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Let's Clear the Air: Flying West Coast Will Never Be the Same : 'The airlines now are going to pay more attention to how the local service fits into their overall, national picture.'

October 19, 1987|CARLA LAZZARESCHI | Times Staff Writer

The way Al Jones figures it, there is only one reason his legs are cramped as he flies up and down the state each week on business: AirCal is no longer an independent airline.

The state college system administrator has "irrefutably linked" the reduction in leg space to the fact that American Airlines, which bought AirCal and merged it into its national system in July, has substituted bigger but more tightly packed Boeing 727 airliners for AirCal's roomier Boeing 737s on several flights.

"Of course I'm unhappy," Jones said of the missing leg room. "It's little things like that that mean a lot to a frequent traveler. I miss AirCal."

Nearly 10 years after airline deregulation changed the rules of flying in the United States, the West Coast is facing another--potentially more acute--change: the demise of regional airlines as the principal carriers throughout California and the Pacific Northwest.

Within the past six months, three of the West Coast's four remaining independent carriers have been merged into larger, national airlines, ending the region's reign as the last in the nation to be served primarily by locally flying, locally headquartered airlines.

The changes started in April, when Delta Air Lines' nearly $900-million purchase of Los Angeles-based Western Airlines became final. In May, USAir completed its purchase of San Diego-based Pacific Southwest Airlines for $400 million; July saw the completion of the $225-million merger of American and AirCal, headquartered in Newport Beach. Western and AirCal disappeared into their new parents; PSA, at least for the present, retains its separate identity.

Although initial operational changes have been relatively few and minor, the unanimous pronouncement from airline executives and outside experts is that West Coast airline service--once characterized by an intense focus on local markets and a casual, even wacky, in-flight style--will never be the same.

Already, American has abandoned its unprofitable jet service from Burbank to San Jose and turned over the route to its prop plane flying affiliate, Wings West Airlines, which operates the American Eagle service. American's jets used on the route have been redeployed to serve the airline's other routes. USAir, which took over PSA, is expected to make similar moves early next year on some of its less- traveled California routes.

"The airlines now are going to pay more attention to how the local service fits into their overall national picture," said Robert Joedicke, an airline analyst with the investment firm of Shearson Lehman Bros. in New York. "Local service will be less emphasized."

But it will probably not be less expensive.

Analysts say the fare wars that punctuated the fierce rivalry among AirCal, PSA and Western are likely to be mere memories now that the struggling regional carriers are part of stronger and better financed operations. "There's more stability in the market," said John Pincavage, an analyst with the Paine Webber brokerage in New York. "There's not as much pressure to cut fares just to generate cash to stay afloat."

Current prices already reflect the trend. A one-way, full-fare flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco now costs $124, up $15 from a year ago. Even the midnight flier, the least expensive flight between the two cities, has increased to $49 one-way, compared to $39 a year ago.

Beyond prices and schedules, the merging of the regional carriers into national systems has effectively ended the uniquely West Coast personality that had become--for better or worse--a trademark of in-flight service. Now, airline executives and flight personnel say, fliers can look forward to strait-laced, by the book service.

For example, PSA executives say it's a safe bet that the hot pants uniforms that its stewardesses wore 20 years ago would not have won USAir's approval. In fact, PSA officials admit they were reprimanded by the parent firm last month for allowing television crews from the Good Morning America program to film some of the wacky routines that cabin crew members present over the planes' public address systems.

Still unclear is what USAir intends to do with PSA's "smile," the distinctive grin painted in black on the nose section of every plane. Although well-known on the Pacific Coast, the symbol is not well-recognized outside the region.

Among PSA employees and, even, many travelers, the "smile" has come to symbolize the last trace of home-grown California air service, and the fight is raging to save it as a memento of the regional carriers that grew up with the region.

Why the wealthy, populous and fast-growing West Coast was the last region to be served primarily by independent, regional carriers, is no mystery.

The principal reason, experts say, was California's historic protection of state-based carriers under the wing of the state Public Utilities Commission, which allowed PSA and, to a lesser degree, AirCal to become the dominant players until deregulation in 1978.

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