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Going Offby Christopher Elliott

Going off

Travelers discover the red-eye

April 20, 2000
Web posted at: 8:07 a.m. EDT (1207 GMT)

(CNN) -- It starts with the pills. Peter Shankman pops them like candy the day before. Then he goes on a drinking binge -- "a liter an hour, at least" -- and doesn't stop until it's all over.

"Afterwards, you're not necessarily the friendliest person," admits the Manhattan marketing consultant. "If you're not careful, you might even end up with a cold."

Shankman is engaging in an increasingly common travel ritual: preparing for an overnight flight, otherwise known as the "red eye." The pills are vitamin C capsules; the drink, bottled water. The payoff is undeniable.

"You don't waste an entire day traveling," he says.

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Red-eye flights -- particularly on transcontinental routes such as the New York-San Francisco "nerd bird" -- are soaring in popularity. Although neither the United States Department of Transportation nor the Air Transport Association, the trade organization for the principal United States airlines, track the number of night flights, anecdotal evidence suggests that red-eyes are one of the hottest trends in the airline business.

Fly-by-night plans

New York writer Richard Laermer says he used to hate red-eyes and "avoided them like the best plagues." Then he developed a system not unlike Shankman's that includes a sedative, an eye mask, earplugs and lots of water. Now he's hooked. "It makes a lot of sense," he says. Laermer likes being able to arrive at his office in the morning, where he can get a full day of work done.

Adrienne Evans is also addicted to the night flights. Faced with a daunting 2,353-mile commute between her home in Mesa, Arizona, and a new job in Washington, she found herself drawn to the red-eye itinerary. "It's dreaded by some, but loved by me. I can leave Phoenix on Sunday at midnight, be in D.C. by 8 a.m. the next Monday morning, grab the Metro downtown, and be to work by 8:30 a.m.," she says.


It's difficult to determine whether there are more red-eye flights today than a few years ago, but it's no stretch to say that the flights are more likely to be sold out now than in the past.

Indeed, a series of interviews I conducted with airline flight crews, travel retailers and industry observers revealed that you don't stand much of a chance these days of landing an empty row on a red-eye flight where you can stretch out and sleep.

The airline industry's talking heads will tell you that convenience is driving this trend -- that in this Internet economy, passengers simply don't want to spend an entire day on a plane. And they're partially correct: Only tourists would want to fly during daylight, so they could look at the pretty rock formations 30,000 feet below. The rest of us just want to get there.

Choosing to snooze

But there's something else pushing travelers to the after-dark flights, and it's got more to do with the state of the airline business.

For all the positive publicity that United Airlines and American Airlines managed to squeeze out of their pledges to return some of the legroom that they stole from economy-class passengers after deregulation, air travel remains a horrible ordeal. Is it possible that more people are flying at night because the experience is something that they'd rather sleep through?

Before answering, consider:

  • Airline food remains largely unpalatable. Considering that carriers spend $3 per portion on the grub, is anyone surprised?

  • In-flight service has quite possibly never been worse, due in large part to several continuing labor disputes. Hey, if you felt exploited by your boss, would you enjoy your job?

  • Complaints to the government about airlines are rising as fast as fares.

  • For the few inches of pitch carriers are relinquishing, steerage seats remain a restrictive 16 1/2 inches narrow. Most of us can't wedge our bodies into those.

    Wouldn't you want to anesthetize yourself from that kind of pain?

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    Archive: More 'Going off with Christopher Elliott'

    Know-It-All: How to sleep in economy class
    December 1998

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