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Trans World Airlines' proposed $515 million sale of profitable routes and airport facilities to American Airlines is but the latest move in a struggle for survival among the nation's air carriers.

Industry analysts predict U.S. carriers will post a fourth-quarter loss of $1.5 billion -- by far the worst quarter on record.

As it evolves, industry analysts and company officials say, four -- perhaps five -- airlines will prove the fittest.

Soon, they say, this handful of very large carriers will dominate the industry, fiercely competing with each other and forcing out any airline that lacks enormous financial resources.

"The marketplace is a harsh taskmaster," said Robert Crandall, chairman of American Airlines' parent, AMR Corp., in an interview.

After the dust clears, analysts predict, the industry will be dominated by American, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, USAir and Northwest.

Others, to various degrees, are struggling to keep flying.

TWA's survival strategy is to snap up some of its fellow weaklings.

To get the cash it needs, the company announced Sunday that it will sell American six U.S.-London routes, all of its London operations and its facilities at Chicago's O'Hare Airport.

Carl Icahn, TWA's chairman, then made a new $375 million bid for struggling Pan Am Corp., saying the two companies will have to merge or each face failure.

Industry experts, however, doubt the buyout will go through.

"Icahn is not dealing from strength. He's got a shrinking asset -- it's an old, crumbling airline," one speculator said.

PaineWebber analyst Edward Starkman called the deal "relatively unlikely" and said, "A merger with TWA would present all types of enormous problems -- enormous labor hurdles, weak balance sheets and an aging fleet."

Shearson Lehman analyst Helene Becker said her firm is "highly skeptical that the deal would be completed."

Pan Am, which once spanned the globe as a pioneer of international passenger travel, has itself been selling off assets to raise cash. Most recently, it sold most of its profitable transatlantic routes to UAL Corp.'s United Airlines.

"The critical mass would be important if you put them (TWA and Pan Am) together and bought a piece of Eastern (Airlines)," Icahn said in a phone interview.

Eastern, parts of which TWA also has been pursuing, has fallen even further by the wayside.

Along with Continental Airlines, its sister carrier in the empire built by Frank Lorenzo, Eastern is operating under bankruptcy proceedings and the company's embattled chief has stepped aside.

The federal government is concerned about the future of the airline industry but, analysts say, may not be able to do much.

"It's a very difficult situation," AMR's Crandall said. "I don't think there is very much the U.S. government can do."

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