An Atlanta federal judge will hear a consolidated lawsuit alleging collusion and price-fixing by some of the nation's major airlines and their computerized fare network.

The suit was formed when 31 claims filed nationwide were consolidated Friday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. It alleges the airlines use computers to signal fare changes to each other, agree on price increases and threaten fare cuts.As a result of the alleged collusion, the suit charges that passengers are forced to pay artificially high ticket prices.

The defendants are USAir, Northwest, Delta, Continental, United, TWA and American airlines and the Washington-based computer clearinghouse, Airline Tariff Publishing Co.

The case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Marvin H. Shoob after a panel of federal judges decided Atlanta was most accessible to all parties in the suit.

If Shoob certifies the suit as a class action, a decision that's expected early next year, the plaintiffs could number in the millions. Customers who purchased a plane ticket since 1987 could potentially be a party to the suit.

``In 1988, 150 million tickets were sold, so that would give you a rough idea of the possible magnitude of this case,' said W. Pitts Carr, the Atlanta attorney who filed the first suit here last July. ``There are literally tens of millions of people or companies who are potential class members.'

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