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High Praise for a Pilot Who Knew When to Stop

<i> Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer</i> .

Here are the people or companies that deserve a few kudos for going above and beyond in helping us negotiate the confusing, frustrating, often annoying maze of travel in 1989:

--Pilot of the Year Award: To Capt. Terry Saul, who flies for Northwest, an airline that usually doesn’t win a lot of awards for domestic passenger service. But this story actually happened, and Northwest Airlines and Capt. Saul deserve major praise.

On April 13, 1989, Saul was preparing Flight 226, the last Northwest flight of the day between Kansas City and Minneapolis/St. Paul.

A passenger approached him and asked if he was the pilot. The passenger explained that he had to get to Rochester, Minn., but that the only routing Northwest would give him was to fly to Minneapolis, overnight there and backtrack to Rochester the next morning.

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The man was traveling with his 8-year-old daughter, who had a brain tumor and needed to get to the Mayo Clinic. He told Capt. Saul that he had looked at the map, and Flight 226 flew right over Rochester. Could the pilot stop first in Rochester?

Incredibly, Saul said yes. Flight 226 was scheduled to land in Minneapolis at 8:45 p.m. Capt. Saul worked with flight dispatchers and air-traffic controllers, told his passengers what he was doing and took off.

He kept the DC-9 at 19,000 feet to avoid excess pressurization and made the unscheduled stop in Rochester. Flight 226 landed in Minneapolis at 9:02 p.m., only 17 minutes late.

--Unsung Heroes Award: To the special services staff of American Airlines. American is one of the few airlines that spends the money for these folks (positions long since eliminated at many other airlines).

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They are the airport magicians who can work wonders, who have the authority (and use it) to right wrongs, cure ills, handle special problems and needs and let you know that someone out there still cares.

Major kudos to American Airlines special service staffers Mary Strain, New York City; Ginny Borowski, Chicago, and Dick Jennings and Jan Olson, Los Angeles.

--Best Regional Airline Award: For the second year in a row, Alaska Airlines gets it. No one else is close. Alaska is one of the best-managed airlines in the United States, from its top executives down to ramp workers.

--The Little Airline That Could Award: To Midway Airlines. First, it should be congratulated for being one of the few airlines to survive 10 years of U.S. deregulation.

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The Chicago-based carrier started flying in 1979 with a $6-million loan and three remodeled DC-9s. Today, Midway flies to 50 cities with a fleet of more than 60 aircraft.

More importantly, Midway is an airline that still seems to care about people and the money they have to pay for travel. The airline has kept its fares reasonable, has a new fleet of planes and a hub system that works more often than it doesn’t.

--Hotel Common Sense Pricing Award: To Stouffer hotels. More often than not, hotel phone charges have been nothing less than rip-offs. Whether it’s the surcharge that hotels add for long-distance calls, or other hidden charges (like billing guests for receiving fax messages, a practice that has long angered travelers, myself included).

Three cheers for Stouffer. In 1988 it announced that it would no longer add surcharges to guest bills for 800 numbers, or for long-distance calls guests made and charged to their own credit cards. In 1989 the Stouffer folks went even further: No charge made to guests when the hotel receives a fax.

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--Compassionate Travel Award (shared): To the Monterey Sheraton and Best Western International hotels. During the 1989 Christmas holidays the Monterey Sheraton offered free rooms to anyone traveling more than 50 miles to visit their relatives in local hospitals.

Best Western started a program in conjunction with the American Society of Interior Designers to improve shelters for the homeless by donating furniture, fixtures and design services.

Honorable Mentions: To The Drake Hotel in New York City. Last year it expanded its bar menu to include a wide variety of non-alcoholic beverages, and American Airlines, which started a program that allows its frequent fliers to donate “Miles For Kids in Need” to make travel available for medical emergencies for displaced children and to help grant last wishes for children.

--Best Airline Food: To Alaska Airlines (second year running). This airline really puts its money where your mouth is. And I’m talking about coach meals.

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--Best Airline (domestic): To American, for the second year running. American has suffered some on-time performance problems (compared to previous years), but it continues to be an industry leader in service and scheduling.

One note of caution: Watch for American to continue a substantial route and fleet expansion. Can it continue to do what it does best in 1990?

--Best Airline to Europe: To Virgin Atlantic Airways (if you can find them). For the second year in a row, I cite them with honors for embracing a travel philosophy that the customer deserves a good time in the air.

Virgin flies to London’s Gatwick Airport from New York City, Newark, N.J., and Miami. And later this year the airline begins service from Los Angeles.

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Take my word for it (and I am usually careful about using superlatives): The airline’s business-class far surpasses other airlines’ first- class. And the attitude and style of its flight attendants make a coach trip across the Atlantic Ocean less of an endurance test than its competitors.

--Best Airline to Asia: To Singapore Airlines, which is usually chosen No. 1 in passenger surveys. The airline does, justifiably, pride itself on service.

By July another airline, Cathay Pacific, will begin nonstop service from Los Angeles to Hong Kong and may give Singapore a run for its money, using new 747-400 equipment. If Cathay’s service from Los Angeles is anything like its existing service to San Francisco and Vancouver, passengers will be in for a treat.

--Best New Hotel: To The Mark, in New York City. Most Manhattan hotels suffer from poor staff attitude, high room rates, below average service and a physical plant that is outdated.

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The Mark is a notable and wonderful exception. In a city where hotel style, location and substance hardly converge, The Mark has it all. A great location, terrific service and a style that is reminiscent of the Regent in Hong Kong. Need I say more?

And finally, a “guts” award, for doing the right thing, to Northwest Airlines. In late September, when the airline received word that its Flight 51 might be the target of a terrorist bomb, the airline went public and informed passengers of the potential danger.

Then, with extra security in place, the airline operated the flight--between Paris and Detroit--without incident. Only 22 passengers were aboard the DC-10 when it left. And in the short run, the airline lost money on the flight.

But in the long run Northwest should be commended for communicating with its passengers and for giving a clear message to would-be terrorists that they will not be allowed to set our travel agendas.

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