Air decontrol dismays prairie Canadians

Almost eight years after it was introduced in the United States, airline deregulation is coming to Canada - much to the dismay of people living in smaller cities. Here in Prince George, for instance, there is worry of higher fares and curtailed service.

Canadian airline deregulation has been phased in over the last two years. The biggest piece of deregulation is now before the House of Commons and is expected to be law by the end of the year.

There have been some lower air fares under deregulation, but the Canadian Transport Commission still must approve all fares and can tell the airlines which towns they must fly to and what type of service the city must receive. This has meant airlines flying half-empty jets to some smaller cities while business passengers on the busy routes pay high fares.

Under gradual deregulation, jet service has been phased out for such midsize cities as London and Sault Ste. Marie, both in Ontario. But full-blown deregulation will allow the airlines to set whatever fares they want and to fly to whatever cities they want. In Prince George that is a concern.

``I like to fly to Vancouver in an hour so I can get my business done in one day,'' says Prince George resident Thomas Griffiths. ``If we lose jet service, we will have a propeller-driven aircraft hopping down to Vancouver. It will mean the trip will stretch to two days, and that's expensive for me.''

Richard Shultz, a professor at McGill University in Montreal who studies deregulation, says that he sympathizes with the smaller city but that ``there's nothing in the Canadian Charter of Rights that guarantees jet service to towns such as Prince George.''

Airline unions contend deregulation will bring higher, not lower, fares. They are worried that Canadian carriers will follow the lead in the United States and cut back staff.

``And the airlines will have to cut corners on safety to make money,'' says Christine Michelwright of the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks.

One complication in the Canadian deregulation picture is the consolidation of airlines. The smaller, regional carriers are now controlled by two main groups, Air Canada and Pacific Western Airlines.

The latest takeover was a buyout by PWA, based in Calgary, of Canadian Pacific Airlines, based in Vancouver. CP is the second-largest carrier in the country and has extensive international routes to Europe, Asia (it is the only Canadian carrier into China), and South America.

The merger will get final approval in mid-January and seems almost certain to get the OK from the federal Cabinet. With two large carriers in the country, there are worries about competition.

``We have been in favor of airline deregulation,'' says David McKendrie of the Consumers Association of Canada. ``But with two carriers, there could be price fixing, and we'll need a regulator to watch them.''

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