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Toward friendlier skies

THOSE eager to see the airlines in the United States get back to normal - if anyone can remember just what that is - can take heart from a couple of recent developments. United Airlines looks to be going back to being United Airlines. The carrier's parent company had long been known, in the alphabet-soupy way of many corporations, as UAL. Chairman Richard Ferris had a vision of a ``total transportation'' company: ``fly-drive-sleep.'' UAL owned the Hilton and Westin hotel chains, plus Hertz, the car-rental company.

The ``grand design'' has not played well on Wall Street, and these have been stressful times for the airlines in any case. Some six weeks ago, UAL announced a name change: to Allegis. The newly renamed company soon found itself the target of takeover bids by its pilots' union and also the New York investment group, Coniston Partners. The name change - with its indication of concern with ``concept'' rather than the nitty-gritty of running a business - has been widely seen as a catalyst for the takeover attempts.

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Now Mr. Ferris is out as chairman and Frank Olson of Hertz has been brought in to replace him. One of his first acts as chief was to announce plans to restore the corporate name to United Airlines Company. The hotel and car-rental businesses are expected to be sold; United, newly refocused, is likely to end up under some form of employee ownership.

United will still have plenty of issues to deal with. But returning to a name that actually tells what business the company is in is a step in the right direction.

On another front, Continental Airlines has agreed to pay the federal government a quarter-million dollars in fines and to clean up its customer-service act. Not that it has admitted to having given poor service - such are the intricacies of the consent order it signed. But Continental, which has all but choked in its efforts to absorb People Express, Frontier Airlines, and New York Air, has developed a terrible reputation over the past few months.

Cracking down on Continental is a welcome signal from the government that some standards will be maintained.

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