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IT'S BECOMING SO CLEAR THAT THE SKY'S NO LIMIT TO THE AIRLINES ANYMORE

As spring approaches, warm weather means clearer skies.

And perhaps no one appreciates them more than airline officials who had to cope with this winter's thick, mucky inversion.December wasn't good and January matched a record for the number of days of murky skies blanketing the Salt Lake City International Airport. February brought only the usual poor visibility.

December had five days of heavy fog and 19 days of haze and smoke.

January, with 16 days of heavy fog, tied with the same months in 1985 and 1944 for pea-soup skies, according to William Alder, meteorologist for the National Weather Service. (It also consisted of 20 other days of smoke and haze.) January of 1931 holds the record with 21 days of heavy fog.

Some airlines didn't have much trouble. But others had to reschedule flights for passengers, put people up in hotels in other cities because planes couldn't land here and spent more money than usual on cloud seeding.

The bill for cloud seeding for January came to $76,963, a cost shared on a pro-rated basis among all airlines using the airport, according to Terry Cooper, Salt Lake station manager for United Airlines.

"We had to do more seeding in January than we had to do since 1983," said Phyllis Upchurch, chief pilot and director of the fog dispersal program for Barken International Inc., which handles airport cloud seeding.

The process involves strewing dry ice in the skies, which causes moisture to fall out as ice crystals or snow. That helps with moisture-related visibility problems but doesn't affect problems when air is sullied by smog, dirt, dust or smoke.

United had few difficulties, Cooper said. "It didn't affect operations as much as I thought it would. The people who do the cloud seeding do an excellent job."

Spokesmen for TWA, America West and American airlines said the same thing.

Continental spokeswoman Peggy Mahoney termed the inversion "an inconvenience" but said snow in Denver caused more problems for passengers bound from Denver to Salt Lake City. Continental has six daily Salt Lake-Denver flights.

But Delta Airlines, the aiport's biggest carrier with 160 daily flights, paid the lion's share of the cloud-seeding bill and had to make the most adjustments to accommodate passengers because of the inversion.

"It had a big impact on our operations," said Sam Murphy, station manager for Delta. "One day we must have had 60 flights canceled."

When Delta knew a day in advance that poor skies were pending, employees would call passengers and try to reschedule flights. "That worked out very well," Murphy said. "Our passengers were very understanding and cooperative."

When planes couldn't land here, people coming to Salt Lake City from other cities were put up in hotels.

"The difficult thing was that it lasted for so many days," Murphy said. "While we were able to get most of our flights in and out of Salt Lake, obviously some of them could not make it through the dense fog.