NOLA L. SARKISIAN

Staff Reporter

The pressure in a bottle of champagne is close to 90 pounds per square inch, or roughly three times the pressure in your automobile tire. So when opening a bottle of Dom Perignon, be sure not to squeeze out the cork with your thumbs.

It might wind up flying across the room.

"We want to make sure you can handle this dangerous object like it's a piece of exquisite art," instructs Rodney Williamson, director of wines at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Marina del Rey.

"Turn it real slow. You know how you hear that pop in the movies? You don't want that," he advises as the cork is undone with a mere puff.

The 20 students 18 women and two men carefully following Williamson's movements are not waiters or wine enthusiasts. Their employer, United Airlines, has paid between $1,300 and $1,800 for one evening of instruction part of a finishing school for flight attendants.

Chicago-based United began its training program in 1996 in response to poor service ratings on passenger surveys. It is seeking to boost its first-class service on international flights by having attendants take lessons at some of the world's poshest hotels.

After all, a first-class customer paying $9,000 for an 18-hour flight to Melbourne, Australia, expects a certain degree of wining and dining.

"We want to be the airline of choice," said United trainer Dorie Campbell. "To do that, linking with the Ritz is a natural fit. They're known as the finest in delivering exceptional service."

At a time when many airlines are suffering lower profits and declining stock values, the preferred way to compete without lowering fares is to boost customer service not for the masses in coach, but for the high-paying customers in first class, a key profit center.

"The back of the plane doesn't make much money," said Neale Redington, director of the Western region hospitality group at Deloitte & Touche LLP. "It's in business and first class that airlines can distinguish themselves and increase revenues. Even if one customer repeats a flight, that's a significant source of revenue."

United has created a five-day service school for attendants working international flights that is capped off with an evening session at a fine hotel usually including a gourmet dinner for the trainees.

The first sessions were held at Chicago's Drake Hotel, with the airline later adding the Ritz-Carltons in San Francisco, Washington and Marina del Rey. Roughly 9,000 of United's 94,000 flight attendants have completed the program.

The partnership works well for both sides, said Ritz-Carlton General Manager Geoff Young. "It made good business sense and it gives us good exposure," Young said. "The first-class traveler is our customer."

The concept appears to be catching on beyond United. Young said he has fielded a handful of requests from other airlines and businesses to offer similar programs.

"It's a different way to learn and it's fun," said Michelle Sedita, 29, a flight attendant for three years. "Instead of watching a video or reading a manual, we actually experience what we should be doing."

Before the dinner began last Tuesday evening, 20 flight attendants gathered in the hotel lobby for the lesson on uncorking champagne. Williamson started by asking the crowd about the images that come to mind when thinking of champagne.

"Expensive," shouts one attendant.

"Fun," chimes another.

"Exactly," Williamson says. "That's why as servers we want to convey this to our guests in an elegant and safe fashion."

Following the lesson and a toast, they sit down to dinner, which consists of a spicy martini gazpacho, cumin-crusted ahi tuna medallions atop raisin tabouleh, filet mignon with red wine mashed potatoes, Brie and Camembert cheeses and almond ice cream with a bing cherry clafouti.

"Is this raw? Are we eating sushi? I always get mixed up," said Shelly Pelley, 30, a flight attendant for nearly three years.

Another lesson is proper silverware usage, where Wiliamson shows attendants how to stealthily slip away a mistakenly used salad fork and replace it with another.

"Our job is to make sure the guest is using the right utensil, but you need to be flexible with the rules since many people don't know them," he said.

Instruction continues in the delivery of fine wines. He uncorks a Chilean 1997 Pionero Merlot, delicately pulling up on the cork so as not to leave it stuck in the opening. The flight attendants swirl the wine in their glasses to observe the legs and color.

So, what does it smell like?

A chorus of descriptions are offered, from "a lumberyard" to "dreamy."

Williamson offers a few alternatives, like "dry" or "sweet," and explains about tannins and other wine terminology. The idea is to familiarize attendants with the lingo so they can describe wines to passengers.

"Again, this is all about attending to all the needs of the individual," Williamson says. "Wines often make people feel dumb, and it's our job to allay any fears they may have and make them feel comfortable in their environment."

"This really makes you aware of the details in what we do," says flight attendant Carolyn Lareau, 33. "The people we serve already have everything they need in life, so it's our job to go the extra mile and sort of wow them."

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