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Heller Financial, which serves small and mid-size businesses from its Chicago base, announced it would launch a new European Leverage Finance Group with initial funding of $1 billion. The firm, to be based in London, would offer financing to venture-capital markets and companies throughout Europe, Heller said.

Overall profits dropped sharply in the commercial aviation industry last year, mostly because of heavy new fuel costs, the International Air Travel Association said. In a report prepared for its annual convention in Sydney, Australia, the IATA said returns to its 268 member carriers - after paying interest on their loans - were only $1.9 billion last year, an almost 40 percent decline from 1998. Also partly to blame, the group said, was "yield erosion" from competitive fare-slashing. The average airline passenger paid 70 percent less in real terms than 20 years ago, an IATA executive said. The report projected passenger traffic will grow by an average of 4 percent a year until at least 2004.

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