A Washington, D.C., aviation consulting firm is set to begin immediately a detailed study of air fares in and out of Salt Lake City, a survey that the Utah Air Travel Commission believes will fulfill its obligations - whatever the study's conclusions - to local air travelers concerned about rising airline ticket prices.

The commission, a citizen organization charged with improving Utah's air service, has been receiving complaints from Utahns that air fares are rising faster locally than in other markets, a phenomenon many claim is a result of Delta Airlines' strong presence here after acquiring Western Airlines last year.Complaints by air travelers of soaring ticket prices are clearly not confined to Utah, but many Utahns seem convinced they are being discriminated against by an airline that is said to be taking advantage of the low level of competition for flights in and out of Salt Lake International Airport. They have let the Air Travel Commission know they want answers.

The commission has attempted to deliver, but has had little to go on other than anecdotal "horror stories" of outraged travelers and denials by airline representatives that Salt Lake has been singled out for higher fares. With the vast number of fares, many of which change daily, the commission does not have the resources to sort out the facts.

Thus the commission last month voted to pay up to $15,000 to consulting firm Kurth & Company Inc. for a detailed study that should be ready by the next commission meeting, set back to the third week of January.

In a letter this week to commission legal counsel William G. Gibbs, Kurth & Co. principal Charles B. Kurth outlined the approach his company will take in conducting the study.

First, said Kurth, he will identify a usable number of cities both comparable to and competitive with Salt Lake City. Then the major domestic markets - the top 15-25 cities - Salt Lake International serves will be identified.

For each of those markets, Kurth will collect data, including annual passengers, dominant carriers, nonstop mileage, round trip fares by major classification (full coach fares, short term/limited, advance purchase, and others) season of the year, nonstop flights, load factor (percent of available seats that are sold).

Fares for those various flights will be expressed in two ways, said Kurth, absolute dollars - the passengers' perspective - and cents per mile yield - the airlines' perspective.

Using this profile as a base, Kurth said similar data will be collected for the other competitive cities and comparisons will be made. Salt Lake City "fare-advantaged" and "fare disadvantaged" markets will thus be identified.

But the study won't simply point the finger at an airline or airlines if disparities are found that "disadvantage" Utah air travelers, said Kurth. It will include "corrective recommendations," including negotiations with the carriers involved to remove the imbalance and/or solicitation of competitive service.

The study results will be reduced, where appropriate, to table and graph form, said Kurth, and include a written draft report. After review and comment by the commission, expected to take 10 days, a final report will be prepared and should be ready by Jan. 31.

Kurth estimated he and his staff will require 160 hours of work to prepare the study.

Responding to commissioners' questions last month as to his company's qualifications, Kurth said his firm has more than "100 person years" experience in all aspects of commercial aviation.