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Winter air travelers to Orlando, Fla., Buffalo's second-most-popular flying destination, will find their trips less convenient this season, with airlines dropping three of the four nonstop flights they started last fall.

It's not that the nonstop flights Orlando travelers enjoyed a year ago weren't well received, Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority officials said Monday. It's that the airlines have decided they can make more money elsewhere.

"They'd rather fly a half-full plane with $500 fares than a full plane with low fares," said Henry Sloma, an NFTA commissioner from Niagara Falls.

This season, there only will be one nonstop flight per day to Orlando, offered by MetroJet in the mornings. The US Airways subsidiary will end its afternoon nonstop by the end of this month. Delta Express already has dropped both its nonstops announced last October.

That puts Buffalo back where it was before MetroJet and Delta Express entered the market a year ago. AirTran had pioneered daily nonstop to Orlando beginning in 1995 but ended that flight before the major carriers' subsidiaries started competing.

The airlines continue to offer connecting service to Orlando, and prices have not changed for advanced bookings (they're still at about $170 round-trip), but the cutbacks show how quickly the situation can change when it comes to air-service competition.

The NFTA knows how vital low-fare airlines are to the bottom line at the airport because the Buffalo-Orlando market has seen passengers grow from 78,000 people in 1993 to 189,000 in 1998, a 142 percent increase.

Those passengers, as well as other travelers taking advantage of new low-fare carriers such as Vanguard Airlines and Shuttle America, are parking cars, renting cars and buying concessions at a rate significantly ahead of budget.

The NFTA also is counting on continued growth to help pay for a seven-gate expansion of the 2-year-old airport.

To attract even more passengers and persuade airlines to not only start but keep service here, the authority is planning to begin an advertising campaign this October, geared toward educating travelers in upstate New York and southern Ontario.

A $20,000 three-week radio campaign geared to southern Ontario listeners will tout a toll-free phone number, 1-888-Fly-BNIA, for prices being offered by low-fare carriers operating at Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

The NFTA also plans to advertise its airport and the toll-free number in the Yellow Pages in Rochester and Syracuse as well as southern Ontario.

NFTA Chairman Luiz F. Kahl said he has met with Delta executives and plans to see US Airways officials to try to persuade them to restore service to Orlando. The Buffalo Niagara Partnership also has encouraged its members to use AirTran, he said.

"We have to keep on our toes to show airlines we have the potential for being a better market," Kahl said.

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