AIRLINES IN THE UNITED STATES are inviting re-regulation. In their determination to meet cut-rate competition, some of the nation's oldest and - until now - most respected carriers are doing unbelievable things.

Example: One of our people booked passage to San Francisco recently on Continental, the low-fare subsidiary of Texas Air. Then he saw an ad in the paper from American promising a $98 fare. So he called up American, made reservations for himself and his wife, and gave his American Express card number. All were accepted with thanks by the person at the other end of the line.When he got to Newark Airport, however, things were a bit different. He had a reservation, he was told, but since he hadn't shown up in person within 24 hours of making the reservation to purchase the tickets, there were none. Tickets were still available, but the price for the couple now was over $1,000.

When our man protested that he hadn't been told on the telephone of any special conditions, American's man - his badge identified him as Mr. Kemp - said the line was under no obligation to tell customers anything. Thank you, Mr. Kemp.

The confusion is calculated, in our opinion. The airlines have learned to fine tune their responses so that when a cut-rate carrier makes a major fare change, the competing airlines immediately match it. That is, the rates may match but not the terms. Travelers reading the fine print discover restrictions limiting use of the matching fare to certain days of the week, certain hours of the day, and how far in advance tickets must be purchased. Often there is also a restricted policy on refunds.

Result: total confusion, complicated by the fact that an air traveler is more than likely to find that the cut-price fares apply only to a limited number of seats - and all of those seats have been sold out.

This is an old trick of the motel trade. Rooms are advertised at rates half the prevailing prices. Travelers are encouraged to pull off the road in the expectation of a bargain - only to find all of the low priced rooms sold out. Some localities have enacted ordinances prohibiting this deceptive practice.

While the confusion continues, it is wise for air travelers to read the fine print not only on their tickets but also in the advertisements that seem to promise so much.

The airlines today seem to consider the passenger fair game. The response of some "customer representatives" remind us of nothing so much as the dictum of William Henry Vanderbilt, Railroad Tycoon, in an earlier age: "The public be damned."

Fare games are only the most egregious and obvious airline sins. Other aggravations include capricious flight cancellations, frequent schedule changes, unrealistic scheduling, ill-trained ground attendants, surly flight crews and terribly overcrowded terminals at most major airports.

Annoying as such matters are, they don't begin to compare with the mounting evidence, attested to by slap-on-the-wrist fines, of deferred maintenance and penny-pinching on matters of flight safety.

The frequency and volume of these aggravations are convincing travelers that airline managements simply don't care. That arrogance will bring a demand for re-regulation. The two things most congressmen have proved themselves adept at are counting votes and traveling.

When the old Civil Aeronautics Board was in charge of consumer relations, the airlines would never have received approval of a cut-rate fare limited to the last six seats of a flight. Nor would it have permitted the myriad of other passenger aggravations.

The CAB is gone, lost in a bureaucratic sunset. But if there's anything Washington loves, it's regulation. The airlines are asking for it. We would almost guarantee they are going to get it. And that would be unfortunate indeed.

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