We're a little concerned that a lynch mob is getting ready to string up the allegedly deregulated U.S. airline industry for having made a profit. Congress is full of talk about doing something about high air fares.

Small towns, business travelers, residents of hub cities and vacationers all claim they're getting gypped.

Into this stew of hysteria we would like to inject a few facts. It is true the U.S. airline industry made record profits last year. Net income for the 12 majors came to $5 billion. And it is true this was an all-time high.

But before we accuse these rapacious monopolists of having their way with our pocketbooks, consider that the carriers reaped this profit from an overall revenue base of $83.5 billion.

That means the best minds of commercial aviation in the world's most lucrative market produced an operating profit margin of 9% or net profit margin of 6%.

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These are not the spoils of greed. Compared with the financial performance of most other sectors of the American economy, they are not even good returns. As an investor, you can do this in the bond market.

Southwest Airlines produced the highest operating profit margin among the major U.S. airlines at 13.2%. In the pharmaceutical industry, that would be the next best thing to bankruptcy.

The airlines did make a pile of money, but they did it by cutting commissions to agents, by getting lucky that fuel prices dropped and by not adding capacity.

To judge from the industry averages, there's not much evidence that they did it by raising fares to unconscionable levels. The U.S. airlines last year generated revenue at the rate of 12.94 cents per passenger mile, up from 12.84 in 1996. That translates into an average fare hike of about 0.77%, hardly price gouging.

We don't deny that some passengers end up paying more than others or more than they want. But this doesn't mean the government should step in and tell the airlines what they "should" charge. We tried that once before and it didn't work.

What works for smart consumers, as always, is shopping around, planning your purchases and seeking the advice of a professional agent when the going gets rough.

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