orthern Europe is proving to be fertile ground for what could be a quiet revolution in airline pricing. We refer to the net-fare system that SAS introduced in Scandinavia at the beginning of last year. It's spreading.

We've cautioned before that the system might be too civilized to work in the U.S. market, but we think it still looks interesting enough to warrant a fair test.

Here's how it works. The airline's base commission goes to zero (been there, done that) and the travel agency recoups its costs by imposing a service fee on the client (ditto).

The added wrinkle in Europe is that the airline also imposes a service fee on the passenger, reflecting the cost of booking through the carrier's Web site, call center or ticket counter.

The airline, in effect, unbundles the cost of transportation from the cost of processing the booking, so that the agent has a reasonable chance to compete with the airline for the business of handling the reservation.

It has worked well enough for SAS in Scandinavia that several airlines have matched in those countries. Variations have been adopted by Finnair in Finland, and are to be implemented by Lufthansa in Germany on Sept. 1 and by KLM in the Netherlands on Jan. 1. Swiss will introduce the concept in its home country next year, as reported in our news pages today.

None of these markets is as wild and wooly as the U.S. airline market, but we still think some brave U.S. carrier should figure out a way to try it here without getting slaughtered.

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hen British Airways and Air France retired their supersonic Concordes last year, the air was full of regrets. It seemed that the evolution of commercial aviation had stalled. For the first time, the "best" was being retired and there was no "better" on the drawing boards.

For the future, Boeing and Airbus were talking about bigger airplanes or more efficient airplanes. Boring. Aviation, always about speed as much as anything, seemed to have lost a cutting edge.

Today, we are reminded that the evolution of aviation technology did not stop with the Concorde. Although commercial jet aircraft today fly at the same speed they did 10 years ago, with roughly the same payload, they are able to fly longer and longer distances, and are rapidly closing in on the 10,000-mile mark.

As aviation editor Andrew Compart reports today, the longest commercial flights are now routinely exceeding elapsed times of 14 hours. Singapore Airlines is pushing the envelope to over 18 hours with its new nonstop route to New York.

This doesn't bring New York any closer to London or Los Angeles, but it brings everybody closer to the burgeoning economies of Asia, and in that sense, the economic impact of these new, long-haul flights may prove to be far more lasting than the ability to chase the sun across the Atlantic.

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