This Bill Should Take Off

California legislators--who are some of the airlines' most frequent flyers--just may be venting their frustration, but there is merit in a bill that would create an Office of Airline Consumer Information within the state Public Utilities Commission. The legislation sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) has passed the Senate 27-9. It deserves Assembly approval and the signature of Gov. George Deukmejian as well.

The new office could not control air travel in California. That role has been preempted by the Federal Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, which basically lets the airlines decide where they fly, what they charge and what service they provide. But the PUC unit could wield a powerful tool in behalf of the California traveler: information. Roberti's bill would allow the office to investigate complaints about commercial air service, suggest legislation to protect travelers, publish recommendations on reasonable rates and investigate price increases that seem to be excessive.

Not so long ago, California travelers were spoiled and pampered by two highly competitive airlines, Pacific Southwest and Air California. For years, PSA and AirCal operated only in California to escape federal regulation and answered only to the PUC. Deregulation changed that, but California travelers still felt they got special service at low rates. Then both lines were taken over by national carriers: AirCal by American and PSA by US Air. California air prices have soared, and many flyers complain that service has deteriorated.

The average intrastate air fare rose 40% more than inflation in the last decade. The cost of a one-way ticket between Los Angeles and Sacramento jumped from $79 in 1986 to $189 a year ago. Lagging business and fresh competition from Southwest Airlines forced a spate of rate-cutting last year, but on Thursday US Air increased its L.A.-Sacramento fare from $139 to $153.

Establishment of this new office won't give Californians their own special airlines back, but the new PUC unit could at least determine if they are getting the service they deserve in a state that depends so heavily on air travel.

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