AIRLINES FACE DILEMMA AT LAX AS JUDGE ALLOWS FEES TO STAND PENA DRAWS FIRE FOR WAFFLING ON DISPUTE

AIRLINES FACE DILEMMA AT LAX AS JUDGE ALLOWS FEES TO STAND PENA DRAWS FIRE FOR WAFFLING ON DISPUTE

The refusal by a U.S. District Court judge Monday to block Los Angeles International Airport from tripling its landing fees leaves airlines the Hobson's choice of paying up or facing the possibility of being shut out of the nation's third-busiest airport.

The approximately 40 airlines that have refused to pay the higher landing fees have 10 days to decide on a plan of action. Before Monday's hearing in the courtroom of Judge A. Wallace Tashima, LAX officials and the Air Transport Association, which is representing the airlines, agreed to a 10-day "status quo" no matter what the judge ruled."We won't do anything to them for 10 days," John J. Driscoll, LAX executive director, said in an interview after the court hearing. After that, however, the airport authority may carry through with its earlier threat of denying services to any airline that refuses to pay the new landing fee of $1.56 for every thousand pounds of landed weight.

"That's certainly an option as a result of their behavior," Mr. Driscoll said.

It will be up to each airline to decide whether to pay the new landing fee. Tim Neale, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association in Washington, said Tuesday that the airlines are considering their options and are consulting with their attorneys to determine whether they will appeal Judge Tashima's decision.

The airlines have maintained from the beginning that LAX is one of the nation's most profitable airports and is tripling its landing fees primarily to generate extra revenue that will be diverted to the city's general fund for purposes such as hiring more police officers.

The association Tuesday released a brief statement saying the airlines remain committed to the goal of their lawsuit.

"The diversion of airport revenues and the related setting of unreasonable fees is illegal and it must be stopped," said James E. Landry, president of the association.

After a three-hour hearing Monday afternoon, Judge Tashima said he was denying the association's motion for a preliminary injunction because the airlines failed to prove that the higher landing fees would cause them irreparable harm.

The judge then launched into a criticism of U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena, saying the whole issue could have been resolved months ago had the secretary not been so "wishy-washy" on a dispute that should be handled by the Department of Transportation rather than the courts.

"It is very difficult for me to believe that Congress wants federal judges all over the country to be rate-making bodies," Judge Tashima said.

The judge said that, rather than taking a strong stand on what is really a money issue, Mr. Pena in effect said: Don't make problems for me.

Even the airlines believe the secretary could have come more to their defense. Mr. Pena last month wrote a letter to Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan warning him not to suspend the landing rights of airlines serving LAX, and the city in fact backed off temporarily from its threat.

One airline industry executive said Monday that, although the secretary believed he was taking a strong stand on this issue, he could be doing more, but refuses to do so because he and the entire Clinton administration do not want to offend California's powerful congressional delegation.

"It's a matter of politics," the source said.

A spokesman for Mr. Pena, contacted Tuesday, said a response would not be available by deadline.