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TAKING A HIKE FROM HIGH BOSTON FARES

Victor A. Martucci lives eight miles from Buffalo Niagara International Airport, but he drives 54 miles to Rochester once a week to fly to Boston.

He chooses the Rochester airport over Buffalo Niagara International to save $300 on his air fare, but does not need to switch airlines.

US Airways just offers a better deal in Rochester than in Buffalo.

"Obviously, I'd prefer to fly out of Buffalo," said Martucci, a vice president of Marrano/Marc Equity home builders. "But Rochester is about a 45-minute drive, so it's not a huge hardship. It's just not as convenient."

Ironically, Martucci makes his weekly drive even as others flock to Buffalo from as far away as Syracuse to take advantage of cheaper fares to Baltimore, Phoenix and Atlanta.

The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority has aggressively recruited discount carriers to Buffalo to try and bring down high air fares on routes to important destinations such as Boston, said Lawrence M. Meckler, executive director of the NFTA.

The NFTA has had success persuading low-fare carriers such as Southwest, AirTran and JetBlue Airways to launch service here and offer cheaper fares to Baltimore, Atlanta and New York.

But prohibitive air fares are still the rule on the Boston route, among others.

US Airways has not lowered its Boston fares to counter Shuttle America, a small discount airline that began service here in September 1999 to Hanscom Field in Bedford, Mass., about 18 miles from downtown Boston.

So Martucci drives to Greater Rochester International Airport to catch a cheaper US Airways flight to Boston's Logan Airport.

Travel costs such as Martucci's concern local government and transportation officials, because they know that high fares discourage companies from either moving to Western New York or expanding here.

Local officials do not know how many Buffalo business travelers such
as Martucci drive to Rochester to fly to Boston, but they know that companies can find lower Boston fares elsewhere, usually in cities with heavy competition among airlines.

And it is not only price that annoys some of the more than 1,0000 travelers who fly US Airways between Buffalo and Boston each week.

The service offered by US Airways in Rochester also has the advantage of timeliness: Late-afternoon and evening flights to and from Boston are canceled less often than in Buffalo. The airline canceled 1 in 5 flights from Buffalo to Boston last year, while it grounded just 1 in 10 from Rochester to Boston.

Another noticeable change will take place Sunday when a 50-seat Embraer regional jet will replace the large jets now being flown to Boston out of Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

"What the regional jet does is give you the flexibility to match capacity with demand on longer routes like these," said Richard Weintraub, a US Airways spokesman. "They seem to have good customer acceptance, because you're flying as fast and as high as on a regular jet."

The airline also will add a fourth flight between Buffalo and Boston.

"The Buffalo-Boston route is primarily a business route, so for business travelers, the flexibility is going to be greater," Weintraub said.

That is not the case for Boston air fares, which have remained rigidly high even as Shuttle America tries to carve a niche in the Northeast. Martucci's experience is a textbook case of how US Airways -- Buffalo's dominant carrier -- prices its tickets depending on competition from its rivals.

US Airways charges $736 for a round-trip ticket between Buffalo and Boston, if purchased a week in advance and not including an overnight Saturday stay.

The airline charges $432 between Rochester and Boston for the same itinerary, a common one for business travelers.

US Airways declined to comment on fares.

Competition makes the difference, a leading industry analyst said.

US Airways is going to charge what it can as long as no one else flies to Logan, said Michael J. Boyd, president and chief executive officer of Boyd Group/Aviation Systems Research Corp. in Evergreen, Colo.

"They do it because they can," Boyd said. "Does that mean it's right? It's business."

American Eagle, the regional affiliate of American Airlines, considers Rochester a key point in its Northeast route network, and it offers service from Rochester to Boston and New York's LaGuardia and Kennedy airports.

US Airways apparently thinks that American Eagle poses a bigger threat to its market share in Rochester than Shuttle America does in Buffalo.

Martucci tried Shuttle America a couple of times, but he said he found its base at Hanscom to be too far away from his company's condominium project in Boston. Martucci also preferred US Airways' frequency of flights to Rochester and Buffalo.

Buffalo's success in luring discount airlines has helped business travelers who head to destinations such as New York and Atlanta.

As a result, Buffalo's overall per-mile cost of air travel fell to 48th place among the nation's 85 biggest cities during the second quarter of 2000, down from 28th place during the same period a year ago, according to a U.S. Department of Transportation report. Four years ago, Buffalo's average per-mile cost of air travel was the country's second-highest.

For Buffalo travelers, Boston's fare ranks as the third-highest among major destinations, behind those in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Shuttle America's fares from Buffalo to Hanscom range from $74 to $189.

"Shuttle America may not have had the impact of a Southwest or JetBlue, but they still contribute to the lowering of fares," Meckler said. "Everything helps. And Shuttle America still gives people a low-fare option to Boston."

Shuttle America is satisfied with the number of bookings to Hanscom, said Mark Cestari, the carrier's vice president for marketing communications.

The carrier reported 4,775 passenger trips between Buffalo and Hanscom in November, a 34 percent increase from the total for November 1999, Cestari said.

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