntarily,” he said. “I have never taken a red eye where I have gotten off and felt refreshed.”

Commented Robert B. Cozzi, vice president of revenue management for Trans World Airlines, “These are guys who want to beat the crap out of themselves. If I did it, I’d be talking to myself.”

Experts agree. Dr. Charles F. Ehret, author of the book “Overcoming Jet Lag,” maintains that late-night flights “wreak havoc” with the body’s natural rhythms.

Traveling Incognito

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“It is a bad idea,” he said in an interview. “In the end, these people are going to lose several days of their lives because of the resulting mental dysfunction. Businessmen out to make a buck are going to make a lot of mistakes instead of a profit.”

And while an ever-increasing number of business people are flying the red eye these days, they are not alone. They are joined by vacationers who see an opportunity to get a day’s jump on their holiday or others who would rather try to catch a few winks on a plane than pay for a hotel room on their first night away from home.

The night flights are also a favorite of celebrities who want to travel incognito, of travelers who seek to avoid daytime airport hassles and, not too infrequently (airline officials insist), lovers who, knowing the lights will be dimmed and blankets will be handed out, want to smooch aloft.

Red-eye flights have become so popular that they are attracting heavier passenger loads than daytime flights are. One reason, of course, is that fewer such flights are available.

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Until not too long ago, the airlines cut fares for their night flights to lure passengers, but that is not necessary anymore. Continental, for example, says its red-eye flights have load factors about 10 percentage points higher than daytime flights.

Roger W. Weston, assistant manager for schedule planning of Delta Airlines, said the 11 p.m. flight from Los Angeles to Atlanta boasts one of the highest average load factors on Delta’s entire system. The flight goes out 75% to 85% full, compared to an average in the 60% range for all of Delta’s flights. Delta now plans to inaugurate an additional red eye to Atlanta, leaving at 12:30 a.m. and arriving at 7:30 a.m.

On one recent night, the American night flight between Los Angeles and New York had 33 first-class passengers in a section with only one empty seat. Besides Silverman, 203 sat in a coach section that holds 256.

America West Airlines began night flight service in 1986 out of Las Vegas, mainly to carry mail and cargo to seven cities. But the passenger part of the business quickly became dominant, and the airline now serves 31 cities with late-night flights.

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“Some people never take a hotel room,” a spokeswoman for the airline said. “They fly in, gamble a bit and fly out again.”

Veteran red-eye fliers have a bagful of tricks to make their trips bearable, allowing them a few hours of sleep. They bring eye shades and earplugs, and try to dress comfortably.

The other night, Steve Rabin, president of Washington-based Ogilvy & Mather Public Affairs, made a Clark Kent-like move into the men’s room of the American Airlines Admirals Club at LAX. He hooked his hanger bag to a wall and took off the suit and tie and shirt he had worn for his day’s work. Then he donned a white polo shirt, short pants, sweat socks and tennis shoes.

“You don’t expect me to sit five hours in a business suit,” he said just before boarding the 10:30 p.m. red eye to Washington.

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For veteran travelers, the biggest prize available on the red eye is a five-seat section occupied by no other passengers. Snare one of those, flip up the arm rests, and you have a bed for the night. But passengers have no way of knowing which seats will be empty until everyone has boarded the plane. Until then, their pillows and their blankets under their arms, knowledgeable red-eye travelers prance around the plane as though they were playing a game of musical chairs.

“You see them and you laugh,” said Joanne Scanlon, the lead flight attendant of a crew of eight on American’s Flight 10. “They are like sharks going around and around looking for their prey. When the doors close, they pounce on the seats.”

Governor on the Floor

Oddly, some people who pay the high price for first-class seats even go back to the coach section in search of a five-seat parlay. That’s what Pulitzer-Prize winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer did the other night but with no success.

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“Tough luck,” he said as he returned to first class. Many passengers not lucky enough to find a row of unoccupied seats take their blankets and pillows and sprawl out on the floor. And they remain there as long as the seat belt sign is off.

An American Airlines official said that during the 1980 presidential campaign, California Gov. Jerry Brown once slept in the aisle under a blanket. An aide put a sign atop him that read: “Do not step on this man. He is the governor of California.”

Crews on red-eye flights have orders to bother passengers as little as possible. After initial announcements, pilots and flight crews stay off the public address system unless a safety concern arises. Cabin lights are dimmed, and some airlines hand out “do not disturb” stickers to passengers.

American Airlines passengers are asked to secure seat belts over their blankets if they do not wish to be disturbed for their snack. There is no extensive meal service--only snacks--on red-eye flights.

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As a result, cabin crews have much less work to do on night flights. But they do have one important chore and concern--making sure that passengers in the smoking sections do not fall asleep and drop their cigarettes. It is not unusual to find a lighted cigarette lying on the floor burning a hole through the carpeting, flight attendants say.

For airlines, red-eye flights are found money, providing a significant amount of use for jumbo jets at times they’d otherwise be parked.

Robert L. Fornaro, vice president for marketing and planning of Northwest Airlines, estimates that airlines get an average of 10 hours’ daily use from planes. The added nighttime flights allow carriers to make the best use of these expensive assets. And the red eyes are cheaper to operate than daytime flights, as there is less cabin service--meaning smaller crews and less food consumption.

Perhaps not the least of the red eye’s advantages is that it is popular with lovers. Airline officials say quite a lot of “amorous activity” takes place during the flights.

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“You see a lot of star-crossed lovers enjoying the moonlight,” said John J. Keady, American’s Western division marketing manager. “There is another reason besides warmth that we put a lot of blankets on the red eyes.”

Flight attendant Scanlon said she will never forget the red-eye flight last Valentine’s Day out of Las Vegas. It carried 14 newly married couples, she said, and, “they were kissing and cuddling and getting a little intimate.”


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