After nearly two years of flying people in addition to packages,
United Parcel Service
has heard all the jokes about its charter passenger service.
Do passengers sit on boxes? Do they travel in boxes? Paul Martins, UPS director of passenger services, says the jokes have waned. "But," he said, "we still hear 'em."
Maybe not for long: While cargo industry competitors suggest the best plan is to stick to hauling packages, UPS passenger counts are up, passenger flights have been added and travel agents say people love flying one of the nation's largest package carriers to vacation spots like Aruba, Costa Rica and Mexico.
UPS' passenger service, which is flying people to six vacation destinations and is starting to show a small profit, seems poised to fly further into the black.
"Initially people joked about it. And still, people new to the concept of UPS flying passengers are a little surprised when they first hear about it,'' says Kevin Hernandez, president of Vacation Express in Atlanta, which books UPS charters and individual flights and puts package deals together for UPS. "But once they enter the plane, they know this is going to be a very professional airline offering excellent service."
In the same way a sports arena can accommodate ice hockey one night and basketball the next, UPS crews can easily transform the planes from cargo to passenger status -- in about four hours. UPS charter flights serve meals and drinks. Just like on a regular Boeing 727-100, the aircraft has windows, lights and overhead air. There's a full flight crew, including four flight attendants.
"Except for some permanent modifications, like an additional bathroom and special locks on the cargo doors, most everything is brought in on pallets," including seats, says company spokesman Mark Dickens. "It's completely modular."
Passengers say they can't tell the difference.
"Except for seeing UPS on the outside of the plane and a couple of logos inside, you'd never know you were on a cargo plane," says Jeff Grome, 36, a Cincinnati carpet salesman who flew an UPS charter last year to Cancun, Mexico.
Grome says he appreciated the one difference he perceived from a "regular" flight: extra room.
UPS has just 113 seats on its jets, compared with almost 140 seats on other airlines' same-sized planes. That gives each passenger a few extra inches, which can be a godsend on flights that last as long as three hours.
Martins says the added space is one of the reasons pro and collegiate sports teams take the planes, which cost about $50,000 to charter.
The White House press corps, corporations junketing clients or employees to golf tournaments and the rich and famous, like actor Samuel L. Jackson, are also among UPS' charter customers.
It is clear UPS isn't having a difficult time finding fliers willing to experiment. In 1998, the first full year of the service, UPS flew 109,432 passengers. Through March of this year, it flew almost 70,000 people, Martins says.
Delivering Different Kinds of Packages
UPS started the charter service out if its Louisville, Ky., air hub in May 1997 after an employee suggested passenger flights as a way to put planes flying short weekday hauls in use on the weekend. The first flights were weekends only -- to Cancun from Louisville -- and the list grew from there. Last year, UPS added passenger flights to San Juan and two cities in the Bahamas, from various U.S. cities. And just last week, the carrier added two more destinations, Aruba and Liberia, Costa Rica, giving UPS 16 passenger flights spread over six days a week through connecting cities that include Boston, Cincinnati, Nashville and Pittsburgh.
Packages -- in this case, UPS and participating hotels are talking about flights and rooms -- average about $700 and stays range from three to seven days, according to travel agents. Hernandez of Vacation Express says that's about 15% higher than other charters.
"But we're finding people are willing to pay a little big more for better service," he says. "UPS serves a meal, which is something a lot of airlines are getting away from. They are bigger. And they're fairly new at this, so they're really try to please people and get the repeat customer for their next vacation."
Nancy Cusick of First Travel in Cincinnati says UPS fares aren't "much higher" than other charters and are certainly cheaper than commercial flights. A simple round-trip flight between Louisville and Aruba costs about $500 (add between $300 and $400 to include hotels for a seven-day stay).
"They fly on days most other charters don't fly," she says. "Plus you're getting that comfort, and we're finding that when people are paying for a vacation, they'll pay a little more for comfort."
UPS is just now beginning to see some small profit from the passenger flight service, Dickens says. Like many private companies, UPS is generally tight-lipped about revenues. (Overall, UPS, which was hurt by a Teamster strike in 1997, has seen a turnaround since, in part because of overseas business.)
"I'm not completely pleased yet," Martins adds. "We've not reached our goals, but we're certainly on our way to it."
Most of the other large U.S. freight carriers -- the list includes
Pittston Bax Group's
-- say they never have carried passengers and probably never will.
"That's not our business," FedEx spokeswoman Sally Davenport says, adding, "We're in the business of providing reliable, overnight transportation, and we keep our planes quite busy providing that to our customers."
Dickens, the UPS spokesman, says the company isn't about to abandon cargo, which it still knows best.
"This will never come close to taking the place of our core business " he says. "This is a way for us to utilize some aircraft that were sitting idle on the weekends. Well, it's been very well received and we're happy. But we're not going to replace
Patrick Crowley is a political reporter and columnist for The Cincinnati Enquirer. He can be reached at