Does questioning the recent rise in air fares from Salt Lake City to some West Coast cities constitute "airline bashing" and risk offending and possibly losing Delta Airlines and the major hub it has established here?

That was the question debated this week by the Utah Air Travel Commission. As the "official organization responsible for improving Utah's air service," the UATC is trying to walk a narrow line between serving the interests of the state's air travelers without disturbing what may be the best air service enjoyed by any U.S. city of comparable size.The issue of escalating air fares particularly for business people traveling on weekdays with short notice has been simmering for some time but bubbled to the surface last month when Commission Chairman Yan M. Ross was asked if the commission would mount an inquiry into the problem.

The central issue is this: Has the alleged "monopoly" that Delta enjoys in Salt Lake City with its major hub operation created a situation where the Atlanta-based Delta feels free to "put the squeeze" on local air travelers.

At Wednesday's commission meeting, Dean Gustavson, chairman and president of The Gustavson Group Inc., architects and project managers, came armed with specific figures on air fare increases.

Gustavson said the fare for a round trip ticket to San Francisco/Oakland on Delta or United Airlines was $350 last September. In October, he said, that fare rose to $374; in November it went up to $450 and last month it jumped to $590 ($480 with a seven-day advance notice subject to 25 percent cancellation penalty.)

He said similar increases have occurred with local flights to other major West Coast cities, such as Los Angeles.

Noting that his firm spent $93,271 on commercial air travel last year (in addition to operating two company aircraft) Gustavson said the recent escalation in fares is a "burden to businessmen" and makes Salt Lake an undesirable corporate headquarters for conducting out-of-state business.

Commission member Curtis Ackerlind agreed, saying he wonders if Salt Lakers are being "set up" by the airlines since air fares to the West Coast are apparently cheaper in other cities that are farther away.

Gustavson said the fare structures are so out of balance in Salt Lake City that it is cheaper for him to fly to Denver and then to the West Coast than to fly directly from Salt Lake. He said that his niece recently flew to Holland for less than he pays for a ticket to Oakland.

But Salt Lake City Director of Airports Louis Miller wasn't impressed with Gustavson's figures. Whether they are accurate reflections of what is happening to fare rates or not, Miller said they are the product of a deregulated market, not a monopoly by Delta or any other airline. "The Salt Lake to San Francisco route is not a monopoly, it's very competitive," said Miller.

And Miller made clear he is losing patience with "airline bashing," particularly of the highly visible Delta. He described the economic impact of Delta's presence here as "tremendous," noting that of Salt Lake International Airport's 6,000 employees, 3,700 of them are Delta's.

"It's unfair to keep saying that (Delta) is raping Salt Lake City," said Miller. "Other airlines are free to move in if they can compete. But if we run them (Delta) out of town . . . "

Phillip Bamberger, a Salt Lake businessman appointed this week to the commission, agreed saying, "We can't afford to lose Delta." Bamberger said he understands the business traveler's frustrations, "but we have to temper how we treat the airlines. They are driving our economy now."

But commission member Steve Lawson questioned whether the commission should be intimidated by the airlines and their economic clout. Delta Airlines did not establish a hub in Salt Lake because the city was "nice" to them.

"We're afraid of losing the goose that laid the golden egg, but they (Delta and other airlines) decided to come here as a business decision, and as long as it makes business sense they will stay. I see nothing wrong in asking them to tell us why their fares went up so much in such a short time."