Flying the Lonely Skies of Yugoslavia -- in Style

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE first clue was that the gate attendant and baggage handler were sitting in first class, relaxed and laughing. The 200 empty seats behind them confirmed it.

Yugoslav Airlines Flight Number 26 from Belgrade, Yugoslavia, to Timisoara, Romania, had only one passenger -- me. For the next 30 surreal minutes, thousands of dollars of jet fuel, two pilots, a navigator, two smiling flight attendants, and a sprawling Boeing 727 would be wasted on one passenger -- who paid $80 for this one-way flight.

''You can sit wherever you want, because you are it,'' the flight attendant said with a gracious wave. ''We were surprised to see you. We usually don't have any passengers.''

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Three months after the United Nations Security Council eased economic sanctions against Serbia by allowing international flights to resume, business is far from booming.

Yugoslav airlines has mustered a few dozen flights since sanctions on Serbia were eased in October 1994 as a reward for President Slobodan Milosevic cutting off aid to rebel Bosnian Serbs fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

But testaments to better times stand just outside the largely deserted airport: Old company billboards advertising flights to Melbourne; Kuala Lampour, Malaysia; and Tehran bring back memories of Yugoslavia as leader of communist countries that resisted Soviet domination during the cold war.

As I tried to decide which of the more than 200 seats I wanted, the flight attendant explained in flawless English that the airline was still flying to Timisoara because connections from there to China could be valuable in the future. There are also many Serbs in the city who take the return flights to Belgrade to visit relatives, he said.

A bizarre check-in process -- filled with startled reservation agents, security guards, and gate attendants scurrying to find boarding passes, turn on X-ray machines, and open gates -- made sense. But the flight itself remained surreal.

''Instead of announcing it over the whole plane, I will just tell you the flight procedures,'' the flight attendant explained. ''The pilot is Captain Dragovic, the flight time will be 30 minutes, and we will be flying at 26,000 feet. And oh, your oxygen mask is above you.''

My personal jumbo quickly taxied down the deserted runway, a ''ladies and gentleman we are ready for takeoff, thank you'' was blurted out over the loudspeaker, and we took off from the airport without another moving plane in sight.

''Would you like juice or coffee?'' the bored woman flight attendant, sounding somewhat desperate, asked as soon as we were aloft. ''Tea? soda? Anything? Anything at all?''

Both flight attendants served me chocolate cake and insisted I keep a complimentary Yugoslav Airlines hand wipe for future use. The fasten your seat belt sign flashed on and off just for me, and the landing was flawless.

AS I stared out the window, three Romanians walked toward the plane to personally escort me into the terminal. One pushed a small luggage cart from the airport's baggage-claim area across the Tarmac, quickly opened my plane's massive cargo hold, pulled out my bag and waited for me.

Standing in the ever-familiar position outside the cockpit, the flight attendants chimed, ''Thank you,'' and ''Have a good trip,'' as I headed down the aisle. One of them stepped forward. ''For your information,'' he said, ''the temperature is 8 degrees C [46 degrees F.].''

I thanked him, stepped off the plane, and stepped back into obscurity.

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