The Changing Skies

Airline merger mania is transforming the skies over California, and California travelers have cause to be wary. Four California-based lines are in the process of being absorbed by larger carriers with headquarters elsewhere: Delta is buying Western, USAir is taking over PSA, American is buying AirCal, and Alaska Airlines is absorbing Long Beach-based Jet America.

This is the efficiency of airline deregulation at work. In most cases airline-industry analysts say that the consolidations will result in stronger carriers. Specifically, the purchase of PSA and AirCal will permit USAir and American to strengthen their long-distance routes with feeder lines from throughout the lucrative California market into hub points such as San Francisco and Los Angeles. The purchases also increase their access to terminal gates--a critical factor in these days of intense airline competition.

But Californians should be concerned about the effect that the mergers may have on in-state service. For two decades PSA and AirCal have pioneered intrastate travel, reaching out to other Western markets only in recent years. Veterans of the Los Angeles-Sacramento run grimly remember the pre-PSA days when the existing big lines enjoyed a virtual monopoly and levied exorbitant fares.

Will USAir and American be interested in maintaining the heavy PSA and AirCal schedule from Burbank, Long Beach, Orange County,Ontario, San Diego and Los Angeles to destinations such as San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Sacramento, Fresno, Stockton, Monterey and Contra Costa County? It does not seem likely. PSA alone has about 30 round-trip flights daily between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

United Air Lines also runs nearly 30 round trips daily between Los Angeles and the three San Francisco Bay area airports, so that route is likely to remain competitive--particularly if American chooses to maintain or enhance AirCal's service between the Southland and the Bay Area.

USAir officials have said that they eventually will add a commuter airline in California that will channel passengers into the busier airports much as Allegheny Commuter feeds USAir in the East and the Midwest. The result is likely to be that some of the California cities will be served by smaller, slower commuter craft with fewer nonstop flights and more plane changes. This would allow USAir to utilize PSA's modern fleet of jetson more profitable long-haul routes. It might also result in higher fares for the smaller California cities.

It will be some months before all the mergers are completed and the PSA and AirCal logos replaced and their schedules integrated into those of their new parents. That gives California air travelers some time to emphasize to American and USAir the importance of maintaining fast and frequent service among California cities.

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