Hard on the heels of its in-depth exploration of smoking on airline flights, the Utah Air Travel Commission has decided to tackle an equally controversial issue: travelers' reports of soaring air fares into and out of Salt Lake City International Airport.

With one dissenting vote, the commission agreed at its monthly meeting this week to follow a recommendation of its executive committee and authorize spending up to $15,000 to hire the Washington, D.C., firm of Charles B. Kurth & Associates to determine if Utah air travelers are being charged too much for airline tickets.That's a claim commissioners have been hearing ever since Delta Air Lines acquired Western Airlines in April 1987 and became the dominant "hub" carrier in Utah. Business travelers, in particular, have voiced outrage at what they believe are punitively high ticket prices stemming from a lack of competition in the local airline market.

"Horror" stories of $600 flights to Los Angeles and Oakland from Salt Lake have become standard conversational fare at business luncheons throughout the state. Conversely, the stories are accompanied by claims that Californians only pay $150 or some similarly low figure to fly to Chicago, New York or even London.

Such anecdotal tales are hardly the kind of "information" which the commission can use, chairman Yan M. Ross told commissioners and guests. Therefore, the commission has found itself unable to either agree with or rebut the allegations because it lacks data.

"We're coming from behind, (but) we'd like to remedy that," said Ross. Thus, the decision to fund the study.

Ross stressed that the study must be objective with no preconceived notions, and he was careful to name no names. When one visitor to Tuesday's meeting attempted to compare Delta Air Lines and Continental Airlines, the chairman stopped him, saying he wanted no characterizations made of particular companies.

But everyone in the room knew the study is aimed at Delta. Fred Rollins, district manager of marketing for the Atlanta-based carrier, knew it too and said he welcomes the study.

"It's long overdue," said Rollins of the study. "We know that, because of our dominant presence here, some people think we have taken advantage of Utah. We look forward to the public learning that's not the case."

The big problem with comparing fares is that there are more than 100,000 daily fare changes industrywide. To determine if there has been an increase since the Delta-Western merger, Kurth & Associates will be asked to look at fares during three time periods: two years ago, immediately following Delta's acquisition of Western and today.

Those parameters brought objections from both Rollins and Salt Lake City Airports Director Louis E. Miller. Rollins said a study of air fares in the past two years would be a "major mistake," pointing out that the past two years have seen "a peak in the highest discount fares in history" and would thus make current fares appear to be abnormally high.

Miller agreed. "I guarantee that (the study) will find that the cost of air travel is higher now, substantially higher," he said.

But then what? Miller asked. Once the study is completed, what will the commission do with it?

Ross replied that it would be worth the cost and effort if only to demonstrate that Salt Lake City is not disadvantaged by higher air fares than other similar hub cities.

Commission member Steve Lawson agreed, saying the commission has been criticized for not taking a more aggressive stance against escalating fares. "We are only trying to fulfill our mission statement," said Lawson. "We can at least say we did what we could."

But what if the study shows that Utah has been discriminated against in fares? Stressing that he cannot assume what the conclusions might be, Ross said other cities have taken such actions as:

- "Jawboning," which he described as "Going to people and saying `I don't have any authority over you, but why don't you be more cooperative?' "

- Approaching other governmental authorities that do have the authority to act, such as antitrust investigators.

- Making greater efforts to encourage more competition in the Utah air travel market.

The commission is a citizen board representing the Utah Department of Transportation, Salt Lake City Corp. and the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce. It describes itself as "the official organization responsible for improving Utah's Air Service."

The study is expected to take six to eight weeks. Several commission members, including Robert Campbell, who voted against the motion to fund the study, said it should perhaps be put out to bid. Commission legal counsel William Gibbs said that was not necessary.

The scope of the study will be presented to the full commission at its next meeting Dec. 7.