Flying High on Air Freelandia

Voyages around this shrunken planet are not all they are cut out to be. "The friendly skies" are anything but nowadays, as people claw for dwindling seats on jets, ticket prices soar, and the plastic fantastic atmosphere on board commercial airliners distinctly resembles that of a swingles bar.

An alternative to this needless American madness emerged last August in the form of a legitimate and remarkably inexpensive air travel club called Freelandia. Started from the personal pocket of a longhaired ex-Wall Street millionaire, the California-based club donates its profits to charity, serves organic foods, offers bargain-priced crosscountry and trans-Atlantic flights, and promises a safe landing.

After paying an initial $25 membership fee, Freelandians can fly from Newark, N.J., to Los Angeles for $87, about $90 less than a coach seat on a commercial airliner. Flying Freelandia roundtrip from Newark to Miami, Fla., saves members about $70; to New Orleans, La., $74; and to Hawaii, $212.

Freelandia flies several times monthly to Acapulco, Chicago, Brussels, San Francisco, and Mazatlan, among other cities. A spring flight involving Boston is also planned.

Yellow DC 8 and you may end up showing home movies of the flight. "It's an incredible party," said one member from San Diego, Calif. "I always arrive knowing everyone on the plane, and last time I flew east a couple of people started in with guitars and bongos and everybody danced all over the plane. It's hard to believe that someone has finally done something like this. Once in L.A. I waited a week to get a flight on Freelandia, 'cause once you fly this way, it's really hard to put up with the bullshit of other airlines."

The atmosphere on board Freelandia's jet is similar to that of a tribal celebration. Vegetarian meals, organic breads, homemade soups, cheeses, and wines and beers are served which go down and out immeasurably better than the cellophane-wrapped, insignia stamped Salisbury steaks of the more constipated commercial airlines.

During flights, passengers wander up and down the aisles talking, drinking and listening to piped-in rock music; Pong machines, backgammon and chess boards, and a giant denim pillow are strewn about the plane, which has no class sections. Stewardesses and stewards, who walk and talk like real people, wear ultra-violet Flash Gordon-type outfits and berets with the black and white Freelandia insignia of an open hand. What's more, they remain in their original clothes throughout the flight, thus eliminating those strange airborne fashion shows.

Freelandia's founder, is 30-year-old Kenneth Moss, a resurrected middle-class kid from Long Island and two-time dropout at Syracuse U. And self-made millionaire at age 26. Moss bought stocks in disposable thermometers after he left Syracuse and rode the crest of one of the wildest, wealthiest stock market waves in history.

After pocketing several million, he cleared out shortly before the decline, spurred by the sagacity of his three-year-old niece. Moss was spending his days on the telephones in his $850-a-month Park Ave. apartment, or gliding around New York in his Rolls Royce. One day his niece cornered him and snapped, "talking, talking, talking, but you're never DOING anything."

He figured she was right. He sold out, put his money in a bank, and went to Spain to be a holy man. That didn't take, so he bummed barefoot around the world for several years in counterculture style, and then settled down in California with a 21-year-old women named Darcy Flynn.

Moss hit upon the Freelandia idea one rainy night while sitting in his cottage in Malibu. With Flynn, who is now his co-partner, he mused on the pleasures of Bali and how great it would be to go. Well, with millions in the bank and a lot of other people who wouldn't mind going along, why not?

The idea took hold, and Moss and Flynn spent a year and $1.5 million in a mind-mangling fight to get a plane, a license to operate from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and landing rights at major airports.

A newcomer to the intricacies of buying a jet, Moss was swindled out of $45,000, spent another $125,000 on a jet that turned out to be a dud, invested $400,000 in cash, and finally bought a six-year-old DC 8 from National Airlines for $750,000.

Moss cut his hair to avoid a hippy image, and scrapped the original name of "Air Liberation" which he thought would sound too political. "Freelandia" was adopted, inspired by the mythical land of Fredonia in the Marx Brothers' movie "Duck Soup."

