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UTAHNS STILL PRESSING FOR AIR LINK WITH LONDON

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Snubbed last summer in their quest for Utah's first transcontinental air route, champions of the connection have continued to press their case on more than one front in recent months.

London, hub for much of the Northern Hemisphere's air travel, still heads the state's list of most-sought-after nonstop overseas destinations from Salt Lake City, which boasts an airport that is international in name mostly. Local service to and from other countries via Salt Lake International Airport is limited to seasonal Mexican flights and daily departures to Calgary and Edmonton in Canada.Salt Lake attorney Robert S. Campbell Jr., a member of the Utah Air Travel Commission, has led the push for expansion, meeting this fall with trade negotiators from both sides of the Atlantic. Key to any access Salt Lake City might gain to London is a bilateral air-route agreement between Great Britain and the United States that Campbell said probably will be reforged in 1995 to the benefit of Utah by 1996.

"I think we will have in two years time a 5 o'clock (p.m.) nonstop flight to London," Campbell said this week.

Other parties, though less bold in their predictions, have joined the chorus for transoceanic service.

The Salt Lake Airport Authority on Wednesday awarded a $40,000 contract to a prominent East Coast aviation-economics firm to gather research to further sell the notion of opening Salt Lake International to transcontinental traffic. Authority board members in approving the contract said international traffic is needed to help justify the airport's new $22 million inter- national terminal, which opens next month and was supposed to have been the gateway for the London connection that was lost last year to competing cities.

Simat, Helliesen, Eichner Inc. of Boston will study - in addition to London-route feasibility - the possibility of establishing a direct Salt Lake trans-Atlantic connection to Tokyo or Seoul. The feasibility of nonstop service to Mexico City and larger Candadian cities also will be explored in an effort that will include contacting foreign carriers to gauge interest in establishing a Salt Lake route.

And attorneys are preparing for Feb. 17 arguments before the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington on a lawsuit brought last month by Delta Air Lines against the U.S. Department of Transportation. The suit challenges the agency's decision in late 1993 to give U.S.-London routes to Nashville, Tenn., and Raleigh-Durham, N.C., rather than to Salt Lake City, accusing the federal government of bowing to political pressure in making the awards.

To win such a plum, Salt Lake City needs the cooperation of two crucial players - a major air carrier and the federal government, which decides what cities receive direct overseas connections.

Though the Clinton administration has shown little transcontinental-route sympathy for Utah, Campbell said talks in October with Washington officials gave him hope.

"I was there really on a mission not to tell them they'd made a blunder (in overlooking Utah) a year ago, although clearly they knew that," Campbell said. "But the sense was that they recognized now that Salt Lake was the strongest of the three applicants."

It's more than a domestic issue, however, and discussions between the U.S. and British governments have focused in part on Britain's refusal to let more than two U.S. carriers use London's Heathrow Airport, which is coveted partly for its hundreds of global air-travel connections. United and American airlines currently hold the only two U.S. franchises at Heathrow, but Campbell said hopes are that a third will open to Delta, and that it would include a direct Salt Lake connection.

The alternative is Gatwick Airport, London's second commercial airfield, which is not considered as desirable a destination because it has few connections and is outside London, although it might be better than nothing.

After open routes to London were awarded last year to a pair of southern U.S. cities, critics charged that Salt Lake City was overlooked for transparent political reasons. Both winning cities have less airport traffic than Salt Lake City, and neither area is growing as fast as metropolitan Salt Lake.

"It's the most blatantly political decision I've seen in 25 years," former Sen. Jake Garn told fellow Airport Authority members Wednesday morning.

Nashville is the capitol of Tennessee, the home state of Vice President Al Gore. And Raleigh-Durham is in North Carolina, whose congressional delegation was instrumental in the administration's successful last-minute orchestration of approval for 1993's North American Free Trade Agreement.

Delta Air Lines is the other wild card in Utah's effort to gain a transatlantic route. Though the carrier - which operates a busy regional hub in Salt Lake City - has taken its fight to court, some have quietly questioned the airline's commitment to opening an overseas route to and from Utah, noting that the company line on the London route has been less than ebullient.

"There's a lot of hurdles to overcome," said Fred Rollins, the airline's Salt Lake marketing manager. "We still do have a desire to fly Salt Lake-London nonstop . . . but one of the key things is community support of current service in order to show there is demand. Right now we are not seeing that, and we're not showing that nonstop (overseas) would receive any better."

Although Delta operates about 240 daily jet-service flights out of Salt Lake City, boards almost 5 million passengers a year at Salt Lake International and is reportedly making comfortable profits locally, it began facing stiffer-than-ever competition with the arrival of Southwest Airlines in October.

Buzz Hunt, the airport's air service marketing director, said Delta - because of its myriad connecting flights - remains nonetheless the most viable carrier for transcontinental service originating in Salt Lake City.

"The local Salt Lake-to-London market would generate maybe 22,000 to 23,000 passengers a year," said Hunt. An airline would likely require closer to 100,000 travelers to operate the route, however, which is why connecting passengers like Delta's are needed to make such a flight workable.

Campbell and others insist the numbers are there, pointing not just to Delta's hub but to assorted business ties between Britain and Utah.

"It's our No. 1 trade partner," said Campbell, who noted that Utah software companies do brisk business with Britain and that a number of local corporations - including Kennecott Copper, one of the state's largest employers - is owned by British interests.

Then, too, there is the LDS Church, which Campbell said generates more visitor traffic than any single site west of the Mississippi. England already has deep historic ties with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which since the 1800s has found Britain a fruitful area for missionary efforts.

Hunt said exhibits the airport authority has filed in Washington in support of Delta's lawsuit speak for themselves. The exhibits compare numbers that show Salt Lake City is a healthier market than either Nashville of Raleigh-Durham, but underscore a certain neediness, too.

While Nashville and Raleigh-Durham are less than 500 miles from a number of cities that have trans-Atlantic flights, Salt Lake City is within that distance of just one such city - Denver - which raises the specter of more political influence. Denver, undoubtedly bestowed with more pull in the Clinton administration than Utah because it boasts U.S. Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena as its native son, is a Salt Lake archrival when it comes to competing for airline routes.

Campbell, though, said Utah's power in Washington has grown considerably with this fall's Republican overthrow of Congress, a point that might ultimately work in its favor.

"I can't help but believe Utah's congressional delegation will be an important influence in the months to come," he said.