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A BOON FOR AIR TRAVELERS

The Federal Aviation Administration's unusually generous award of 75 New York City landing slots to a planned new airline provides yet another boost for efforts to drive down upstate air fares, long identified as a hurdle to economic-redevelopment efforts here.

The federal action, due in large part to a push from Sen. Charles E. Schumer, paves the way for JetBlue Airways to buy its first airplane and gradually establish new routes between upstate cities and New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport by the end of next year.

That, in turn, is both further vindication of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority's decision to expand its new airport terminal before the added gates were actually needed, and a challenge to the agency to land the first of the new JetBlue routes.

The NFTA's aggressive recruiting of new air carriers has paid major dividends for Western New York. Despite the failure of Kiwi Airlines in Niagara Falls, fares from Buffalo Niagara International Airport have been driven down by the arrival of AirTran, Shuttle America and Vanguard Airlines. Major air carriers also have added affiliates -- Delta Express and US Airways' MetroJet -- to the local market.

The impacts are real. In a special FAA study of the impacts of AirTran's discount service on the Atlanta market, where the small discount carrier did only 10 percent of ticket sales compared to Delta's 64 percent, the federal agency found AirTran's presence dropped fares on various routes by 30 to 51 percent. And it did so not just by taking passengers, but by adding them; overall passenger traffic increased between 45 and 100 percent.

On the Atlanta-Buffalo route, for example, air fares dropped 30 percent in the 1998 study period while the number of passengers flying between the two cities each day rose 65 percent, from 269 to 443.

With early help from such office-holders as Reps. John J. LaFalce and Jack Quinn, the NFTA drive has pushed this region far down the rankings from an unenviable peak as the nation's 11th most expensive air fare market. The latest surveys, which don't yet account for Vanguard and Shuttle America discounts, place us 28th.

Continuing that improvement will take vigilance and work. The NFTA should keep up its efforts to convince local companies and residents to continue patronizing low-cost carriers, even after the major airlines match fares.

The same FAA study, for example, showed that fares went back up 55 percent and passenger traffic dropped by 25 percent on Atlanta routes that AirTran abandoned. Some major airlines also remain embroiled in a federal lawsuit charging that they artificially lowered fares and added flights in Texas to drive discount carriers out of the market, and then hiked fares back up again.

While efforts continue to lure low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines to this market, it is encouraging to note that the major carriers' high-fare stranglehold on this region already is loosening. Clearly, competition is the only thing driving air fares down. JetBlue can be a welcome new player in this market, and Western New York consumers will benefit.

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