High airfares in W. Europe spark protest

''I paid three times as much to fly from London to Rome as I did to fly the same distance in the United States,'' said one experienced European traveler. ''And I'm mad.''

So are a growing number of businessmen and tourists who find traveling in Europe by air ridiculously expensive.

''The fact is, the airlines and governments conspire to fix airline ticket prices,'' a Belgian businessman said, ''and in the process, they fix us.''

Now the customers' cause to fling open the door of free-market forces on European air travel has been taken up by the European Community Commission.

At a Dec. 15 meeting of European Community (EC) transportation ministers, the commission presented its deregulation views to the 10 EC member governments, firing the first official shots in what is expected to be a long and bitter battle that could eventually benefit millions of European travelers.

Britain, Denmark, and the Netherlands have been saying that for the airlines to set unrealistically high air fares (rubber-stamped by the government) is unfair to the consumer and in violation of the EC's founding treaty, which prohibits cartels and promotes competition.

Across the table, France, West Germany, and Italy have been arguing that the advantages of fixing fares, while harmful for the helpless traveler, outweigh the disadvantages an ''anarchistic free-for-all'' would have for European workers and taxpayers. Whatever profits there are now would disappear completely , they say.

The EC Commission stepped into the struggle between the two sides about a year ago when it began drafting legislation applying the EC's competition rules to the air traffic sector. These proposals were discussed at the December meeting of transportation ministers and will be put to a vote at a later date, perhaps next summer.

Meanwhile, a British member of the European parliament, Lord Bethell, who heads the principal consumer group fighting for free price competition among European airlines, ''Freedom of the Skies,'' won a major victory last July when the commission agreed with his recommendation that an inquiry be held to discover whether European airlines and governments were breaking the EC's price-fixing rules. Late last month, however, at the annual meeting of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), airline and government officials favoring the status quo were out in force, and clearly won the day.

French Transport Minister Charles Fiterman, for example, said his government would oppose any move at next month's EC ministerial meeting to launch a US-style deregulated airline system in Europe.

Aer Lingus chief executive David Kennedy spoke for his and several other European airlines when he argued that free-market ideology ''threatens'' European air transportation. It has brought about a decade of ''financial disaster'' on the North Atlantic, he said, and it could, ''if unchecked, drag us into a similar disaster in Europe.'' Losses on North Atlantic routes this year for 45 airlines will reach $650 million, the IATA was told.

Airline passengers remain undaunted, and so do the organizations representing them.

Lord Bethell's ''Freedom of the Skies'' has brought the EC Commission before the European Court of Justice for failing to enforce the community's anticompetition regulations in the airline sector.

And in the European Parliament a groundswell of support for the Commission's recent proposals, reflecting public opinion, has been building.

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