Should smoking be banned on all commercial airline flights originating in Utah? Is Delta Airlines arbitrarily boosting fares on certain flights out of Salt Lake City in which it enjoys a monopoly? Should Congress launch an investigation of financially pressed Eastern Airlines?
These were among the controversial issues tackled by the Utah Air Travel Commission Wednesday prior to taking a two-month summer recess from its task as the watchdog of Utah's air service.On the smoking issue, commission chairman Yan M. Ross - re-elected at the meeting to another two-year term - labeled "a cheap shot" efforts by tobacco company Philip Morris USA to rally Utah smokers against public hearings the UATC held last week to examine the problem.
Philip Morris sent a Western Union "Priority Letter" to an unknown number of Utahns asking them to attend the hearings in Salt Lake, Ogden and Provo and "tell the UATC that you think its proposal is unfair to passengers who smoke."
All well and good, said Ross, pointing out that the hearings solicited all viewpoints and that the commission specifically invited testimony from the tobacco industry. The "cheap shot," in Ross' view, came from Philip Morris asking those who received the letter - the origin of their mailing list is unknown - to write and/or telephone the commission to make their pro-smoking views known.
"I have better things to do than take calls from people who refused to come to the hearings," said Ross.
The Philip Morris letter said the UATC's "proposal to ban smoking" goes well beyond the two-year trial ban on flights of two hours or less mandated by Congress. "That isn't fair and it isn't necessary," said the letter, "but it will happen soon if we don't act now . . ."
The UATC committee, headed by commissioners Robert Campbell and Glade Sowards, will report the results of the hearings and make recommendations at the next commission hearing scheduled August 3.
The commission also heard from Delta Airlines officials on the question of recent steep fare hikes on certain flights. Commissioners asked Delta to respond to complaints that ticket prices have soared since Delta acquired Western Airlines and its Salt Lake hub operation and became the dominant carrier in Utah.
Fred Rollins, Delta's district director of marketing, told commissioners that Atlanta-based Delta has never been an industry leader in fare cutting and makes no apologies for it. Instead, he said, Delta concentrates on providing the best service at the best fares while still returning a profit to its shareholders.
As for countering specific charges of fare gouging on routes for which it has little or no competition, Rollins said Delta's fares structure is too complex and changeable to make an effective response. For example, he said Delta recently made 500,000 - one-half million - fare changes in a single day.
Rollins pointed out that the bankruptcies and other deep financial problems of many airlines is an indication that fares have been kept artificially low for too long and must now go up if they are to survive.
But in no event, Rollins stressed, has Delta singled out Salt Lake City for unilateral fare hikes simply because half of the local air travel market moves through Delta's system. The rise in air fares is a national, not a local, trend, he said.
"Airlines are starting to raise fares because they've realized they can't continue to give the ball game away," said Rollins.
Ross asked that the discussion of fares not end with Wednesday's meeting but rather be an ongoing process as future questions arise.
"We'll work with you," assured Rollins.
Regarding the case for a congressional investigation of Eastern Airlines, the commission agreed to send a letter to House Committee on Aviation Chairman Norman Y. Mineta stating its belief that the investigation now being conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration is sufficient and should be "done with dispatch and promptly concluded."
The letter praised the "valuable service" Eastern provides Utah and "encourages favorable congressional support of its continuation."