Through Sept. 16, United Airlines is offering first-class and business-class passengers a free companion ticket in the same class only on its flights to Frankfurt from Chicago. Because of erroneous information provided by a United official, the Fearless Traveler column Sunday included Washington-Frankfurt flights in the special-fare promotion. The companion fare is not available on flights from Washington. (Published 8/14/90)

To supplement the first-hand reports, the magazine also has compiled a helpful chart comparing business-class seating on 65 international airlines. Included are details on seating layout, amount of leg room and width of seats for the different types of long-haul aircraft flown by each carrier.

Life aloft is getting comfier for business travelers -- at least for those lucky folks whose companies permit them to fly business class. But it's also getting more expensive, so some passengers may soon have trouble justifying the extra cost on their expense accounts.

These are among the findings reported by Business Traveler International in its annual survey of major U.S. and foreign airlines serving international routes. The reason for improvements is not surprising: The big carriers are in fierce competition to attract the business traveler, a lucrative source of income.

Nevertheless, significant differences remain in what the traveler can expect from business class, says the magazine in its July/August issue. On many carriers, for example, passengers still face the possibility of occupying a middle seat. But on others, such as Pan Am, TWA and Thai International, the cabin configuration on wide-body aircraft is a roomy 2-2-2. This means there is an aisle separating each of three pairs of seats.

Part of the added comfort comes in the form of wider seats and more leg room. The magazine cites Japan Air Lines as an example of the improvements being introduced. The carrier began to upgrade its business-class service, called Executive Class, in April by installing seats 20.5 inches wide, an increase of two inches. Three inches of leg room -- for a total of 40 -- also have been added, and the Executive Class cabin configuration is being altered from 2-4-2 to 2-3-2.

Business Traveler says that on a long flight passengers over six feet tall may be uncomfortable with leg room of less than 36 inches. The availability of footrests "is also a substantial comfort factor."

Air France is another carrier making a big investment in its business-class compartments. It is offering new seats that are 20 or 21 inches wide, depending on the aircraft, up from 18.3 inches. The seats have a greater angle of recline and provide an adjustable seat back for lower back support. In Business Traveler's opinion, "an ideal width" for comfort is between 19 and 21 inches. "Anything more can actually be uncomfortable on long flights, unless you pad the sides with pillows."

Of course, only a small percentage of airline passengers benefit from the improvements. While business-class customers settle into roomier seating, the folks in economy class -- including many business travelers --

are facing a continuing squeeze, about which many complain. Standard configurations for international flights in economy class are 3-4-3 and 2-5-2, again depending on the aircraft.

Over the years, leg room -- the space between rows of seats -- has decreased from an average of 34 inches to 31 inches, says Richard Livingston, a spokesman for the Airline Passengers Association of North America. The airlines argue that they have had to install extra seats in economy-class cabins to make a profit.

The pinch has become a safety concern of Livingston's organization. The seating is so tight, he says, that in an emergency hefty passengers may find it difficult or impossible to assume the standard crash position of head in lap. Narrow passages next to emergency exits may also impede rapid escape.

To get a seat in business class, travelers must pay substantially more than they would in economy class. For example, Pan Am currently is quoting an economy-class fare of $1,206 for an unrestricted round-trip ticket between Washington and London. In business class, the fare is a much costlier $3,340. The lowest round-trip fare to London is $708, but it is available only if the ticket is purchased 30 days in advance -- a restriction most business travelers aren't able to take advantage of.

In its report, Business Traveler notes that economy-class fares have tended to remain stable in recent years while business-class fares have jumped substantially, especially on transatlantic routes. "The more these rates diverge," the magazine observes, "the more realistic the concern that companies will compel employees to downgrade, despite the discomfort."

Occasionally, bargains are available in business class. Through Sept. 14, United Airlines is offering first-class and business-class passengers a free companion ticket in the same class on its flights to Frankfurt from Washington/Dulles and from Chicago.

