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CITY SEEKS EDGE OVER ROCHESTER, SYRACUSE FOR NEW AIRLINE

Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority officials believe they can persuade a new low-fare airline to come to Buffalo first, before other upstate cities, even though the airline's costs would be higher at Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

Executives at JetBlue Airways, which promises low fares to New York City, say they're looking to serve airports that hold down costs while still catering to passengers.

While Buffalo's airport charges cheaper gate rentals, its landing fees are roughly double those charged in Rochester and Syracuse.

The NFTA has sought to persuade JetBlue that Western New York and southern Ontario is a bigger market and thus offers the airline a better chance to make money.

"If JetBlue gets one more passenger per flight, the disparity in landing fees is totally overcome," said Luiz Kahl, the NFTA's chairman.

Attracting the additional passengers should be easy because so many more people fly out of Buffalo to New York than from Rochester and Syracuse, Kahl said.

About a half-million passengers flew between Buffalo and metropolitan New York last year, while 330,000 flew from Rochester and fewer than 200,000 from Syracuse, according to the NFTA.

If customer demand for New York-bound flights remains the same after JetBlue arrives, the airline would need to win half the market share in Buffalo to fill 70 percent of its seats, Kahl said.

Under the same assumption, JetBlue would need 76 percent of the market in Rochester and 137 percent in Syracuse -- an impossible goal to achieve in a stagnant market -- to obtain the same load factor, Kahl said.

JetBlue and NFTA officials, however, predict the market will grow when the low-fare carrier begins flying.

Should Buffalo's market grow by 50 percent, JetBlue would need a 34 percent share of the market to fill 70 percent of its seats, while the airline would need to win 50 percent of Rochester's market and 92 percent of Syracuse's to fill the same number of seats, Kahl said.

JetBlue intends to launch jet service to New York in February from one city in Florida and an upstate New York city -- either Buffalo, Rochester or Syracuse.

JetBlue will decide which of the three upstate cities will be serviced first. Eventually, the airline will fly to all three cities, said Gareth Edmondson-Jones, a JetBlue spokesman.

But if JetBlue picks Rochester or Syracuse first, Buffalo air travelers might have to wait as long as 18 months before they can take advantage of JetBlue's cheaper fares to New York.

Landing fees are not a small matter to a high-frequency airline such as JetBlue.

"Some station managers make a big deal about their gate rental being only $20 a square foot, since it's usually in the $35 range," Alex Wilcox, JetBlue's director of product development, recently told Airports, an industry trade journal. "That might save us 50 or 60 grand a year. But we'll focus more on landing fees."

If JetBlue wants to serve airports with low costs, Syracuse is the place to be, said Charles Everett, the aviation commissioner in Syracuse.

Discount carriers such as Southwest Airlines tend to serve airports on the outskirts of major markets that have lower costs than the dominant airports.

Syracuse could draw air travelers from Buffalo and Rochester to fill JetBlue's jets, all the while charging lower fees, Everett said.

"We do have cheaper rates, and that's typically appealing," Everett said.

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