It is noteworthy that the panel of experts who convened to review and report on the Department of Transportation's proposed airline competition policy affirmed that the government "must take decisive steps" to foster open and equitable rivalry between established carriers and new entrants.

After all, it is with the ultimate public good in mind that supporters of deregulation (in this case, the experts) and federal interventionists (the DOT) can agree that a level playing field, however it is achieved, is the sine qua non of a healthy market economy.

Alas, as in so many other knotty disputes, the goal is the easy part. How to get there? That's the question over which reasonable people can -- and do -- disagree.

The panel, which was mandated by legislation that some observers charged was designed to kill the DOT proposals, envisions competition being enhanced by the expansion of airport capacity; the elimination of airport slot controls and perimeter rules; a review of international airline alliances, and the monitoring of travel agent incentives (as if commissions had any more impact on airlines' behavior than the price of peanuts).

Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, on the other hand, said as recently as last September that "we're going to stand foursquare" against practices such as predatory pricing that are designed to cripple new or low-cost carriers.

If push became shove, we would opt, reluctantly, for the experts' trickle-down and less intrusive approach to competition (of course, without the travel agent commission silliness).

After all, a Department of Justice antitrust suit against American Airlines eventually will wend its way through the courts and be instructive in determining the government's ultimate approach to predatory pricing. We think the DOT should wait, however long, on that eventuality.

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