Freelandia received its license to operate from the FAA on August 7, 1973. Because it is an air club and not an airline, Freelandia is not subject to the Civil Aeronautics Board's now-skyrocketing uniform commercial rates. Hence the bargain.

The rotating team of pilots (who only get as high as the plane) is headed by a former chief flight instructor for Douglas Aviation--a man who taught establishment commercial pilots how to fly DC 8 s. Each member of the flights crew has at least 10,000 hours of experience.

Ironically Moss himself does not particularly like to fly and purportedly keeps his seatbelt on most of the way, so it is not likely that he will take any chances or shortcuts with the plane.

One member, after a cross-country flight, said the landing was so smooth that she did not even notice it. One can speculate that this was due to a combination of the pilots' professionalism and the conclusion of one hell of a five-hour party.

Numerous tales of freewheeling Freelandia flights are surfacing. At the end of a scheduled trip from Newark to Brussels last fall, several passengers started talking about whizzing down to Rome. So everyone flew down to Italy to check it out and then there was some mention of Morocco. The idea started catching on, but it turned out that Abbie Hoffman was on board with his two-year-old son america, and he had to be back in the States the next day for his cocaine trial. So the DC 8 headed for Maine and a lobster dinner. As the jet approached Bangor, a confused tower controller radioed: "Freelandia? Uh, who owns this plane?" The pilot replied confidently: "We do." No further comment.

Freelandia planned a trip to Venezuela in December to get a good look at comet Kohoutek, but the flight, like the comet, cancelled--not enough people signed up. You might think that a seat on Freelandia is as hard to come by as a stolen Fogg coin. Not so; in fact, Freelandia needs more passengers to stay alive.

The jet is not operating at full capacity presently (although its engines are maintained at zero airtime, which means they are like new). A DC 8 is most economical when it flies 300 hours a month, and it is now in the air less than 100 hours permonth.

As a result, Freelandia can schedule three times its current number of trips without increasing costs, and the membership could triple without anyone being bumped from flights. Also jet fuel prices increased 345 percent last year, the Cost of Living Council reported, so either more people have to join to offset fuel cost, or the price of Freelandia's airshares (tickets) will go up.

Freelandia's corporate decisions will be made by a board of directors to be elected as soon as there are enough members. Right now Moss, Flynn and journalist David Obst, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the My Lai massacres, form a provisional government of sorts. Obst is also on the board that directs contributions to charities made with Freelandia's occasional profits.

All profits go to Internal Revenue Service-approved charities. In November the club donated money to a children's hospital in Vietnam.

Club members vote every three months on where they would like to go. Freelandia has recently obtained landing rights in Hong Kong, Colombia and Yugoslavia, and is negotiating for permission to land in Greece, Turkey, India, Bali, Afganistan, Tahiti and Australia. Eventually the club hopes to offer round-the-world flights for $300 to $400 (on commercial airlines that would cost about $1500).

An attorney for the FAA in San Francisco has said that Freelandia is entirely legal, as long as the club sticks to the charter of air travel clubs, which stipulates, among other things, that it cannot advertise.

Moss realizes that the lure of low rates and really enjoyable air travel might eventually pose a threat to the profit-making entrenched airlines. So the club sticks carefully to the rules, thus preventing a possible dispute by irritated airlines, and employs lawyers in Washington, New York and Los Angeles to insure that Freelandia doesn't lose it's nonprofit status.

Moss, who presently receives no salary or consulting fees, is now a budding celebrity, and during appearances on several television talk shows, has cautiously touted Freelandia's toll-free Los Angeles number.

Freelandia could revolutionize air travel. Flying commercially these days on America's glittering cattle cars entails a succession of headaches, frustrations and a substantially lightened wallet. Nobody has to be reminded about Cambridge winters, and around this time of year it's not hard to envision a warm ocean, naked white beaches and a peeling nose. Freelandia could be the answer.