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UPS' idle planes deliver tourists to vacationland

The Cinderella tale is always fun, even when the transformation takes place in the predawn dark at Philadelphia International Airport. The pumpkin _ in this case, a United Parcel Service Airlines 727 with "UPS" on the tail and a brown stripe down the fuselage, emptied of packages flown from Raleigh-Durham, N.C., _ was sitting with its wide left-side cargo door flung up, clamshell-style.

The cargo containers had been removed to a spot where the parcels would be sorted onto trucks to complete the Thursday-to-Friday overnight delivery. One worker was inside the 727 unhooking a cargo net.

At the cockpit end of the empty cabin, two tourism magazines stuck incongruously out of pockets on a front wall, although there was nothing for anyone to sit on, let alone light to read by.

But over the next couple of hours, a team of seven UPS employees furnished Cinderella's coach, converting the empty space into a cabin with galleys and 113 seats, magazines and safety cards, able to carry passengers.

UPS Airlines has been using five single-aisle 727s from its fleet of 224 planes to fly charter passengers on weekends or vacation weeks, or to catch cruises, since the spring of 1997. The University of Kentucky chartered one of the jets and flew it from Louisville into Tampa International Airport last week filled with fans attending the Outback Bowl.

Next-day package delivery, which caused UPS to get certification as an airline in 1988, is a night operation, but it does not require flying on Friday nights because few companies want shipments on Saturday.

So, watching equipment sitting idle, UPS began to consider renting its planes to organizations needing a lift on the weekend. Tour operators and cruise lines, the company realized, would be a perfect fit. So far, UPS is not selling its seats to passengers, but only chartering the trip to a tour or cruise company.

UPS appears to be alone in doing such total conversions, although some passenger airlines take out seats and fly a little cargo now and then.

UPS Airlines now has contracts with three tour companies _ Vacation Express of Atlanta, Apple Vacations of Newtown Square, Pa., and TNT Vacations of Boston _ plus four cruise lines, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Princess and Premier. UPS provides the plane, flight and cabin crews, check-in personnel, catering and cabin cleaning.

The tour company sells the tours, manages the paperwork and pays UPS for the lease. The company's clients charter the planes to get their passengers to Bermuda, Aruba, Cancun, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico _ all sorts of warm places. Flights for 1999 are scheduled only from Louisville and Philadelphia.

Tour companies and cruise lines use various charter companies, so getting on a UPS flight is a matter of chance. Individuals wanting to take advantage of inexpensive fares must book through a travel agent; UPS does not handle reservations.

When I arrived at the empty 727 in Philadelphia at 4:45 a.m. on a Friday in August, three trailers, tailgates open, were backed up to the cargo aperture. They contained passenger necessities, packed in precise order for rolling into the plane: overhead bins first, then blocks of 12 seats, already affixed to floor sections, then galley units, then more seats.

The actual floor of the plane, like a theater stage, had marks and numbers in two colors: red for cargo containers, yellow for the passenger service.

Most cargo planes have no windows, but like all the convertible models, this one does. Plastic shields were protecting them for now. The toilets, two in the rear and one in the front, are always aboard. The overhead bins were designed for frequent reinstallation. Oxygen masks, along with all the government-required safety devices, rolled aboard with the bins, which had pillows and blankets inside.

UPS configures the seats into 20 rows with 33 inches of space between the back of one seat and the back of the next. This is two to three inches more space that most regular airlines allow, and three or four more inches than many charter companies.

There are no first-class seats. I sat at a bulkhead and was comfortable. Because no passenger was connecting to another flight and the plane was going to only one place, travelers willingly checked their bags, reducing the crush on aisles, bins and floor.

UPS uses various catering companies. The two meals I had were hot, but neither was anything more than average airline food.