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IS UNFAIR PRICING KEY THREAT TO AIRLINES?

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The air-travel industry is more than just airlines and airports. It consists of many peripheral businesses whose fortunes are only indirectly linked to the price of a plane ticket and the financial health of those who sell them.

Still, Colin MacDonald, director of international sales for Jetway Systems, based here, understands that, ultimately, as go the world's airlines so goes Jetway . . . so he would like to see the airlines go a little better.The main problem of the airline industry, said MacDonald, is not that people have soured on flying. He travels all over the globe marketing Jetway's passenger boarding bridge and ground support equipment and finds the aircraft are almost always full.

The problem, he believes, is that many of the people in those seats did not have to pay a price for their ticket that allowed the airline to cover its costs and make a profit. This, said MacDonald is not the result of competition from such discount carriers as Southwest Airlines and Morris Air who offer lower ticket prices in exchange for eliminating meals and confirmed seating.

Rather it is due to what he says is unfair pricing by carriers operating under court bankruptcy protection that allows them to stave off creditors while undercutting the prices of healthy airlines.

Changing the Chapter 11 bankruptcy laws is one obvious solution, said MacDonald, and he is encouraged that the nation's largest airlines are now asking Congress to do just that.

MacDonald offered his comments on the industry in an interview conducted at the "Jetway Jamboree," a sales seminar that is drawing some 120 airline and airport executives and line people from around the nation and 11 foreign countries to take a look at Jetway's products in general and its newest creation in particular: the JetAire Preconditioned Air system.

JetAire units fit all types of aircraft, says MacDonald, and can be mounted on a bridge, cart or stand to provide automatic cooling/

heating of air, as well as provide power to the cockpit, for aircraft parked at the terminal.

Jetway was a pioneer in creation of airport "bridges" - the tunnels you walk through from the terminal to the plane. Founded locally in 1959, the company was acquired last month by Chicago-based FMC Corp., a Fortune 150 company with annual sales of more than $4 billion.

As evidence of the changes in the fortunes of the airline industry, MacDonald noted that in recent years, Jetway's sales have changed from 80 percent to airlines and 20 percent to airports to 70 percent airports and only 20 percent airlines.

Also, Jetway has become much more international oriented. Eight years ago, he estimates 20 percent of sales were overseas; today it's about 50-50 foreign and domestic. Jetway's employee base is now at 470.

Other thoughts that MacDonald had on the industry his company serves:

- The "Big 3" domestic airlines - American, United and Delta - will create a no-frills equivalent, but he doubts very much that no frills will become the standard of the industry.

- The "hub and spoke" system of airline routing such as Delta Air Lines operates at Salt Lake City International Airport is being pressured by discounters, but that doesn't mean airline hubs are going to die out.

- A reasonable pricing differential between travelers who buy a ticket well in advance and a business person who travels on the spur of the moment makes sense but not the huge differential, in which one traveler pays hundreds of dollars more than another to reach the same destination.

- For the general public, price will always be the main, if not only, criterion in their air-travel decisions, at least for flights of two hours or less. For longer flights, particularly overseas, there will always be those willing to pay a premium for comfort and amenities.