Consolidating services has long been considered a reasonable way to cut costs and be more efficient in the use of expensive equipment. The same principle ought to be true with two different medical air transport services operated by two hospital systems in Salt Lake City.

Intermountain Health Care has its LifeFlight system of four airplanes and two helicopters to airlift patients to IHC hospitals. The University of Utah Hospital has AirMed with three airplanes and two helicopters to serve its facility.The airborne ambulance service is expensive in either case, costing patients anywhere from $250 to $700 just to get a helicopter in the air, plus another $20 or so for each mile flown. Of course, in a life-threatening situation, that might be considered cheap.

IHC officials say the two services might be joined in a single operation with a substantial savings in crew costs and leased equipment. U. Hospital officials disagree, saying savings would be minuscule.

It's hard to say who is correct, but the idea should not be rejected out of hand. At the very least, there ought to be some kind of independent cost-benefit study of a joint medical air transport service.

Some U. officials also are fearful that a joint operation might violate federal antitrust laws. That is a possibility if the two institutions ran a medical air transport service. But a community-based service independent of the IHC and U. Hospital might be an acceptable alternative.

Until this week, Primary Children's Medical Center, an IHC facility, had been associated with the U. Hospital's Neonatal Transport Team, an arm of AirMed specializing in airlifting critically-ill newborn infants.

But the U. Hospital team went out of business after 20 years of operation. The service had charged rates below actual operating costs. Primary Children's launched its own neonatal service to replace the U. team but is charging significantly higher fees to reflect actual expenses.

Hospitals have been criticized in the past for a tendency to duplicate expensive, high-tech medical equipment, with each institution having its own multimillion-dollar status-symbol devices.

There has been some effort to get away from this approach in recent years, but even doctors in local hospitals say there is still too much duplication, protection of turf and competition to have the latest and best.

It sounds a lot like the problems that arise in trying to consolidate services in different levels of government. Yet it can be done.

Beset by constantly soaring costs, hospitals should make every effort to cut expenses, to end duplication, to specialize in certain fields, and to share services where feasible. Medical air transportation seems like one of those areas where cooperation would be possible.