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Foreign airline travel puts U.S. carriers in perspective

A traveler snoozes on one of the complimentary chaise lounges in the Hong Kong airport, which has a view of mountains.

SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN | Times

A traveler snoozes on one of the complimentary chaise lounges in the Hong Kong airport, which has a view of mountains.

There are two things you can say about flying 10,000 miles from Florida to Vietnam:

1. It takes a long time.

2. It's a great opportunity to compare U.S. and foreign airlines.

Guess which ones came out ahead.

My semicircumnavigation of the globe began May 10 on USAirways, which had not yet made headlines by eliminating free peanuts in coach class. But I got a taste of this carrier's penny-pinching in the fall when I flew coach to Europe and had meals so skimpy they made MREs look like three-star Michelin fare.

Thus it was no surprise that on my recent five-hour flight from Charlotte, N.C., to Los Angeles, USAirways served no meals at all in coach unless passengers paid for them. There was also a $5 charge for headphones if you wanted to watch C-run movies on those drop-down, center-aisle screens that are so small you need binoculars.

From Los Angeles it was on to Hong Kong, this time on Cathay Pacific. In passenger surveys, the Hong Kong-based carrier consistently ranks among the world's best for reasons that soon become apparent.

While there's absolutely no way to be comfortable for 14 hours in coach, Cathay Pacific makes the trip about as good as it gets. Barely had the seat belt sign gone off than flight attendants leaped to their feet and began serving delicious hot meals with complimentary beer and wine. Throughout the trip they frequently reappeared with beverages, sandwiches and ice cream, topped off 90 minutes before landing with a full hot breakfast.

All gratis.

The entertainment, too, put the long-haul offerings of most U.S. carriers to shame. Headphones are free even in coach on Cathay Pacific, and passengers have their own video screens with on-demand access to dozens of music and movie channels. I watched 27 Dresses and The Golden Compass — two recent releases — and finally fell asleep midway through Ghostbusters, an old favorite.

The last leg of the trip was from Hong Kong to Hanoi aboard Vietnam Airlines. I'll admit I was a little dubious about flying a relatively obscure airline from a developing country.

Not to worry. Vietnam Airlines has a brand-new fleet of Airbuses and Boeing 777 wide-body jets, decorated with lotus blossoms on their blue and gold fuselages. (I couldn't help but recall that American Airlines is so desperate to save money it leaves its aging planes partly unpainted.)

Once again, we had been in the air just a few minutes when the flight attendants — elegantly clad in the traditional ao dai tunics — began serving a hot meal. Over the next 10 days I flew Vietnam Airlines four more times, and even on flights as short as 45 minutes, passengers were offered complimentary beverages and substantial snacks. Another nice touch you'll never see on a U.S. carrier in coach — free newspapers.

On the way home I had ample time to compare not just airlines but airports. The one in Hong Kong is an engineering marvel, built a decade ago on a partially man-made island with a stunning view of mountains and sea.

Inside, it's airy and sleek, with a multitude of attractive shops, eateries and duty-free stores. There are computers with free Internet access and even comfy chaise lounges for transit passengers to stretch out and grab a bit of sleep.

Twelve hours later — it's shorter going east than west because of the prevailing winds — I returned to Los Angles and the grim reality of U.S. air travel. The 24-year-old Tom Bradley International Terminal is undergoing a much-needed renovation; there's nothing to see and little to do, other than stand in endless lines snaking their way past temporary walls and construction detritus.

My odyssey concluded with a 4 1/2 flight on United — no meal — and two hours on good old USAirways (I broke down and bought a snack box for $5). I arrived in Florida just in time to catch this headline:

"Americans take 41-million fewer flights.''

I wonder why.

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

Foreign airline travel puts U.S. carriers in perspective 05/31/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 5, 2008 12:34pm]

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