It's great flying cross-country east to west. Leave JFK or Dulles at 8 in the morning, and you can read the paper, get through some documents and be in SFO or LAX before lunch, with most of a day's work ahead of you.

But, as Tom Wolfe said (no, not that Tom Wolfe, the real Tom Wolfe), "You can't go home again," and it's almost true as applied to getting back from the Left Coast. Leave at 8 in the morning and you get to the arrival gate at 4:30 or later, just in time to miss the whole day. A time change of three hours plus instead of minus adds up to a big difference; to be precise, nine hours difference (local time at both ends) from takeoff to landing instead of three hours.

You can, of course, leave at noon and arrive late evening, which is nice for people with nothing else to do; but it doesn't solve the problem of a lost day. If you have to check in a rental car, it means departing for the airport at 10, which doesn't really leave much of a working morning.

Human ingenuity knowing no limits, the answer has been found: the overnight flight, the reliable red-eye. Get in a day's work in LA or San Francisco, have a nice dinner, show up at the airport at 9 for a 10 o'clock flight and be on the East Coast for a breakfast meeting and a full day at the office.

It's an answer to a question a lot of people wish they hadn't asked. I know. I'm one of them.

Airports get quiet late at night. The airline club rooms close and kick the last tired businessmen out into the public gate areas, forced to mingle with real people (although there's not enough of anyone to make a crowd). People sit far apart and think about sleeping. No one bothers any longer to dig through the drifts of the day's papers.

It's 9:42 p.m. at San Francisco International Airport. Trying to find comfort on a plastic chair, I dream of the pleasures of first class -- wide seats, reclining backrests, a friendly beverage and then dim lights.

It's an idle dream. I will not be riding in first class. To get into first on a red-eye, you have to reserve early, and if you can do that, you're organized enough to avoid overnight flights. The people who reserve early are tourists. The people in first tonight -- they are already on board, enjoying their wide seats, when my row is called -- are tourists who bought someone's mileage tickets cheap through an ad in the local paper, and now they're saving another buck on a hotel by flying overnight.

Well, at least I didn't get a seat in the middle of the plane, that three-wide row of narrow seats between the aisles where nobody ever sits willingly.

I sink into my outside aisle seat, my knees in the back of the seat in front of me. There's no one in the window seat. Maybe I can nap in the fetal position, once we get off the ground.

The doors close, and instantly a strange sound fills the cabin. People are scurrying like rats. By the time I understand what's happening, it's happened. Coach is less than half full. The center seats, empty when we boarded, have been occupied by the fleetest of foot, who are folding up the armrests and preparing to stretch out across three seats for a night's rest.

In first, the seats are wide and recline; but they don't fold flat and they don't have leg rests. Getting your feet up is the Holy Grail of long-distance fliers. For that, you have to pay premium prices on the best international airlines -- or else ride in coach on a red-eye ... and be quick.

The fetal position doesn't work for me. A two-seat womb is just not big enough. I try stretching out by wedging my feet between the wall and the seat in front of me -- at least there's no one sitting there -- but I keep tipping backward into the aisle. This is like sleeping while riding a bicycle. I shift to the window seat and lean against the wall -- did you ever notice how cold the hull of an airplane becomes five miles above the ground? -- and try to keep my feet out of the aisle.

Twenty minutes later, I'm awakened by a gentle bump as the drinks trolley grounds against my feet. "What would you like to drink, sir?" the stewardess asks. Nothing. What I would like is to sleep undisturbed. But if wishes were horses, beggars would ride -- and not a red-eye flight, either.

It's amazing how many things happen in the course of a six-hour flight in the middle of the night. There are drink offers; there's a movie announcement; there's breakfast. Who eats breakfast at 5 in the morning? "You've got to eat," the stewardess chides. "You won't be able to work today if you don't eat!"

Facing the Facts

Because of the way the time change works, true red-eye flights operate only west-to-east. I don't count as a red-eye any flight or combination of flights that lets you leave after working hours and still arrive in time to check into a hotel and get a few hours of sleep before a breakfast meeting. Going west, the time change helps you. You can leave the East Coast (or practically anywhere west of it) and still find a flight that will get you to the West Coast (or practically anywhere east of it) by around midnight. Not something you'd like to do every day, but not like spending the whole night on an airplane, either.

Eastbound, on the other hand, working against time, the red-eye is hard to avoid. You have to leave by 6 p.m. to have a chance; but, for reasons best known to God and the airliner schedulers, West Coast departures between 4 and 8 p.m. are all but nonexistent, except for flights involving a connection that gets you into your destination after 6 a.m. anyway.

The result is that nobody lands on the East Coast between midnight and 6 a.m. Maybe this has something to do with the natural disinclination of passengers to land somewhere at 3 in the morning; but in that case, why can you do it going west but not east? Or maybe it's because flying west is natural, and flying east is unnatural. (After all, the sun goes west, doesn't it?)

At least the airlines are consistent. Most of the major carriers -- among them Pan Am, United, Continental, Delta, TWA, USAir and American -- offer daily late-night (10 p.m. to 1 a.m.) departures from the West Coast, with arrivals on the East Coast around 6 a.m.

Save Money? It's a Myth

People often think of red-eye flights as a cheap way to get somewhere. Maybe they were once, but they're not now, or at least not consistently. There are a few flights where "night coach" tickets are cheaper than "regular coach"; but in most cases the charge is the same -- full fare is outrageous, and the specials are whatever the specials are, but they're not much cheaper than in the daytime. For example:

United currently charges $543 each way for an unrestricted ticket between the coasts during off-peak hours (including red-eye flights). Daytime flights are $606 each way.

USAir's fare on off-peak flights between the coasts is $533 each way; daytime fares are $571 to $606 each way.

Delta charges $546 each way for travel during off-peak hours, $684 for daytime flights.

TWA, Continental, American and Pan Am quote no special fares for red-eye flights.

(Round-trip excursion fares for coast-to-coast travel can be found for $400 to $450, but they are seldom of use to business travelers, since the tickets are nonrefundable, must be purchased 14 days in advance and involve a required Saturday-night stayover.)

So it seems the only reason for abusing your body is that you gotta be there in the morning.

And abuse it is. The airlines try to disguise it with drinks and snacks, or with breakfast and a movie if it's a coast-to-coast flight on a widebody; but the fact is, human beings weren't meant to live this way.

Still, when you've gotta go, you've gotta go; and sometimes you've gotta be there when the office doors open. So what to do? Fly overnight, but change tactics:

Find out how full the flight is. If it is empty in coach, don't go first class.

Don't ask for an outside aisle seat. Go for an inside aisle seat in an empty row. Or be prepared to make a quick change as soon as the doors close.

Ignore the service and get some sleep. The best thing an airline can offer its passengers on a red-eye flight is the chance to sleep. Why, then, do they insist on waking us for drinks, waking us to announce the movie, waking us for breakfast? Just be firm. Tell the crew not to wake you for anything but an emergency landing.

That way you can get as much as five hours of sleep. Not enough, perhaps, but better than an hour between the movie and breakfast. It may make the difference between a workable next day and a wasted one. Isn't that why we got on this flight?

William E. Holland is a lawyer with the firm of Chadbourne & Parke in New York.