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For super-cheap air fares, couriers carry corporate baggage

Lucy Neundorfer compares flying on the Concorde to nonstop dining in a very luxurious restaurant. ``All you do is eat and eat, and by the time you've finished, you're there,'' she says.

The 3-hour flight to London via the fastest passenger jet in the world is even more ``dreamlike'' to this Greenwich Village travel consultant because it is so cheap.

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When she flies, she flies as an air courier. That means a round-trip ticket that normally costs $2,000 sets her back only $600. In return, she gives up her baggage space, except what she can carry on. Into her unused luggage space go the letters, memos, or packages from the company that sold her the ticket, which is shipping them to its corporate clients.

International businesses often need to send correspondence or deliver merchandise in a hurry. Rather than deal with the United States Postal Service or private delivery companies, they pay someone else to accompany their goods to the final destination. The courier is often asked to accompany baggage both ways.

``I rarely carry bags anyway,'' says Richard Gadbois, a senior vice-president at Shearson Lehman Hutton and an occasional courier.

Business travelers and those flying for fun say giving away their luggage space is a plus, because it means avoiding delays at customs.

And the benefits are clear for the company sending a package. Although airfreight often gets stuck in airport warehouses, personal baggage is cleared the same day. And it won't get bumped off the flight if the plane reaches maximum weight capacity, something that could happen with materials being shipped by freight.

``By sending a courier, you guarantee that any baggage in that passenger's luggage space will be on somebody's desk the next day,'' says Marie Vigliarolo, vice-president of marketing at TNT Skypak of Long Island, N.Y., one of the largest courier firms.

To ensure that enough space has been ``rented,'' TNT Skypak and other smaller outfits like Halbert Express in Jamaica, N.Y., book a large number of flights months in advance. The largest courier, Now Voyager,in New York, for example, books more than 100 flights a week for its 10 client companies.

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And they handle a large volume of mail, the fourth-largest mail system, by volume, compared with postal and private services, Ms. Vigliarolo says.

As prices of international flights have risen, the number of people eager to fly this way has grown quickly. Agents at the major courier companies say there are always long waiting lists.

The interest can be explained by looking at the price difference between normal ticket prices and courier travel: a round-trip flight to northern Europe, South America, and Bermuda can cost as little as $250 to $350.

But being an air courier has its drawbacks. It can be somewhat inconvenient, and schedules are sometimes limited.

``For the faint of heart, who like to be at the airport early, it's probably not a good idea,'' says Mr. Gadbois.

Indeed, although passengers are required to be at the courier company's office two hours before their planes leave, so as to do the necessary paper work, they often don't get to the airport gate until shortly before the plane leaves.

To cover the cost of the paper work, courier agents often charge a nonrefundable registration fee of about $45.

Couriers never handle the actual packages or letters being delivered. Instead of buying a ticket, they receive a contract, and if they need to get a visa, a letter to the appropriate consulate.

If a courier's plans change, the money paid for international flights is also not refundable, and although the companies will try to accommodate any changes in your plans, says Ms. Neundorfer, they aren't always able to do so.

Flying as a courier, Gadbois notes, often requires planning far in advance, something he rarely does, even though he flies about 200,000 miles a year. At 6 feet 1, he finds the Concorde a bit uncomfortable, less enjoyable when the plane is full than first class on a standard jet.

A prospective courier must show he is responsible, says Laura Civorelli, courier coordinator at TNT Skypak. Until the company knows and trusts a traveler, therefore, a certain amount of screening takes place. Some firms, like DHL Worldwide Express in New York only use couriers who are recommended by an employee.

``Once you commit yourself to the company and say that you are going, you'd better go,'' says Neundorfer, ``or you'll never be allowed to do it again.'' It is the coordinator's skill and professionalism, she and other couriers emphasize, that make flying as a courier so easy.

At $250 a shot, she flies to Rio de Janeiro almost every month to visit her family, and sometimes goes free when the courier company has no one else to accompany its mail.

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