ROANOKE, Va. (AP) _ Behind the smiling faces of skycaps at Roanoke Regional Airport is a fiercely competitive business that has deteriorated recently into turf battles, tipped luggage carts and fistfights.

After one skycap's recent conviction for assaulting a rival as they jockeyed for position in the airport's five-minute unloading zone, airport say the system of independent skycaps competing for tips has gotten out of hand.

``Things have been a little dicey for the last six months,'' airport executive director Jackie Shuck said, citing reports of bumped carts, hot words, rude hand gestures and general animosity among skycaps.

That animosity culminated in a fight Dec. 12 between skycaps Kenneth Skelton and Victor Kragh.

``He came up and hit me in the back of the neck just to let me know it was his intention of taking things over,'' Kragh said.

A judge on Wednesday sentenced Skelton to a $500 suspended fine and ordered him to avoid future spats with Kragh.

The assault case was the first to go to court, but the last straw for airport officials.

Shuck said one of the airlines serving Roanoke may contract with a luggage-handling service _ a move that would eliminate the present setup.

Under the current system, tips are the sole source of income for skycaps and thus a big reason for the cutthroat competition. A contractor would pay its employees a base salary they would supplement with tips.

Better scheduling of work shifts would be another advantage to having a contractor, Shuck said. As it is now, individual skycaps work their own hours and sometimes leave the airport unstaffed.

Although no travelers have been drawn into the fray so far, Shuck said that even behind-the-scenes skycap rancor has no place at the airport.

``That's not good for the public to see, and it's not the kind of thing we want out there,'' she said.

The problem got so bad that, in late December, the airport commission sent a memo to the half-dozen or so skycaps, warning them to mind their manners during the onslaught of Sugar Bowl-bound Virginia Tech fans.

The memo urged skycaps to conduct their business ``in a professional and non-territorial manner,'' or face removal from the airport.