The cruise industry is always looking for more airlift on weekends, particularly to Florida and Caribbean homeports where "prime time" flights by name carriers are often booked solid. Stepping forward with an unusual proposal to fill that gap is a company known for delivering packages, not people - the United Parcel Service (UPS).

According to Doug Kuelpman, UPS vice president of public affairs, the company has long pondered "how to make the most of assets we have to have" - in particular, how to make the most of its fleet of (51) 727s, which fly Mondays through Thursdays, sometimes on Fridays, but never on Saturdays and Sundays. A consulting firm working with UPS made the connection between the weekend downtime and the cruise industry's weekend demand, and the idea was born.

UPS plans to use special quick-change modules with passenger seats and amenities, which can be easily installed for the weekend passenger service, then removed for the next week's cargo deliveries. The initial conversion program would use 113-seat modules in UPS's 727 fleet only, with other company planes involved in later programs.

The delivery company would enter into long-term contractual agreements with cruise lines to fly their passengers to whatever homeport they sail from. The plan is currently awaiting final approval by UPS top brass. Kuelpman expects that decision to come down by the end of the month, at which point serious negotiations would begin with cruise lines and other travel partners.

Cruise Connections

When interviewed before that decision was made on May 9, Kuelpman was understandably hesitant about divulging just which cruise lines UPS bad spoken to. He did maintain that, "We've talked to most of the big ones," and that the reaction has been "very encouraging."

He acknowledged that the UPS plan will depend heavily on partnerships with the cruise industry. When asked what proportion of UPS customers would be cruise passengers, as opposed to tour takers, he responded, "We haven't decided on the mix yet. We've worked through a number of different models and scenarios, but I can say that the cruise lines fit into our long-term strategy in a large way. We're looking for long-term alliances, and we believe the cruise lines are thinking along the same lines."

Where exactly would UPS be willing to fly? Again, it's too early to say, but Kuelpman ventured, "It all depends on the negotiations. We'll fly wherever our customers want us to." Potential connections he did mention were from cities like Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Boston to southern homeports such as Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and San Juan.

According to the UPS spokesman, his company will move quickly on the proposal if it gets the final go­ ahead. "We're looking to be recertified for passenger service by the FAA in mid-fall, and have the planes flying by Jan. 1, 1997," he said.

The Image Factor

When judging the UPS proposal, the question that immediately comes to mind is this: Will cruise lines want their passengers to start and end their supposedly luxurious cruise vacations with a flight aboard a "mail carrier?"

Kuelpman readily admits that this was a central question, and one posed to the cruise lines during discussions with UPS. "We raised the issue," he explained, "and none of the cruise lines we spoke to expressed a concern. It was a non-issue. Their reaction was, 'You should see some of the no-name charters with peeling paint that we bring our passengers in on now.'"

By focusing on high-quality amenities for fliers such as 33-inch pitches for the seats as opposed to the 29- to 31-inch standard -UPS is hoping to pleasantly surprise their future passengers and meet the demands of the cruise lines.

And if any such "mail carrier" image issue should ever arise, Kuelpman asserted that once the UPS passenger service moved beyond its proof-of-concept stage, "We wouldn't mind putting the names of our (cruise) customers on the side of the planes. We'll do what they want."