Business Traveler's staff and contributors sampled the in-flight business-class service of 20 airlines. Among their mostly favorable findings:

Air India: A cultural experience. "At meal times the aircraft was redolent with curry (which was excellent)," and the wallpaper in business class "could have come from ancient Indian illustrations."

American Airlines: "Not as slick" as some of its European and Far Eastern competitors. But, "vintage champagne flowed like water and most cabin staff were genuinely friendly."

British Airways: Service from check-in to in-flight was "generally impeccable."

Cathay Pacific: An "overburdened staff," but service was good and the complimentary amenity kit -- "including Eau Sauvage after-shave" -- was generous.

Continental: Very good food -- "pleasantly beyond the culinary standards you're used to up in the air these days."

Icelandair: Each seat was "equipped with a Sony personal video" machine, and the traveler was given a wide selection of European and American films to view.

KLM: "Service throughout was impeccable." Breakfast consisted of a good smoked trout mousse and lobster claw with a small salad, followed by Dutch cheese, a small cake and orange juice.

Lufthansa: Flight attendants were "top notch," and the German beer was "perfect."

SAS: "EuroClass always seems to feel quiet and calm, even when the business class cabin is filled to capacity."

Singapore Airlines: "Seats are roomy with individual footrests," and the overhead lockers spacious. Dinner was a choice of spicy jumbo shrimp or veal medallions, and tropical fruits were plentiful.

Virgin Atlantic: "Actually much closer to first class, and in the front of the plane, but priced in the business class category." Service was "young, informal and cheery, but definitely efficient."

For the price, business-class passengers should expect nothing less than the service described in these testimonials. Whether the extras are worth it is something they will have to work out with their employers.

To supplement the first-hand reports, the magazine also has compiled a helpful chart comparing business-class seating on 65 international airlines. Included are details on seating layout, amount of leg room and width of seats for the different types of long-haul aircraft flown by each carrier.

The chart also notes which airlines permit business-class passengers to use special airport lounges. Some airlines restrict the lounges to passengers paying an annual membership fee, but many make the lounges available to business- and first-class passengers whether they are members or not. When purchasing a business-class ticket, ask if it qualifies you for use of the lounge.

Business Traveler International publishes 11 months a year and is available by subscription only. The subscription rate is $36; a single issue is $3. For a copy of the July/August issue or to subscribe: 41 East 42nd St., Suite 1512, New York, N.Y. 10017, (212) 697-1700.

Historic Sites & Scenery

Most Americans are familiar with the names of the country's great national parks -- Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon. But the National Park Service also oversees dozens of smaller parklands that preserve historic, cultural and scenic sites of unusual interest. Some are famous; many are obscure.

Jill MacNeice, a Washington author, describes 245 of these special parklands in a new and useful resource book, "A Guide to National Monuments and Historic Sites" (Prentice Hall, 468 pages, $14.95). "Some of the most interesting and exotic vacation spots in the country," she writes, can be found among these varied sites.

Certainly the most well-known are the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and Jefferson Memorial, among 10 historic sites in the District. Relatively unknown is the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site in Montana. The 1,500-acre park, once one of America's largest cattle-ranching operations, re-creates 19th-century life on the range.

Some of the parks celebrate natural wonders, such as the stately saguaro cactus in Arizona's Saguaro National Monument. Others preserve important buildings, such as the homes of past presidents. Herbert Hoover's birthplace cottage in West Branch, Iowa, is officially the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site. Native American culture is recalled in such sites as Idaho's Nez Perce National Historical Park. And Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts interprets an important period in American history, the advent of the Industrial Revolution.

All of the parks are educational, but many of them also provide recreational possibilities, such as bicycling, hiking and camping. MacNeice describes each of the sites, gives its history, lists hours of operation and provides other visitor information. She attempts to be comprehensive, but I discovered at least one lapse. She quite nicely describes Joshua Tree National Monument, a desert park near Palm Springs, Calif., but fails to mention that it's a winter favorite for rock climbers. Towering above Joshua trees are huge boulders that apparently are ideal for the sport.