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Traveling can be nicer in rougher countries

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 7, 2002


It was with a certain degree of smugness that I read about U.S. airlines cracking down on oversize luggage.

It was with a certain degree of smugness that I read about U.S. airlines cracking down on oversize luggage.

At one point, I was among those who couldn't go more than 1,000 miles from home without a gargantuan suitcase and enough clothes for every occasion, from high tea to slogging across the moors. I had a Samsonite so big that when I cleared out my London apartment it held everything but the sofa and TV.

But in 1999, while covering the NATO war in Kosovo, I found myself in a guesthouse with a room so small I had to park my suitcase in the hall.

Since then, I've gone to the opposite extreme luggage-wise. No matter where I'm headed or for how long, I carry only a small upright on wheels. The wardrobe staples never vary: If I'm going to Europe, I take black pants, black boots and a black leather jacket. If I'm going to the Middle East, I take long skirts, baggy tops and sandals.

Okay, so I'll never make the pages of Vogue as an international trend-setter. But at least I don't have to stagger around with a leviathan piece of luggage and pay a U.S. airline $270 extra for the privilege of breaking my back.

Don't get me wrong: I, too, am fed up with air travel in the United States. Thanks to deregulation, we have gone from generally terrific service at high prices to generally lousy service at a variety of prices, many of them high.

Why can't America live up to Third World standards?!

Yes, while in the Middle East and Central Asia, I've noticed that flying in what many consider a backward part of the world is often more pleasant than it is at home.

Take security checks. No one would argue with the need for heighted security, especially after Sept. 11. But I empathize with all those female travelers in America who complain about being groped by male security guards. I remember how I felt last fall in Atlanta when I was ordered to unbuckle my belt and lift up my sweater while standing in front of dozens of other passengers, most of them men, as a male guard took a very long time waving a scanner up and down my body.

You don't see this in Arab or other Muslim countries. Instead, women passengers step into a curtained booth where a female guard searches them. If they can do that in a decrepit airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, why can't they do that here?

Meal service is another big difference. If you're on a U.S. flight less than several hours, forget about anything but a minuscule bag of snacks. Yet on a crowded, 45-minute flight from Islamabad, Pakistan, to Kabul recently, Pakistan International Airlines managed to serve everyone a delicious meal of lamb and curried rice. Nor was that the exception -- Gulf Air and Emirates also provide hot meals even on short hops across the Persian Gulf.

Asian and Middle Eastern airlines also seem more sensitive to passengers' comfort. On the plane to Kabul, I was seated next to a stern-faced, bearded young man who looked like his last job might have been working for the Taliban. A female flight attendant politely asked me if I'd like to move. (I thanked her but said no, and he and I had a good time peering out the window as we flew over the mountains of Tora Bora, trying to spot Osama bin Laden's hideout.)

When it comes to oversize and downright unusual baggage, Asian and Middle Eastern airlines also seem more tolerant than their U.S. counterparts. One reason, I imagine, is that so many of their passengers are foreign guest workers who like to go home with lots of presents, including bulky things like bedspreads and microwave ovens. A few weeks ago in Dubai, I went through the security check behind a man with a crate full of pigeons.

And speaking of Dubai, the Persian Gulf city is home to Emirates, considered one of the world's best airlines. Even economy-class passengers get nice amenities, like hot towels, free newspapers and a cozy airport lounge where, for a small charge, you can check e-mail and enjoy a full buffet. And Emirates is confident, or concerned, enough about its service to ask passengers to fill out customer satisfaction surveys.

Can you think of the last time any U.S. carriers asked about their service? Then again, they already know what we would say.

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

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